The time when the European textile industry was characterised by mass-market production is long gone. Today, it stands for high quality production which brings value to many business areas including fashion, automotive, construction and many other industries. We spoke with Mr Mauro Scalia, Manager of Sustainable Businesses at the non-profit trade organisation Euratex, to hear about this development and learn how REACH has affected the industry.
REACH is a booster for innovation
Mr Scalia calls REACH the official instrument that can drive standards and changes in supply chains. Chemicals are used in many different stages of textile and garment production and they are needed to give textiles specific functionalities. “Rather than being seen as an inhibitor to the industry, REACH should be used as a booster for innovation across the supply chain and an instrument for establishing a level playing field in the industry,” Mr Scalia says.
According to Mr Scalia, REACH has improved data sharing, transparency and communication along the supply chain. “REACH obliges industry to provide safety data sheets (SDSs) and relevant exposure scenarios including information on environmental hazards and safety precautions. However, ensuring coherence and completeness of the SDS still remains a challenge, especially for smaller companies supplying larger retail chains.”
Need for better enforcement
However, the level playing field in the textile sector is a complex concept. “In Europe, there is generally strong scrutiny on manufacturers of chemicals. But competition between companies that do not face the same obligations or scrutiny may lead to unfair practices and low quality goods especially in the absence of adequate and more visible market surveillance mechanisms,” Mr Scalia points out.
He gives an example of the RAPEX reports from the last three years, which suggest that more surveillance on products on the EU market is needed. “RAPEX’s data shows how often a textile product imported in the EU market breaches REACH and therefore can potentially pose a risk to European consumers.”
Mr Scalia insists that if rules are not equally enforced or compliance is not verifiable, the gap between REACH-compliant business operators and competitors outside the EU and with lower standards becomes wider. That will disturb competition and undermine the protection of consumers and the environment.
More innovation taking place
Mr Scalia thinks that there is a growing culture for sustainability in the textile industry. There is a clear trend within all segments of the industry towards investing in and committing to reducing or phasing out the use of harmful chemicals. For example, companies are no longer using DecaBDE (CAS 1163-19-5) as a flame retardant.
“An innovation may work fine in one scenario, but may not work at all, or even have worse effects, in another. As the public pressure builds to restrict and replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives, it is important to carry out such actions in a wise and careful manner to avoid regrettable substitutions,” Mr Scalia explains.
As harmful substances are restricted, industry and particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) need help to successfully replace them with safer alternatives. At the same time, it is important to make sure that these alternatives are technically feasible and efficient enough. According to Mr Scalia, substitution is still a big challenge for SMEs that have significantly less resources and may lack the necessary expertise in-house.
Finding safer chemicals rarely happens in a vacuum. Cooperation between different actors improves the chances to make a break-through. “We are aware of research and innovation projects taking place all over Europe to assess pentadecafluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) (CAS 335-67-1) substitutions for different applications which involve SMEs and universities. Some of them benefit from EU programmes for research and innovation, like LIFE+ or Horizon 2020. This illustrates the complexity, but also shows good examples of how regulatory developments and collaborative research are part of the same goal,” Mr Scalia explains.
“If you, as a consumer, want to have a better product, you must be prepared to pay a reasonable price for it,” Mr Scalia insists. Sustainable products require know-how, investments and a constant search for better solutions as well as a trustworthy and responsible supply chain. All of this comes at a cost.
Therefore, there is a need to change consumer behaviour. It is not enough to be prepared to pay a fair price for a safe product in theory; consumers also need to do this in practice. “If you are in doubt whether the product that you are planning to buy is safe, take the time to check it before you buy it,” Mr Scalia urges. He reminds that everyone plays an important role in wiser substitution – the business side, researchers, authorities and ultimately also consumers.
Euratex and the textile sector
The European Apparel and Textile Confederation, Euratex, is the non-profit trade organisation dedicated to the promotion of the European textile and apparel industry. Founded in 1996, Euratex represents 174 000 companies from 28 EU countries. Euratex also provides EU institutions with data to assist policy development.
The textiles and clothing sector plays an important role in European manufacturing. The sector includes 54 000 textile and 120 000 apparel companies, mostly SMEs in Europe, employing 1.7 million people.
From the REACH perspective, the actors in the textile and clothing industry are downstream users. Chemicals are used to pre-treat fibres and fabrics, for dyeing, printing, or for giving textiles extra functionalities, which are of critical importance particularly in technical textiles.