Make the Label Count campaign says system due to come into force in 2023 is misleading and outdated

New eco-labels for fabrics being introduced in the EU are not strict enough, campaigners say.

From 2023 all clothes and shoes sold in the EU will include colour-coded labels informing customers about the products’ environmental impact. But the Make the Label Count campaign, launched this week, says the system of measurement developed in 2013 is misleading, outdated and not in line with the EU’s climate goals.

Fossil fuel-derived fibres such as polyester will be certified as more environmentally friendly than natural fibres, the campaigners and trade groups say.

“Under the current system, all natural fibres will score red,” said Dalena White, the secretary general of the International Wool Textile Organisation. “This is because microplastic pollution, biodegradability and renewability are excluded from the assessment criteria, and those are the areas where natural fibres really shine.”

Product environmental footprint (PEF) is a standardised EU system that aims to measure the environmental impact of commercial goods. It was developed in an effort to provide transparent and trustworthy information to consumers while also making it easier for manufacturers to certify their products across the member states.

PEF was tested in a pilot scheme across 25 products ranging from beer to stationery, T-shirts to leather. However, a report produced by the campaign argues the system is not well suited for the fashion industry and does not reflect the EU’s ambitions, which have expanded over the last eight years, or the current scientific consensus, which sees microplastic pollution as a major environmental concern.

A European Commission spokesperson said there was a “way to go” before the categories according to which PEF is assessed were finalised.

“The commission is absolutely behind the idea of making the label count,” said Paola Migliorini, a commission representative, during a panel discussion at the launch of the campaign. She highlighted that the European strategy for the textile industry was still a work in progress and it would prioritise science-based assessment of textile lifecycles.

White said the commission’s methodology was flawed. “The life cycle of textiles made from petroleum fibres is measured from the time that oil is extracted at the wellhead. So the water, land or the years that it took to make that oil are not measured,” she said. “But the lifecycle of wool is measured from the day that it starts growing on the sheep’s back, and that takes eight to 12 months. It also measures all the land and water it might take for the wool to grow.”

White also said the method did not take into account what happens to fibres after they enter landfill. But she remains hopeful that PEF can still be amended. “We all desperately need some form of measurement,” she said. “So the most practical solution would be to take all the hard work that’s gone into developing PEF and add those missing points to it. We are running out of time.”