Sustainability and use of chemicals in textiles in the spotlight

1 June 2023 | Muriel Cozier

‘The need emerges to embed circularity principles as part of the sector ambition targets and foster coordination, improving cohesion in the delivery of existing initiatives.’

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has used the World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF), taking place in Helsinki, Finland, to release a report which it says provides a roadmap for ‘transforming the textile value chain into one that is sustainable and circular and will allow the environmental and social impacts to be addressed.’

The report: Sustainability and Circularity in the Textile Value Chain. A Global Roadmap, sets out three priorities to deliver change in the textile value chain, these being: shifting consumption patterns; improved practices; and infrastructure investment. ‘These priorities are interconnected and require a coordinated approach by all value chain actors,’ the report says.

These interconnected priorities feed into achieving four industry goals – $30 billion invested, each year, in the transition to circular and sustainable textiles; net-zero emissions in the textile value chain; minimised use of freshwater and elimination of water pollution; and a net-positive balance for biodiversity.

‘Several initiatives have set ambitious goals to shift towards a sustainable and circular textile chain, although progress on their delivery is often slow due to the scale of the challenge, the complexity of the value chain, the lack of system-led policy, technical and financial barriers, and the fragmentation of stakeholders beyond a small number of sustainably minded multinational brands,’ the report asserts.

While there is an acknowledgement that many organisations and initiatives are working at a global level to help the textile value chain move towards more sustainable practices, there remains a gap, says UNEP. ‘The need emerges to embed circularity principles as part of the sector ambition targets and foster coordination, improving cohesion in the delivery of existing initiatives,’ the report asserts.

As the UNEP report was released, the SDG Knowledge Hub published a Policy Brief: Textiles Under a New Global Chemicals and Waste Framework, which indicates that the Inter-Organisation Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) is considering the textile sector is a candidate to become part of its framework.

The IOMC is set to hold a stakeholder consultation from 20–21 June, to get further ideas on guidance and support strategies and a possible global programme for advancing chemicals and waste management in a number of industry sectors and their value chains.

The textile sector has been an active participant in previous discussions with brands including Adidas, Levi Strauss, and Nike, having made statements about the sector’s desire to actively engage in a future framework.

While the textile sector has seen some developments in its sustainability journey, the Briefing highlights that there is much to be done on chemicals management in the sector. Many companies have adopted their own Restricted Substance Lists (RSLs), however these vary and existing RSLs tend to reflect only the chemical restrictions currently in place by major regulators – primarily the European Union – and the Stockholm Convention on POPs.

These restrictions cover only a fraction of the thousands of chemicals used in textile production and do not address all the categories of concern such as carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, allergens or irritants, says the Briefing.

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