Fashion and textile waste is a global problem so a circular economy solution needs unprecedented collaboration and EPR policy that works across global governments, according to a new report from circular economy non-profit Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The report, titled Pushing the boundaries of EPR policy for textiles (2024), explains: “A comprehensive circular economy approach is the only solution that can match the scale of this global problem. In this system, businesses contribute to supporting infrastructure in proportion to what they place on the market.”

Funding essential to cover cost of textile circularity

The report also suggests funding is essential to cover the net cost associated with managing all discarded textiles and not just those with a high market value.

The report’s authors highlight that most of the world’s textiles (more than 80%) leak out of the system when they are discarded as they are incinerated, landfilled, or leaked into the environment. However, it also notes that this is due to textiles being part of a linear economic system.

To fix it, a separate collection infrastructure needs to be scaled up and implemented in locations where it currently does not exist and EPR policies must go beyond traditional focuses of ‘downstream’ such as waste management and recycling.

Collection infrastructure of textile waste is also largely underdeveloped. The report claims that separate collection rates average at 14% and reach a maximum of 50%. Most reusable clothing (80%) that is collected is then exported after sorting, which creates a disproportionate waste management burden on importing countries.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData
Visit our Privacy Policy for more information about our services, how we may use, process and share your personal data, including information of your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications. Our services are intended for corporate subscribers and you warrant that the email address submitted is your corporate email address.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s senior policy officer Valérie Boiten shares: “A circular economy is the only solution that can match the scale of the global textile waste problem and EPR policies are an important part of that, yet it remains underutilised.”

She continues: “EPR can support a circular economy across borders, by contributing funding for the collection and management of discarded textiles in those countries where they ultimately end up.”

EPR remains untapped opportunity globally

The report’s authors admit that EPR is largely untapped as producer responsibility stops at the point of export. As a result it diminishes EPR’s potential to collect and manage discarded textiles in the places where they are sent. Reusable clothing is traded around the world so a potential extension of EPR across borders needs to be explored to achieve a global circular economy for textiles.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains a set of global objectives will be required to create a common direction of travel with time-bound targets for each objective that can be reviewed regularly to allow policymakers to raise their ambitions over time.

The report shares four key global objectives for textiles EPR:

Increase collection volumes: Expanding existing collection systems and creating new ones where they do not yet exist is described as being “crucial” to diverting textiles from mixed waste streams and to avoid leakage into the environment.

The authors promote measuring the absolute volumes of textiles collected separately and setting targets on the relative increase of such volumes.

Increase reuse rates: To keep textiles at their highest value, they must be reused to the maximum extent before being recycled. The report says this objective can be measured as the share of textiles placed on reuse markets relative to the amount of textiles sorted.

To deliver lifetime extension and to avoid negative externalities associated with the export of reusable textiles, it believes efforts should be made and targets set to increase domestic reuse.

Increase recycling rates: When reuse is not a viable option – due to textiles being too worn out or the absence of an end market, sorted textiles should be recycled to keep their material value in the economy.

EPR objectives should reflect a clear priority for textile-to-textile recycling over downcycling and cascading into lower-value applications.

Reduce waste volumes: The report explains that the establishment of an EPR policy and the above three outlined objectives should lead to the decreasing share of textiles entering final disposal over time.

But, it adds this reduction in waste also needs to be measured in practice, against time-bound reduction (or diversion) targets.

What can fashion brands, retailers do to accelerate progress?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation does not believe policy alone can solve the problem of textile waste as the regulatory process for EPR development can take years.

At the moment only three countries have adopted EPR policy for textiles: France, Hungary and the Netherlands. EPR is also currently being debated and/or proposed in a range of other countries and regions, including Australia, Ghana, Kenya, Colombia, California, New York and all EU-member states.

But solving the problem of textile waste cannot wait and the authors believe voluntary business actions, including the establishment of voluntary EPR schemes could be key to accelerating progress and creating market demand for circular economy solutions ahead of mandatory policies.

The report suggests coordinated and compounded industry action could capture the opportunity to reuse and recycle at scale, stating: “Committed businesses can make a meaningful difference and the vast majority of businesses can do more than they are doing today.”

Investors are urged to recognise the opportunities as EPR policy can lead to multi-year contracts for collectors, sorters and recyclers and there is potential for economies of scale. It could also enable a critical leap for the sorting sector and move it from a largely manual process targeting reuse markets to one that delivers customised inputs for textile-to-textile recycling at scale.

The authors emphasise a dual approach of a more ambitious, long-term policy change and accelerated voluntary industry action will push progress both further and faster.

“Mandatory policies set a minimum ambition level as a starting point, but to achieve a circular economy, businesses need to demonstrate progress far beyond minimum levels of compliance,” the report says.

Crucially, the report suggests that voluntary efforts can inform the development of mandatory policies and provide the visibility needed for infrastructure investment and waste management planning, and building confidence in ambitious targets.

  1. Design products with circular principles

Fashion brands and retailers are urged to design products in line with circular economy principles. Otherwise any funding raised through EPR schemes risks a loss in effectiveness if brands and retailers do not design and develop products for prolonged use and recycling after maximum use.

Fashion brands and retailers are also in a prime position to ensure any virgin materials used are sourced from renewable sources and produced through regenerative agricultural practices.

2. Embrace circular business models

The fashion sector is also being urged to focus on circular business models such as repair, rental, remake and resale as they offer both revenue and cost benefits and lead to significant environmental savings from increased use and reduced production.

The report also points out that concrete collaborative commitments towards circular value chains are vital to achieving scale. This means all industry actors need to work together to co-create a circular supply network and share the costs and risks involved.

3. Invest in shared infrastructure

Textile-to-textile recycling operations do not exist yet on a global scale, however the report asserts this is needed to focus efforts and investments on recycling technologies for textiles, alongside the adoption of design-for-recycling principles.

“Brands and retailers will have a key role to play to support this emerging landscape by investing in reverse logistics infrastructure, and by engaging in long-term sourcing agreements with recyclers in order to support the early stages of commercialisation for textile-to-textile recycling,” it shares.

In October 2023, environmental industry experts came together to share their ten recommendations for reforming EPR for textiles in the EU.