EU textiles label: stones for bread?

by Peter Malaise

Campaigners say the new EU eco-label on the environmental impact of textiles is not strict enough (The Guardian 14.10.2021). The measurement system developed in 2013 is misleading, outdated and not in line with the EU’s climate targets, says the campaign Make the Label Count. Fibres from fossil raw materials, such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, receive a significantly better score than fibres from renewable raw materials (such as hemp, linen, cotton, wool, silk and ramee) due to the lame rules of the current system, according to Dalena White from the International Wool Textile Organisation. This is because three essential aspects have been omitted from the assessment:

  • the renewability of the raw materials,
  • the degradability at the end of use,
  • the contribution to microplastic pollution.

The question then is: did industry have a hand in this? The oil sheiks, the synthetic fibre producers, the clothing manufacturers, the chain shops? It gives me the same bad taste that I had when the eco-label for detergents was developed, starting in 1993. I took part in the Ad Hoc Committee for this label, and the industry at the time – by then already much larger and more powerful than the textile industry – did everything it could to thwart the initiative. The most senseless arguments were used to redirect the label and turn it into an empty shell. The first to be affected were the committed experts from the German Ministry of the Environment: they ‘fell upwards’, they were promoted away. The label was not to be stricter than the existing (far too lax) legislation. All subsequent proposals were scuppered by industry representatives: consumers were too stupid to understand the complexities of the subject matter, so there should not be too much information on the labels – and by the way, there was no room for it. Certain petrochemical raw materials were approved in plenary without any discussion. We sat and watched. In 2003, the result of all this was threefold:

  • Ten years after the start, not a single washing or cleaning product had an EU eco-label;
  • The EU administrators came shyly asking the company where I was working at the time, whether we still had a complete file on the project, for the anniversary party, because theirs had disappeared after a move…
  • …And even today, it is not easy to find the complete information in the right format on detergents and cleaning products with an EU eco-label, and often not without identifying yourself, which is illegal.

Furthermore, the EU eco-label for detergents and cleaning products remains a paper construct.

  • After 28 years of the EU eco-label, there is still no requirement for renewable raw materials, nor a ban on, or phasing out of, fossil raw materials,
  • Dozens of molecules are still permitted that are not acceptable from a health and environmental point of view,
  • Total biodegradability is still not a requirement,
  • No one ever checks, the label is awarded and renewed on the basis of documents, a botched cleaning test and a minimal biodegradability test.

34 years after the Brundtland report ‘Our Common Future’, there is still no work being done on sustainable development. One deadline after another, one rule after another, are being milked and spread too thinly. The EU eco-label for textiles seems to be in the same bed of roses: no renewable raw materials and no degradability required, on top of which there is the accepted pollution with microplastics – while there is a completely different approach possible. Even more than before, the dire environmental situation is forcing us to abandon the 20th century’s lack of a sense of responsibility, and to consider not only what we do, but also how we do it. This is no different for textiles and the fibres from which they are made than for other consumer products. Since the 1950s, the current main raw material for textiles is fossil petroleum; to a small extent, other fossil raw materials such as coal and natural gas. But fossil raw materials are limited, they do not grow and we cannot make them. Moreover, we have managed to deplete the fossil resource base after some 200 years of use. The whole pattern of behaviour is aimed at justifying an existing unacceptable situation and selling it to us as “normal”, with a fat, official stamp on it; stones for bread. What good is an eco-label if it only confirms an existing lame situation? It reminds me of a notorious vaudeville figure from the 19th century, bourgeois Joseph Prudhomme. He invariably declared, ‘C’est mon opinion, et je la partage!’ – ‘That is my opinion, and I agree with it!’. Pure papal word salad, lots of blah-blah and little boom-boom, in Greta Thunberg’s view. Let a club of people finally stand up and say: done with it. Either a textile label with serious criteria – or no label at all. It quite resembles the emperor’s clothes….