Interview with Brigitte Zietlow, German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt, UBA)
Jennifer Federico from HEJSupport sat together with Brigitte Zietlow from the German Environment Agency to discuss the importance of “sustainable textiles” and the role of the government in setting and enforcing the right standards.
What does “sustainable textiles” mean to you?
Sustainable textiles means that the whole process, from fiber production (including the growing of the cotton) to the ready-made process, is done under environmentally and socially-sound conditions, like using best available techniques in producing the textiles, the transport and packaging, and that less hazardous substances are used. However, not only the production, but also the design should be sustainable; for example, being designed for circularity, and designed for longevity of textiles that you can repair if necessary. The business models are part of it, too- the business model should lead to less consumption of resources, which is not always the case if you think of sustainable production and circularity only. You might still use more resources due to fast fashion business models.
Yes, hopefully down the road we will come to a place where many people around the world can consider the whole lifecycle of textiles from beginning to end- not just the producers and designers, but also the consumers, so that they have the ability to choose things that have a more sustainable lifecycle.
Yes, that’s true, and also the use of the textiles. Caring for the textiles, repairing them and knowing the worth of the textiles is so important- not treating them as disposable or single-use objects.
And maybe we will go back to a time when people would commonly repair things and not just consider them as a single-use item.
I hope so, too. In my youth in the eastern part of Germany, it was so normal to repair textiles oneself or to bring them to a repair service. It was also less expensive to repair them than to buy something new, but now it seems to be the other way around.
Do you think the environmental issues related to textile production are addressed properly at the global scale?
Unfortunately, not yet. For instance, before the pandemic I visited may textile clusters or textile plants in India, many of which have really poor environmental performance. The environment itself is still in a bad state there (e.g. air and water quality). My visits to India took place as part of a cooperation between UBA and Indian authorities. The aim of the ongoing cooperation is to improve legal standards for textile production and other sectors. India is unfortunately not a single case; in many of the producing countries, textile production still leads to poor environmental conditions by over-using environmental resources like water, and causing pollution to air, water and soil.
Do you think that this should be a two-prong approach? For example, putting the legal requirements into place but also working on the issues from a societal perspective?
Yes, I think that this problem has to be dealt with from many sides- the government should set the right standards and also enforce those standards because it is often the case that the standards are already very good, but the enforcement is lacking. The brands and retailers also have to work with their suppliers to improve the environmental performance. It is not enough to only set the standards, but close cooperation with the suppliers is needed to build more capacity to improve the situation. And we as consumers need to change our consumption patterns too.
On the subject of enforcement, how does the UBA enforce textile-related legislation in Germany?
In Germany the federal states are responsible for the enforcement of legal standards. UBA develops proposals for regulations, e.g. for requirements for waste water discharges from the textile industry. At the European level, UBA is involved in the development of BAT (Best Available Techniques) for the textile industry. The so-called BREFs (Best Available Techniques Reference Documents) are developed in a participatory approach in Europe, including all the Member States, industry and the non-governmental associations. UBA represents Germany in this process.
The BAT, including the BAT-associated emission levels, are the basis for environmental permits for installations in Europe. In Germany BAT is implemented via general binding rules. As mentioned before, UBA develops proposals for the implementation of BAT in our legal regulations, such as the Wastewater Ordinance.
I assume there are regulations for German companies that are operating outside Germany.
European regulations only have a limited effect in the supply chain outside Europe. For example, regulation on installation level only applies to European installations. The chemicals regulation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) partly also applies to products imported into Europe, so the brands and retailers had to implement those restrictions in their production chain. For a long time, we only had voluntary agreements, like the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, which existed for the implementation of environmental requirements in supplier factories outside Europe. But not even half of the companies in Germany (not only in textiles but in other importing industries) take their responsibility for the supply chain seriously. That’s why the government implemented a due diligence act. From 2021 on, environmental and human rights due diligence obligations in global value chains have been legally anchored. From UBA’s point of view, the environmental due diligence obligations in the law still come up short, which is why we are calling for an improvement in the law.
Many companies operate in other countries, and it’s hard to keep an eye on what is happening. It adds another level of difficulty in this globalized world that companies that might be German are operating someplace far, far away where you can’t see what’s going on.
Yes, the problem is that the brands often really don’t know their suppliers. They know the tier one suppliers, but they don’t know their deeper supply chain. But now they have to do the risk mapping along the whole supply chain. It’s a good step. Of course, it should be improved, but at least it’s a first step in the right direction and it is a binding rule to look at the risk and to implement prevention measures.
I’m wondering if you have some ideas about textile waste.
