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What's better for the environment, buying new clothes or recycled clothes? Of course recycled materials are beneficial for the environment, but that's not always the case. Because the recycling process can shorten the cotton fiber, so it usually has to be mixed with various other materials which are not environmentally friendly and bad for climate protection. Such a process makes it difficult to know how eco-friendly a garment actually is. Whereas consumers in Europe are now starting to target products that support climate protection.

The fashion world in France and the government are now reacting. Every garment sold in France, starting next year, must carry a label detailing its climate impact. Similar rules are expected to be enforced across the European Union by 2026.

Data that will determine the climate protection rating include how the raw materials, such as cotton trees are cultivated, what materials are used to color them, and how far the product travels from the factory to the point of sale.

The French Ecological Transitional Agency Ademe is currently testing 11 proposals on how to collect and compare data and what the resulting label might look like for consumers. "The message of the law is clear, it will become mandatory, so fashion houses need to prepare themselves and make their product data traceable, to arrange automatic data collection," said Erwan Autret, one of the coordinators at Ademe.

Transparent and informed
The world of fashion and garments is being urged to make changes. Until now data and statistics are very difficult to verify, even though the United Nations says the industry is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, as well as a large part of water consumption and waste production.

A planned label could be an important part of the solution, said Victoire Satto of The Good Goods, an agency focused on sustainable fashion. "This will force well-known brands to be more transparent and informed... to collect data and create long-term relationships with their suppliers, all things they don't normally do."

However, as the tendency of consumers to seek environmentally friendly products is increasing, the textile industry is now also in a race to find technical solutions. The Premiere Vision textile conference in Paris for example is now highlighting new processes, including non-toxic tanning and dyes extracted from fruits and waste.

“But the key to sustainability is using the right fabrics for the right clothes”, said Ariane Bigot, deputy head of fashion at Premiere Vision. That means synthetic and oil-based fabrics will still have a place, he said. "Strong synthetic materials with an extremely long service life may be appropriate for some uses, such as outerwear where only a few washes are required."

Continuous options
Loading all of this in one simple label that can be attached to clothes is not easy. "It's very complicated, but we have to get started," said Ariane Bigot.

Ademe's Ecological Transitional Agency will compile the results of its testing phase next spring, before submitting the results to lawmakers. Many have welcomed the label's adoption, but climate protection activists say tougher and broader action is still needed.

"The focus should be on establishing clear rules on product design to ban the worst products from the market, prohibit the destruction of returned and unsold goods, and set production limits," Valeria Botta of the Environmental Coalition for Standards told AFP. "Consumers don't have to go to great lengths to find sustainable options - it has to become the standard," he said.