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The Circle of Life – Embracing EPR, Product Circularity and the Power of Returns


By Inge Bujakiewicz – Baars – Head of sustainability, ReBound (pictured right)

The European Union’s sustainable textiles strategy is leading the charge when it comes to tackling the environmental cost of fashion. It’s propelling countries like Italy, France and the Netherlands to be pioneers and industry leaders in the pursuit of a circular and sustainable textile industry.

The bold strategy  aims to promote the use of sustainable materials and production methods in the fashion industry. This includes establishing mandatory minimums for the inclusion of recycled fibres in textiles and ensuring manufacturers put measures in place to prevent microplastics being released during the production process. 

It also emphasises the importance of circularity in the textile industry, and encourages retailers to design products that can be reused, repaired, or recycled at the end of their life, rather than being simply discarded. To facilitate this, the EU is driving circularity through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, which places the onus of managing the removal of textiles from the market onto producers themselves. EPR policies incentivise producers to consider the environmental impact of their products, from design and production to use and disposal. 

As environmental fears continue to loom over us, it’s almost certain that the UK follows suit and challenges this issue head on. 

Retailers must actively prepare for a future where the UK establishes its own set of rules and regulations when it comes to textiles and consider what they can do to make their product lifecycle as sustainable as possible. In an effort to achieve this, it’s vital that retailers don’t overlook one of the key stages of the product journey: returns. By developing a robust returns strategy, retailers can contribute to the circular economy and ensure compliance with potential EPR policies in the UK.

Embracing EPR and returns strategies 

Failure in the UK to implement plans and policies for creating a more sustainable industry is not an option as the fashion industry continues to take a devastating toll on the environment. According to the EU, consumption of textiles has the fourth biggest impact on the environment and the average European throws away 11kg of textiles every year. 

In addition to clothing being thrown away, many items are also sent back to retailers. Returns are often overlooked in the product life cycle but play a significant role in the fashion industry’s environmental footprint. The current model of online shopping and liberal return policies has led to a staggering volume of returned products. In fact our research shows that between 2021 and 2022, returns volumes rose by 26%. 

The implementation of EPR policy is an imminent possibility in the UK. Retailers must be proactive in preparing for this shift by integrating sustainability into their core business practices. By creating a great returns strategy, retailers can ensure they are aligning themselves with the circular economy principles promoted by EPR policies. This proactive approach will not only ensure compliance but also position retailers as leaders in sustainable fashion.

Creating a sustainable and EPR compliant returns strategy can be achieved in a number of ways. For example, retailers should implement efficient processes for assessing the condition of returned items. This can be done in-country to avoid putting too many air miles on an item of clothing, especially if it’s not in a state to go back to the warehouse to be resold. By distinguishing between resellable, repairable, and recyclable items, retailers can maximise the value recaptured from returned products. 

The next stage is then to partner with recycling organisations, repair centres or re-sell markets to extend the life cycle of a product where possible. At ReBound we’ve partnered with the Salvation Army to help our client’s divert certain items of clothing to their charity shops or recycling centres depending on the condition. 

By analysing returns quickly, retailers can then consider ways of reducing carbon emissions by adopting alternative methods of transporting returns back to the warehouse or to the shop floor. For example, implementing HVO100 fuel vehicles into your network can reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 89% or opt to use rail freight wherever possible. Small changes like this can add up to big results when it comes to making fashion more sustainable and minimising the environmental damage. 

The EU’s sustainable textiles strategy is paving the way towards a more circular and environmentally friendly textile industry. Retailers in the UK must embrace a future where policies like EPR are the norm and start preparing now. Adopting a returns strategy that puts circularity at the heart of things is crucial for the UK fashion industry to move towards a more sustainable future. The time to act is now, for the fashion industry to take responsibility for its environmental impact and shape a future where sustainability is always in style.  

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