In Europe, from the year 2025 on, we will have the obligation to collect the textile waste separately. In Germany, it works comparably well, even at the moment. Germans are really good at separating their waste! It’s important to separate the different waste fractions- only then will high-quality reuse and recycling be possible. The collection rate in Germany is around 64 %, which is quite high compared to almost all other countries.
But with increasing amounts of textile waste, the recycling has to be improved. The quality of collected textiles is getting worse due to the fast fashion trend. This makes recycling more and more uneconomical. In addition, mixed fibers make recycling more difficult because you can’t separate the fibers. This is a problem if textiles can no longer be reused. Reuse is the best way to deal with textile waste. But when reuse is no longer possible, if you have to recycle, there are still a lot of problems. For example, hazardous chemicals might hinder the recyclability. Currently, there seems to be a trend towards so-called “smart textiles,” i.e. textiles in which electronic components are built in. This can be useful for protective clothing for safety reasons, e.g. if you build warning functions into the clothing. But even for safety reasons, it would not be necessary to build electronics into the clothing itself.
And of course, we already have so many issues with textiles, like the chemicals used in waterproof clothing, for example.
Yes, with perfluorinated chemicals. They should be substituted by less harmful substances. The same is true for other hazardous chemicals, like brominated flame retardants or phthalates.
In Germany, if you have textiles and the quality is not good enough for them to be reused, how does Germany deal with those right now?
If reuse is no longer possible, textiles are recycled, like using mechanical fiber recycling. Chemical recycling, which would enable use of some part of the fibers from mixed fiber textiles, is available, too, but needs to be upscaled. But as I said before, recycling becomes less and less economical, that’s why regulatory options will be assessed, including extended producer responsibility.
There are also consumers who may believe that textiles with electronics are very cool or the latest innovation, and I think that many of those consumers just really do not think about the end of life of that product, or how that product came into being (the labor issues, and the chemicals, etc.). What do you think could be done to empower consumers to make good personal decisions about textiles they purchase to encourage textile sustainability?
Yes, as you said, a lot of consumers don’t know about how textiles are produced or about how some parts of them can hinder circularity, which is why it’s also very important to improve the consumer awareness of those problems. On the other hand, sometimes they do know, but still don’t act on it. That’s why I think it would be vital that the sustainable choice should be the easiest one at the point of sale. That is partly the responsibility of the brands and retailers. For sustainable purchasing decisions, comprehensible, transparent environmental labels are important, so that consumers can see on the textile itself whether it was produced under environmentally friendly and sustainable conditions. It is important that the labelling systems are independent in order to avoid greenwashing. So far, the share of certified products in Germany is very low, and there is great potential for improvement there. Additionally, informing the consumers about how they can repair their product and what they could do with the product at the end of its life should be the norm and not the exception.
Where I live, we have a “zero waste” refill store, where you can bring your own containers and fill them with different products. But the issue I see is that stores like the “99cent” ones are SO much more inexpensive – I think that this relates to sustainable textiles and any kind of sustainable consumer goods in how they are often more expensive and sometimes people just cannot afford it.
Yes, it is the same here. But the price alone doesn’t say too much about sustainability of products, because very expensive textiles can be produced under very poor conditions, too. I have seen companies that are producing for diverse brands and it’s the same production, but the end prices are completely different. And sustainable products don’t need to be very expensive, but if a textile is too cheap it doesn’t reflect the true costs of producing it. However, people might still buy a t-shirt for 2 euros because they think they can buy more of it.
It relates not only to what people can literally actually afford, because of their finances, but also to long-term vs short-term thinking. With luck, in the future more people will think more long-term because that will be better for the environment and for the health of everyone, from the workers to the consumers. Hopefully that will be a new way of addressing things.
I hope so, too. And I hope that even the inexpensive textiles will be well cared for by their owners. Even if you buy a t-shirt that only costs 2 eros, at least then you should keep it for years and not buy one every month just because it is cheap. This has to change, too –consumers need to use textiles longer and really love their textiles. Buy it because you want to keep it, not because it’s cheap or it’s the newest fashion trend (which will change tomorrow anyway). All the reasons why wrong choices are made when buying not only textiles, but all the stuff that nobody really needs in the end.
I don’t want to say buy only textiles if you really need one, because fashion is a way to express yourself or to find your own style. But those textiles should be loved by their owner and kept for a long time. And if you don’t love them anymore, don’t just throw them away- there are a lot of vintage stores here. It is a small trend, but at least in Berlin or the bigger cities, you can see those stores where you can sell your old clothes or other goods. I think it’s beginning to be cool for young people to buy those vintage pieces, it’s very stylish to wear clothes that you can’t buy in any of the other stores. I really hope this will stay as a trend, but it is important that shopping for textiles in vintage stores doesn’t come in addition to other textile consumption, but that it provides a substitute for the fast fashion model.