By Josefine Koehler, Policy Officer at Ecopreneur.eu
Brussels, 16 June 2020 – In the last of our blog post series about the fashion industry, Josefine Koehler explains how voluntary agreements and industry actions can accelerate circular fashion.
In terms of environmental pressure from EU consumption, the European textile industry ranks #2 – meaning second highest pressure – for land use, #4 for raw materials and water usage and #5 for greenhouse gas emissions . At the same time, according to the 2019 Pulse Score, the fashion industry has made some improvements since 2017. These improvements include, for instance, adopting sustainability strategies and governance by setting targets in energy, chemicals and water savings, inventing or scaling new technologies, and investing in supplier relationships, supply chain traceability, different product and production patterns or circular business models.  In addition, a recent positive development is that the European Green Deal and the new Circular Economy Action Plan have defined the fashion and textile sector as a priority sector with the potential to become the first circular end-consumer sector by reforming the textiles industry with a strong policy mix, taking on board many of Ecopreneur.eu’s recommendations . In addition, awareness among policy makers and consumers is growing – more than a third of consumers have switched from their preferred brand to another for reasons related to responsible practices.
However, sustainability is still far from being a key decision criterion in purchasing clothes. In our previous blog posts, we explained innovation policies, economic incentives, regulation and trade agreements – concrete policy instruments which should be considered in future EU policies to channel the impact of change towards a low-carbon circular fashion economy. In the meantime, it is up to fashion leaders to drive large-scale impact.  But despite action from policy and Civil society, the Pulse Score Update concludes that fashion companies do not implement measures fast enough to counterbalance the social and environmental impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry. 
So what can the textiles and fashion industry do by voluntary agreements and action to accelerate the transition towards circular fashion?
Voluntary agreements are self-set covenants, commitments or standards to that the stakeholders, like NGOs, governments, fashion brands and suppliers, voluntarily but officially pledge to comply. Regardless of the industry, those usually include the participation in working or steering groups as well as frequent reviewing processes. Actions and progress are carried out according to high demands on transparency and due diligence.
Successful and related examples are plastic pledges like the European Plastic Pact, offering a platform for exchanging ideas, displaying good practices and discussing challenges, aiming to establish a circular European plastic economy. While providing collective guidance, the pledges trigger ambitious and timely actions towards reaching the self-set goals (a list of concrete actions after the first 100 days, taken by the signed parties, can be found on the WRAP website). Such pledges had an almost immediate, concrete and significant impact on the European market for several types of recycled plastics. Thus, the plastic pledges clearly show the potential of voluntary agreements. In particular, their impact can exceed that of legislation-in-the-making by stepping ahead and implementing faster, while not neglecting direct stakeholder engagement.
Recent examples of voluntary agreements in the fashion industry are the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change and the Global Fashion Pact or, on a national level, the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textiles and the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles. They all aim to fight climate change and biodiversity loss while improving social and environmental conditions in the global textile production. Their goals lean on globally recognised frameworks, like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights, as well as science based targets. However, for their impact to approach that of the European Plastics Pact, much more is needed.
The coordination of such comprehensive and diverse groups made of fashion industry stakeholders is not to underestimate, for both communicational and process related reasons. Therefore, Ecopreneur.eu recommends the following aspects for successful, focussed and goal-oriented voluntary agreements and action:
- Restrict discussions about definitions and focus on concrete measures based on a shared vision, and formulating an action plan with outputs, results and impacts.
- Initiatives in different member states should be closely aligned through, e.g. using the same criteria for entrance into the consortium and for measuring results.
- Ensure ambitious targets, binding commitments, tight deadlines, a monitoring process and a parallel policy trajectory to develop regulations that can be evoked as soon as these approaches fail to do the jobs (experience show that voluntary agreements tend to be evoked by industry to prevent legislation that would force to innovate and replace it by a covenant with targets that can easily be met). The recent commitments by major users of single-used plastic show that industry can in fact make ambitious pledges when faced with even more ambitious legislation in the absence of results. A lack of political and regulatory pressure on producing results is the major risk for successful voluntary initiatives.
- Work with European and international standards organisations and standards for circular fashion.
Considering these elements in voluntary agreements in the growing (in number and value) fashion sector, will secure to unleash multiple benefits. First, environmental, social and ethical challenges can be tackled and solved collectively by industry while the pace of action is drastically accelerated. Second, all stakeholders inevitably untap immense value creation opportunities.
Besides the textile and fashion industry itself, also media, NGOs, investors and consumers play a role in the transformation. Investors can serve as a catalyst for change towards better ways of doing business if they prioritise sustainability in their investment decisions, like agreeing to standard disclosure requirements, driving impact and advocating for common reporting frameworks.  Media and NGOs can encourage and educate businesses and consumer to raise their voice and make more sustainable decisions . This can happen by developing educational and information materials as well as publishing facts and news on e.g. compliance to human rights or environmental legislation, but also the overall and individual progress-making towards a sustainable fashion value chain.
Finally, the Corona crisis has brought both the textiles and the plastics market in a really difficult position. Ecopreneur.eu has recently called on the EU to support industry, SMEs and workers where they can, while greening all aid provided and implement the European Green Deal including the Just Transition Fund without delay. Hopefully voluntary actions can add to a swift and green recovery of the European textile and fashion industry.
Read Ecopreneur.eu’s Circular Fashion Advocacy report to find out more about how strong circular economy policies will transform the sector.
References European Environmental Agency (2019). Textiles in Europe’s Circular Economy. Retrieved from https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/waste/resource-efficiency/textiles-in-europe-s-circular-economy  Global Fashion Agenda (2019). Pulse 2019 Update. Retrieved from http://globalfashionagenda.com/Pulse-2019-Update/# & https://globalfashionagenda.com/pulse-of-fashion-industry-2019-update-released/#  European Commission (2020). Circular Economy Action Plan — For a cleaner and more competitive Europe. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/new_circular_economy_action_plan.pdf  Ecopreneur.eu (2019). Circular Fashion Advocacy. Available under https://ecopreneur.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/EcoP-Circular-Fashion-Advocacy-Report-28-3-19.pdf