Belgium’s textile history dates back to the Middle Ages, when wool was imported from England and transformed into textiles along with the production of linen and lace. Nowadays, Belgian companies such as Sioen Industries, Resortecs and Jasna Rok have become world leaders in textile innovation and fashion technology. When it comes to fashion design, some of the worlds most acclaimed names such as Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester or Anthony Vaccarello have graduated from internationally renowned Fashion Schools in Antwerp and Brussels. Needless to say, our country has earned its place in fashion history.
However, the large impact of this industry on the environment and the exploitation of workers is worrying. Be it human rights or environmental impact, these issues can no longer be circumvented, and fashion businesses need to take action to do better. So how can Belgian fashion companies and brands shift towards more sustainability and once more lead the way in fashion revolution? More and more political, public, civil society or private actors are acting to make that revolution happen. Let’s find out how.
The Civil society is mobilizing around the world
The Fashion Revolution Week is a global movement taking place each year in 100 countries, including Belgium, on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013. It aims at mobilizing people worldwide on Human Rights abuses and environmental damages caused by the fashion industry. This year, the focal point of the campaign is the three R’s, standing for Rights, Relationships and Revolution and all interlinked for several reasons. The relationship between Human Rights, the rights of nature and our consumption and production behaviour can no longer be eluded. We need to review and shift the existing relationship with clothing. Hence, a Revolution is required in the fashion industry.
Upcoming European policy
The European commission is also actively taking measures to guide textile producers towards sustainability. This comes as part of the EU’s Green Deal, aiming to achieve more sustainability and become climate-neutral by 2050. This ambitious initiative includes the Circular Economy Action Plan, with the goal to shift from a linear to a circular economy by focusing on reusability, repairability and recyclability, but also by improving the quality and durability of products, as well as reducing single use products. Textile is one of the top priority sectors of the action plan.
The EU is also working on policies to make sure that all actors in the textile supply chain take their responsibility, from designers to retailers. As brands create new products, they will be held responsible for the post-consumer stage of those products.This is what is called the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR involves collecting, recycling and end-of-life disposal of a product. Such a scheme already exists for batteries, waste oil and paper, among other things. Currently, only France has a mandatory EPR scheme for textile, whereas in Belgium the collection of textiles is done through charities or by individual brands. As a first step, by 2025 the EU will introduce a collection scheme for textile waste produced by households.
Last but not least, an EU law on accountability is in the pipeline. This will make European companies or foreign companies active in the European market responsible for identifying and managing potentiel environmental or Human Rights risks along their supply chain. Given the high risks related to textile production and the complexity of the supply chain, the law would be particularly relevant for the sector.
Voluntary initiatives from companies
But many textile companies have not waited for European policies to take action. Many are already undertaking a due diligence process on a voluntary basis because they genuinely want to reduce their footprint or because consumers require more and more responsible and traceable products, especially since the sector has been pointed out following the Rana Plaza incident. There are several ways to integrate due diligence in a business, from performing independent audits of your suppliers (and their suppliers), to building a trustful and transparent relationship with them.
Besides those individual intiatives, the European Commission has also set several objectives for the textile industry, such as strengthening competitiveness and innovation, tackling fast fashion, stimulating new business models and applying a new framework for sustainable products on textiles, for example by enabling both businesses and consumers to choose textiles from sustainable sources.
Even tough legislative frameworks for fashion companies are coming, as a result of an increasing pressure from the civil society worldwide, many textile companies did not wait to board the sustainability train and are already taking action on different levels to make their activities more sustainable and prepare for these regulations.