EU notebook: Europe’s new fashion trend -- less is more

Plus, green hydrogen gets a boost as Belgium sets up ‘massive’ import chain. 

By Vish Gain

(Vish Gain is a journalist based in Dublin. He is a correspondent for AML Intelligence covering the financial crimes sector in Europe and beyond.)

DUBLIN (Callaway Climate Insights) — When British High Street fashion brand Topshop went bankrupt in November, many called it the pandemic’s “biggest corporate collapse.” The fall of Topshop and its parent company Arcadia was part of a global trend in which retail brands tumbled like ninepins as lockdown-weary consumers took a sabbatical from fashion with nowhere to go. And this might present Europe a unique opportunity to revolutionize the world of clothing.

It’s easy to conjure up images of coal plants, airplane trails and meat factories when trying to visualize the world’s worst climate offenders. But you might just be wearing the problem on your sleeve. The $2.5 trillion global fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions — more than aviation and shipping combined. According to a recent report, fashion production has doubled since the early 2000s and is expected to grow in volume from 62 million tonnes in 2015 to 102 million tonnes by 2030, representing $3.3 trillion in value.

“Much of this growth is rooted in runaway consumption; we are buying more clothes than ever before, wearing them less and creating huge piles of textile waste, most of which ends up in landfill or is burnt in toxic incinerators,” read the report, published in February by the Changing Markets Foundation. 

To put things in perspective, the report noted that the average consumer is buying 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago yet wearing each item of clothing half as long.

Here in Europe, textile has been identified as a priority sector in which the EU can pave the way towards a carbon-neutral, circular economy in the wake of Covid-19. In a recent publication titled Europe’s Moment, the European Commission outlined the impact of the pandemic on the industrial ecosystem for textiles in the EU, identifying its recovery needs in the light of current and expected weaknesses on both the demand and supply sides.

The textile industry employs 1.5 million people spread across more than 160.000 companies in the EU — with an annual turnover of 162 billion euros ($195 billion) in 2019. Despite a growing social trend for sustainability in the EU textile and fashion industry, Europeans consume on average 26 kg of textiles per person per year and discard almost half the amount per year — a trend described as “fast fashion.”

To rise up to the challenge, the Commission launched a roadmap for the future of sustainable textiles in the EU last month, aiming to ensure the industry recovers from the pandemic in a circular way. This includes considering targets to boost reuse and recycling and encouraging “sustainable investments in production processes, design, new materials, new business models, infrastructure and capacity.”

Saying that the fashion industry needs to be divorced from fossil fuels, the report called on the EU to ensure the industry “shifts to responsible production based on the use of sustainable fibres.” Cheap synthetic materials, which have increased nine-fold in the last 50 years, form the “backbone” of throwaway fashion and use around 350 million barrels of oil every year, according to the report.

But changing the material alone is not enough. “The solution we see here is not replacing one type of fibre with another but a radical slowdown of fashion, which is the principal cause behind unattainable volumes that we see today and the release of microfibers and widespread pollution,” said Urska Trunk from the Changing Markets Foundation.

Slowing down production through a switch to more durable clothes with greater levels of reuse and effective recycling is the way forward. Unless we move away from the fossil fashion production model, the report says we “risk pushing past planetary boundaries in our quest for cheap fashion.”

“We will be entirely unable to cope with the mountains of clothing waste produced by the system and reliance on fossil fuels will contribute to catastrophic levels of climate change.”

The EU hopes that its support to technologies — including through digitalization — related to innovative textiles, tackling the release of microplastics, manufacturing and recycling processes will contribute to the digital and green transition.

Europe, hailed by many as the world’s fashion capital, is taking the reins once again and trying to dye the clothing industry with its trademark green. But after years of ‘greenwashing’ policies and without prompt and radical legislative action to bring a considerable slowdown in “fast fashion,” it remains to be seen if Europe can address the skeletons in its closet.

Green hydrogen: A chain reaction

Speaking of transitions, the Belgian port of Antwerp has partnered with energy utility Engie and five other entities to establish a full renewable hydrogen import value chain in the country by the end of the decade.

A feasibility study last week concluded that the project — which involves “massive” imports of green hydrogen — is economically viable and gave it the green light.

“Hydrogen will play a decisive role in the energy transition and in making our industry sustainable,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, adding: “The next step is to develop a long-term strategy for importing hydrogen.”

The hydrogen import chain is a result of similar plans by the EU last year as the European Commission aimed to develop a renewable hydrogen value chain in Europe as a way to complement electricity generated from renewables.

“It is clear that solar and wind will be the renewable energy sources of the future,” a coalition of the parties involved said. “However, in Belgium and Western Europe, there is not enough wind or solar energy, while other regions in the world in fact have solar and wind energy in abundance.”

The coalition, which calls itself the “Hydrogen Import Coalition”, consists of DEME, Engie, Exmar, Fluxys, the Port of Antwerp, the Port of Zeebrugge and WaterstofNet. Their joint study included all aspects of building the hydrogen import chain, from production abroad to delivery via ships and pipelines to Belgium and internal distribution to final industrial users.

The European Commission projects that the production of low-carbon electricity is expected to double over the next decades, but electricity is only expected to represent 53% of the EU’s energy mix by 2050. This is why the coalition believes local production of renewable electricity will need to be supplemented by supplies of “green molecules” from countries where wind and solar power “can be used to generate renewable hydrogen in abundant quantities.”

Belgium’s strategic location and network of terminals and gas pipelines make it fertile ground for a hydrogen revolution. The Port of Antwerp, one of Europe’s busiest, is home to chemical industry giants such as BASF, Ineos, Monsanto, ExxonMobil (XOM), and others, which are likely to be first in line to take advantage of the hydrogen revolution.

“As a world port and Europe’s largest integrated chemical cluster, we are an important link in this chain,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, the CEO of the Port of Antwerp. “One of the next steps is to analyse how to prepare our seaports to receive these hydrogen carriers of the future,” he said on Wednesday.

“The momentum is really now if we want to be ready for the end of the decade.”