The fashion industry is considered the second most polluting industry in the world and yet it represents a key industry for the global economy, with a value of 2.4 billion dollars and around 50 million people employed by it. According to estimates, textile production is responsible for around 20% of the freshwater pollution globally because of the many processes that its products undergo, like dyeing and finishing, while the washing of synthetic garments every year releases 0.5 million tons of microfibres into the seas. That’s not all: the fashion industry is also responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

According to the European Environment Agency, in 2017, the textile products purchased in the EU generated around 654 kgs of CO2 emissions per person. Additionally, the number of garments purchased per person in the EU has increased by 40% since 1996, with a reduced lifecycle of the textile products, leading European citizens to consume almost 26 kgs in textile products every year, with around 11kgs thrown away and mostly destined for landfills. On a worldwide level, less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothing.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic inserted itself into this global context that was already cause for worry, putting the textile-apparel industry to the test, to the extent that McKinsey has estimated a drop in global profit equal to 90% for 2020, with Europe leading the way in the classification of those areas in greatest difficulty with sales dropping-off by 22-35%. At the same time, however, the pandemic led global society and international governments to rethink their methods of production, while accelerating some of the changes already underway towards a greener and more sustainable economy. Thus, in 2020, the European Commission adopted a new plan of action that also includes textiles, with the aim of developing innovation and promoting reuse. In February 2021, the European Parliament voted for a new circular economy action plan, asking for additional measures to achieve an economy of zero carbon emissions, which is sustainable from an environmental standpoint, free of toxic substances, and completely circular by 2050. From January 2022, collecting and recycling “textile waste” separately becomes obligatory. Even the Draghi government National Recovery and Resilience Plan is moving in this direction with an investment of 68.6 billion euros for the ‘green revolution and ecological transition’, and a target of achieving the 100% recovery of textile waste through “Textile hubs”, new waste management facilities for recovery, reuse, and recycling. To this end, the Government will invest in reinforcing a network of separate waste collection above all in the Central and Southern cities of Italy.

We spoke of circularity and environmental sustainability for the textile and fashion industry with Francesca Rulli, founder and CEO of the consultancy firm, Process Factory, which is owner of the 4sustainability® brand that certifies the adoption of the sustainability roadmap by companies located along the fashion supply chain.

In terms of environmental sustainability, what impact did the outbreak of Covid-19 have on the entire textile-apparel industry?

“Now, more than ever before, fashion has been forced to reinvent itself quickly, leaving behind linear models (produce, consume, dispose), while embracing the concept of the circular economy, where clothes are designed with the intent of being repaired, reused, or recycled”.

How has Italy faced this change and new state of things?

“It will be a historic transition, but as Italians we start with a clear advantage, because we have a circular economy champion in-house represented by the historic textile district of Prato, with 2 thousand businesses and over 15 thousand employees. It is the largest hub in Europe and the true economic motor of the territory. Here, a lot has been done in terms of circular economy, with realities par excellence like Comistra and Manteco. These examples demonstrate in an undeniable way that the circular economy is not an ideal, but a reality and a winning model”.

So, we are moving in the right direction, and everything is proceeding in the best possible way?

“Not exactly. For these virtuous examples to become a system, we need a legislative system that encourages them. Currently the exact opposite is happening, because since 2017, textile waste has been categorised as special waste, which has led to a series of requirements extremely difficult to satisfy, above all by micro-businesses, which, in Italy, are the absolute vast majority. Quite recently, the Minister for Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani, praised our culture of circular economy, promising that a further boost would be provided to it through the Recovery Fund. All that is needed is a small change to the Environmental Consolidating Act to clear the way for those businesses that are genuinely committed to the recovery and recycling of materials”.