Used textile exports from Europe have tripled over the last two decades

The amount of used fabric exported from the EU has tripled over the last two decades to nearly 1.7 million tonnes in 2019, according to a report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The report also states that it is ‘highly uncertain’ that the used fabrics are destined for recycling, reuse or landfill.

Analysing UN Comtrade data between 2000 and 2019, the report found a growing shift towards consolidation and specialisation on both sides of the used textile trade. Five countries accounted for 75 per cent of the textile waste exports out of the EU with the top 10 receiving countries – mainly in Africa and Asia – imported 64 per cent of total volume. How these textiles are sorted, reused, disposed or recycled, however, remains largely opaque and anecdotal.

Clothing and textiles exported to Africa are known to be reused and sold domestically, whereas Asia – now receiving 41 per cent of exports – has dedicated sorting facilities. In these facilities, fabric is often downcycled for industrial rags or re-exported globally. Textiles considered unfit for reuse are destined for landfill in both regions.

This report comes on the heels of the EU’s sustainable and circular textiles strategy published in March last year, which also noted the limitations of current textile sorting and classifications and called for improved transparency in global used-textile trade.

The positive environmental and social impact of clothing donations and recycling should be questioned, highlighted the report noting the uncertain fate of used textiles.

“The avoided environmental impacts related to reuse depend on whether this reuse actually replaces new textile or fibre production,” it said. “In other words, if used textiles exported from the EU are of too low quality to be reused, are not reused for very long or do not replace new clothing purchases, they may not really replace new production or benefit the environment,” the report added.