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WRAP presents ECAP findings on circular fashion and textiles

By Simone Preuss


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Leading sustainability initiative WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) started its four-year pan-European progamme, the European Clothing Action Plan (ECAP), in September 2015. Its aim was to reduce the carbon, water and waste footprints left behind by the apparel industry throughout the European Union. The 3.6 million euro EU Life pilot project that ended in December 2019 is one of the first to tackle sustainable clothing in Europe and to influence positive action across the entire supply chain. Its findings were compiled in the recently published report “Driving Circular Fashion and Textiles”.

“Clothing ranks sixth in household spending but its environmental cost is far greater. The clothing industry has a huge environmental footprint across its supply chain and at the end of life. Its reach is global, and its impacts profound. We too, as consumers, directly contribute to the stress put on the planet by how we dress. ECAP’s challenge has been to improve production, supply, use and disposal of our clothes in ways businesses and people will adopt,” commented WRAP director Peter Maddox.

Report highlights the environmental cost of clothing and textiles

The report details key findings from a series of small-scale demonstration projects that tested practical interventions across the supply chain. These ECAP pilots were conducted with retailers and brands across Europe to show the potential economic and environmental savings businesses can achieve through greater sustainable practices. They ranged from introducing sustainable design and production practices to addressing the pressure of consumption on the environment and developing more sustainable public-procurement models. At the disposal stage, ECAP focussed on improving textile collections, recycling and reprocessing through research and practical trials and fibre-2-fibre recycling.

“This has been a huge amount of work by many partners, in many countries. Through ECAP, retailers and brands have reduced the footprint of garments they sell; workwear and brands have piloted cutting edge fibre-2-fibre schemes increasing recycled content in clothing, and household textile collections have increased. I am very proud of what everyone has achieved, and how these resources will help drive sustainable fashion in the future,” said Maddox.

Sourcing more sustainable fibres

A range of European brands and retailers ran pilots to source more sustainable fibres to reduce the impact of the clothing they produced and sold within the European market. They also calculated their environmental impact and developed strategies to improve these like adopting strategies with targets for sustainable cotton, recycled fibres and eco-friendly processing; achieving significant increases in the use of sustainable cotton (such as from 0-70 percent in the first year) and launching first sustainable clothing (such as a denim collection).

German discount supermarket chain Aldi aimed for reducing its fibre footprint by developing and implementing a strategy to source more sustainable fibres while Bonobo Jeans, s.Oliver and Zalando developed and implemented strategies to integrate more sustainable fibres into their products. Some of the key learnings were that understanding one’s fibre baseline is a valuable first step, investing in internal engagement and talking frequently to suppliers is critical, talking to one’s counterparts is important and that learning by doing is an essential part of the sustainable fibres journey.

Integrating recycled fibres

Nine companies including fashion brands, children’s wear, work-wear companies and hotel linen providers took part in pilots projects to recover and turn fibres into new garments through remanufacture to reduce the use of virgin materials, conserve water and energy and to reduce the amount sent to landfill or incineration. As a result, British online fashion retailer ASOS produced a range of denim jeans made with up to 20 percent recycled cotton, while Dutch work-wear company Schijvens Corporate Fashion produced t-shirts, polo shirts and blouses made with 30 percent post-consumer textiles (mixed PET and cotton), 20 percent industrial textile waste (cotton) and 50 percent PET (from bottles).

ECAP and WRAP were supported by a range of activities: the Dutch government agency Rijkswaterstaat led Public Procurement, Collections and Fibre-2-Fibre Recovery actions, while the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) led action to engage young consumers in London through its project #LoveNotLandfill charity pop-up shops. The Danish Fashion Institute (which became the Global Fashion Agenda in May 2018) orchestrated the development of the Design for Longevity platform in collaboration with designers and product developers across Europe, thus emphasising the importance of designers in the sustainable fashion process. Environmental conservation agency MADE-BY led the actions on fibre strategies and manufacturing processes until November 2018.

Engaging European consumers

WRAP also surveyed clothing-related behaviour in Denmark, Germany, Italy and The Netherlands in 2016 to inform consumer initiatives to influence buying, care/repair and disposal behaviours to prolong garment life and divert clothing from landfill - Europeans buy an average of 26 kilograms of textiles per person per year and discard 11 kilograms of those. A follow-up survey in 2019 found that Denmark and Italy saw more clothes donated to charity and community shops as a result, while second-hand purchases rose across all nations. There was a significant increase in how long clothes were kept (from 3.8 years to 4.4 years) in Germany, with more UK citizens laundering at 30 degrees, rather than 40 degrees.

Impact of ECAP is not over

Though the four-year programme officially concluded, “the impact of ECAP continues. Partnerships and collaborations created across countries, and on-going retailer and brand sustainable fibre strategies and consumer campaigns, continue to deliver savings in carbon, water and reduced textile waste. ECAP’s legacy also helps inform and support EU policy on sustainable clothing,” said the report.

At a governmental level, this means that the programme’s circular procurement criteria for textiles have fed into the ongoing development of the Commission’s Green Public Procurement guidance. The EU Circular Economy Package, which legislates for separate collection of textiles from 2025, will mean ECAP’s guidance on textile collections is likely to become a key resource for municipalities and the recycling sector. And several European member states are consulting on Extended Producer Responsibility for textiles, and if implemented, they will provide a clear incentive to brands and retailers to redesign clothing to minimise the environmental impact over its lifetime.

“ECAP is a really important programme in helping to bring more sustainable practices into how we design, make, use and re-use clothing. It is one of the very few programmes that focus on the entire clothing supply chain, rather than just a specific part of that chain. The summary report brings together a wealth of important resources in one place and I’m particularly impressed with the fibre-2-fibre guidance, which will help many businesses incorporate more recycled content into their clothes, more easily,” said Rebecca Earley, Professor of Sustainable Fashion Textile Design and Co-Director, Centre for Circular Design (CCD).

The full report can be viewed on the ECAP (ecap.eu.com) or WRAP websites (wrap.org.uk) and be used, referenced and incorporated into future projects.

Cover: ECAP report “Driving Circular Fashion and Textiles”

Sustainable Fashion