Written by Shahid Sattar and Noreen Akhtar
With the rising global trends in fast fashion, the export of textile waste or unwanted clothes to destinations outside the EU has steadily increased. This export reached 1.4 million tonnes in 2021. Around 2.1 million tonnes of post-consumer clothing and home textiles are collected in the EU annually for recycling or sale on global reuse markets. This represents around 38% of textiles placed on the EU market. The remaining get discarded in the mixed waste streams.
Pakistan is one of the dumping grounds for post-consumer textile waste or unwanted clothes discarded every year from the EU. In 2021, used clothing worth 46 million USD export value was exported from the EU to Pakistan. Used clothes from the EU’s high streets end up reaching resale markets and also, dumping sites in the country.
In the absence of efficient traceability criteria and waste hierarchy in both the EU and Pakistan, that distinguishes between textile waste and second-hand textile products, the textile waste streams falsely labeled as second-hand clothes are imported to Pakistan, a major portion of which adds to the already mounting ecosystem challenges in the country. The unregulated waste streams of used clothing and lack of their recycling not only cause more GHG emissions and unsustainable water consumption, as this leads to the manufacturing of more new clothing but also causes an increase in the dumping of textile waste in landfills.
Read more: Falling textile exports in Pakistan
EU is now giving utmost consideration to sustainability, promoting textile circularity, and regulating the export of textile waste streams to other nations. EU’s legislative reforms will change the game for Pakistan’s textile and secondhand clothing industry, which will not only significantly minimize the dumping of textile waste but also support the alignment of the current textile business models with the textile circularity business models.
Affordability and business through resale platforms are the massive forces behind large imports of used clothing from the EU to Pakistan. With the growing economic crisis, consumers have become mindful of their expenses and their preference for secondhand clothing, which is believed to have superior quality, has grown. Pakistan has a huge textile resale market, that resales imported used clothes, some of which are recycled while most are sold directly.
This expansion of the secondhand clothing market in the country is not only a pushback against the mounting fast-fashion systems but also poses fewer environmental consequences compared to the fashion industry and manufacturing of new textiles. For instance, recycling and reshaping secondhand clothes emit fewer GHGs and cause less water pollution compared to the emissions and pollution from new clothing production. However, the inflow of unregulated textile waste streams, falsely labeled as secondhand clothing, and unmonitored dumping of textile waste is a rising environmental concern and a challenge to promote textile circularity in Pakistan.
Pakistan has a huge potential to recycle and redesign used textiles
The current scenario indicates that imported used clothes are recycled by some industries, but the progress is not significant and major portions of these clothes enter resale markets and dumping sites directly. For instance, Karachi Export Processing Zone (KEPZ) is greatly benefiting from the used textile industry. It recycles and resales imported used clothes globally. Given the preference for the use of recycled material in new clothes, if industries are channeled into the market of recycled fashion, the recycling and redesigning of imported and locally generated used clothes can become a significant business market for Pakistan.
Recycled Polyester Staple Fiber (rPSF) is a highly suitable alternative for the industry to promote business through recycled fashion. The installment of recycling plants for the production of rPSF can uplift and green the industry’s business development, as it is the most preferred recycled content. rPSF has a huge business potential for brands and is now gaining high popularity, as it supports sustainability and compliance with the Global Recycling Standards (GRS) due to various desired physical properties including higher strength, low moisture absorbency, high elasticity, and comparatively easy production.
Read more: ESG and Pakistan’s textile industry
Textile circularity is now a matter of utmost attention for Pakistan’s textile industry. The industry is currently experiencing a massive transition from only manufacturing new textiles in the absence of strategies to ensure their circularity, to initiating circular business models, with a major focus on eco-designed textile products and recycling of used textiles. From knowledge dissemination to preparing skilled labor, implementing sustainable business models, and upscaling technology, textile companies are actively internalizing the EU’s guidelines and strategies to achieve zero waste targets. The progress, however, needs to be enhanced in the entire industry through coordination, the right financial allocations, and training.
The next big thing
EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles will enormously transform the textile production patterns in Pakistan. Driving fast fashion out of fashion by reversing overconsumption and overproduction is a major target of the strategy. The industry will be obligated to adopt resource-efficient manufacturing processes and circular business models. This will not only promote the manufacturing of superior quality clothing, but also the recycling of secondhand clothes, thus causing a massive shift in the consumers’ preference towards recycled secondhand textile products.
With the motto of #ReFashionNow, the EU is underlining the introduction of eco-design requirements for textiles including quality, durability, longer use, repair, and reuse of textile products, that will ultimately decouple textile waste generation from growth. The textile industry will experience mandatory requirements to give a second life to used textiles, which will require major shifts in industrial functioning. This will require skilled labor, efficient policies for waste hierarchy and collection, and technical progress for recycling, and treatment of used clothes.
As the EU’s strategy for textile circularity is getting stricter, the information requirements to track the origin of all the textile products via traceability mechanisms are also becoming a norm in the EU’s green economy plan. Through its Digital Product Passport initiative, the EU is introducing mandatory information requirements on circularity and key environmental aspects of textiles. This indicates that traceability mechanisms will gradually become applicable to secondhand textile products, both in the EU and Pakistan. From the export of secondhand textiles to their recycling and reuse points, this mechanism will trace all the necessary information of the product’s lifecycle, thus reducing dumping of the used textiles to the minimum.
Digital Product Passport is a milestone initiative to deal with greenwashing, which misleads buyers by giving a false impression of the environmental footprint of the companies. The EU’s criteria to avoid greenwashing are getting immensely stringent, as the European Commission is seeking to define all greenwashing tactics (figure 1) and disseminate information about them. While this will give enormous recognition to the textile companies in Pakistan who are making efforts to green their products; it will also hold accountable, the poorly performing companies, for their high environmental footprint.
Aligning business growth with the EU’s strategy for textile circularity by focusing maximum on eco-designed new products and recycling used textiles is the next step towards a new normal for Pakistan’s textile industry, as the strategy will soon enter into force. This will not only regulate the EU’s post-consumer textile waste misleadingly labeled as secondhand textiles entering Pakistan but will also reduce the dumping of textile waste to the minimum levels.
It is a must for Pakistan’s textile industry to adopt waste hierarchy protocols for the imported and internally generated post-consumer textile waste and strengthen the traceability mechanism to trace its recycling and end-of-life points. As the EU is a top textile export destination for Pakistan and is increasingly focusing on eco-design requirements for textiles, management of post-consumer textile waste will fulfill the EU’s mounting requirements for textile circularity. The industry will observe a transition, as manufacturing of superior quality textile products and recycling and exporting of used clothes will dominate the industrial functioning. This will reduce the environmental footprint of the industry to a significant level and promote green economy-based industrial development.
This will require the right financial allocations, upscaling of the current technology, skilled labor, and coordination among the relevant stakeholders for knowledge dissemination, the absence of which will affect the industry’s compliance performance compared to its regional competitors, ultimately distressing the export-based business market to the EU.
Mr. Shahid Sattar, now Executive Director & Secretary General of All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA), has previously served as a Member Planning Commission of Pakistan and an advisor to the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Petroleum, and Ministry of Water & Power.
Noreen Akhtar is a research analyst.
The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy.