Technological watch

EU exports of used textiles in Europe’s circular economy

Photo: © Lars Mortensen Textiles are on average the fourth-highest source of pressure on the environment and climate change from a European consumption perspective, as shown in previous EEA briefings. Europe faces major challenges managing used textiles, including textiles waste. As reuse and recycling capacities in Europe are limited, a large share of used textiles collected in the EU is traded and exported to Africa and Asia, and their fate is highly uncertain. The common public perception of used clothing donations as generous gifts to people in need does not fully match reality.

Key messages
  • The amounts of used textiles exported from the EU has tripled over the last two decades from slightly over 550,000 tonnes in 2000 to almost 1.7 million tonnes in 2019.
  • The amounts of used textiles exported in 2019 was on average 3.8 kilograms per person, or 25% of the approximately 15 kg of textiles consumed each year in the EU.
  • The fate of used textiles exported from the EU is highly uncertain. The perception of used clothing donations as generous gifts to people in need does not fully match reality. Used clothing is increasingly part of a specialised and traded global commodity value chain.
  • In 2019, 46% of used textiles ended up in Africa. Imported, used textiles on this continent primarily go towards local reuse as there is a demand for cheap, used clothes from Europe. What is not fit for reuse mostly ends up in open landfills and informal waste streams.
  • In 2019, 41% of used textiles ended up in Asia. Most used textiles on this continent are imported to dedicated economic zones where they are sorted and processed. The used textiles are mostly downcycled into industrial rags or filling, or re-exported for recycling in other Asian countries or for reuse in Africa. Textiles that cannot be recycled or re-exported are likely to end up in landfills.
  • Due to the obligation to collect textile waste as a separate fraction in all EU countries by 2025, the amounts of used textiles collected may increase further. The EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles identifies ways to address the challenges arising from exporting used textiles, including textile waste.
In this briefing, we look at the patterns and trends in EU used textile exports from 2000 to 2019, based on data from the United Nations (Comtrade) (UN Comtrade, 2022a). We show how exports have increased year by year and shifted from mainly going to Africa to being almost equally exported to Africa and Asia. We touch on the challenges around what happens to used textiles in the importing countries. Furthermore, we show how some challenges related to these exports are being addressed in current and proposed EU policies.

There are limitations to the data. Trade data are based on individual countries’ reporting and therefore come with some levels of uncertainty. This has been taken into account in the analysis, and all numbers should be understood as indicative. More information on the results presented in this briefing can be found in the underpinning report from the EEA’s European Topic Centre on Circular Economy and Resource Use.

EU exports of used textiles: patterns and trendsBetween 2000 and 2019, the amount of used textiles exported from the EU increased from a little over 550,000 tonnes to almost 1.7 million tonnes. The latter is equal to 3.8 kg per person (Figure 1), which is about 25% of the 14.8 kg of clothing, footwear and household textiles consumed per person in 2020 (EEA, 2022).

Figure 1. Exports of used textiles from the EU (EU-27 and the UK) to the rest of the world, 2000-2019, by weight (million tonnes)Note: Combined numbers for nomenclature categories 6309 and 6310; see Box 1 below for further detail. 

Publication date: 06/04/2023

Author: Marion Kupfer

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This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31