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Slovak ecological fashion brands struggle with the lack of support from the state and the lack of legislation in the field of sustainable fashion. While other countries in the EU support green initiatives, including financial bonuses for sustainable clothing manufacturers, Slovakia is preparing a law on textile waste only from 2025.

By Simona Strejčková,

Slovakia’s textile industry lacks laws and support mechanisms for brands that strive to be sustainable, say the companies themselves. While the only legislation on the obligation to sort textiles will not come into force until 2025, other EU countries are supporting their brands more actively. The weak state support for this in our country contrasts with the growing awareness of ‘slow fashion’, i.e. sustainable fashion, and the efforts of some brands to produce more sustainably.

In 2020, the average per capita consumption of textiles in the European Union caused 121 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Each European consumes up to 26 kilograms of textiles per year and throws away around 11 kilograms. Slovakia is no exception. As a country, we produce almost 60.000 tonnes of textile and footwear waste every year. This means that for every Slovak, there is up to 10.6 kilograms of textile waste.

Not only is the EU Green Deal trying to tame these high numbers, but also designers and slow fashion designers who create fashion that is not only environmentally friendly but also friendly to the consumer. In Slovakia, the number of these brands is growing every year and some of them are known internationally.

However, the label ‘slow fashion’ is not a license for a brand, neither in the EU nor in the rest of the world. Rather, it is about declaring and committing itself to the values of responsibility towards employees, society, and the environment.

Green steps in design

Local production is the main contribution to the ecology of the well-known Slovak brand NEHERA, which has expanded its store to neighbouring Austria. More than 90 percent of its production and development is carried out in Slovakia. This means, for example, that they don’t send the raw materials for sewing samples to other continents. The samples would then have to make the same journey back for approval, then travel to a manufacturer somewhere in Asia for alterations, and then back to the actual production.

Even when selecting and purchasing materials, NEHERA tries to influence from what source and how responsible a manufacturer they will buy from, the company says. They also pay attention to localness when purchasing the material itself. ‘But here the scope has to be wider than Slovakia, for example, we buy fabrics within the European Union. We think that by producing locally we minimize our ecological footprint,’ says Bibiana Zdútová, NEHERA’s brand director.

The Slovak brand I’m Not a Robot has a similar approach. The garments they create use mostly discarded materials from mass production or those that someone donates them. ‘We also process materials which are maybe not so visually aesthetic or have some kind of defect. In that case, we try to use our authorial intervention to make them perfect and elevate the defect into a form we like,’ said Nora Čanecká, Erika Daxnerová and Barbora Jakubová, authors and designers of the brand I’m Not a Robot.

Local suppliers are also part of other practices. They also work with local artisans to create prints, embroidery or indigo dyeing, for example.

The EU and the road to sustainability

The EU itself is responding to the fact that European consumption of textiles has the fourth largest environmental impact. The Commission now recommends that almost all physical goods should be more environmentally friendly, more energy efficient, and easier to recycle throughout their life cycle. Based on the EU’s 2030 strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, it is expected that all textile products will be produced respecting the principles of social rights and environmental protection by the end of the decade.

In June 2023, the European Parliament adopted a recommendation for an EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. The strategy calls for textile products sold in the EU to be more durable, reusable, repairable, and recyclable. Their production should respect human, social, and labour rights, the environment and animal welfare throughout the supply chain. Consumers will also be given more information on how to reuse, repair, and recycle clothes.

The Union is also trying to support small entrepreneurs in the fashion sector, for example through the WORTH Partnership Project/COSME. This is an accelerator program for the competitiveness of enterprises and SMEs. It is aimed, among other things, at designers and manufacturers in the textile sector who respect principles such as style, aesthetics, safe environment, sustainability, and circularity.

Slovak brands, however, look at this issue differently. ‘The EU’s main focus in the fashion industry is on banning the disposal of unsold garments or on their mandatory recycling,’ says Zdútová from NEHERA, although she also sees these steps as important in the rapid reduction of textile waste. According to her, the legislation will affect especially fashion brands that produce so-called fast fashion, i.e. brands which have a large overproduction and therefore waste.

Financial aid is also problematic for slow fashion brands. ‘So far, we see the criteria according to which one could categorize brands or their products into those that should be tax-advantaged and those that should not as quite problematic,’ Zdútová adds.

Small, independent brands, such as NEHERA, behave differently. Overproduction is not only environmentally but also economically unsustainable for them, so they avoid it. If there are leftover fabrics, they reuse them, for example by selling products at discounted prices in pop-ups, recycling even smaller leftover materials, either for sewing prototypes or donating them to schools and sheltered workshops.

Experience from other countries

‘We do not feel any real support from our state, neither in the field of ecology nor in other areas. Yet from our work in Paris, we know how other independent brands from countries like the Netherlands, France, or Denmark are supported by their governments,’ explains the NEHERA brand director.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is an important policy tool in France to manage and reduce the growing amount of consumer waste. It places responsibility on product manufacturers and distributors to manage the recycling of their products and end-of-life packaging. In response, the French government has now introduced a system of financial bonuses paid to companies whose textile products are sustainable to encourage those that have an eco-label, contain recycled materials, and are designed to last longer.

These bonuses are not felt by consumers because they are financed from a common fund of 50 million a year. This is collected from the environmental levy that textile retailers pay to finance the end-of-life of their products.

Since October, customers in France can also benefit from a direct subsidy of between six and 25 euros per repair, paid out of a state special fund of 154 million euros. The new national bonus program promotes sustainable fashion by encouraging consumers to repair clothes and shoes instead of buying new ones. All repairs must be carried out by a repairer or cobbler certified by Refashion, the environmental organization behind the scheme.

The Dutch government has also set targets for circularity and promotes extended producer responsibility (EPR) and textile labels. By 2025, brands must have 25 percent recycled material in their clothing and up to 50 percent by 2030.

Slovak support is not in sight

Slovakia’s main focus is on waste management. The Waste Management Programme (WMP) is a strategic document within this framework. This aims to create a functional system for textiles in the Waste Act with effect from 1 January 2025 and to increase the recycling and reuse of used textiles. The Ministry’s ambition is to prepare the amendment in such a way so that the responsible entities have sufficient time to put the new requirements into practice. However, apart from this incoming regulation, the state is not planning any other legislation or action, the ministry told EURACTIV.

In neighbouring countries, including the V4 countries, the legislation is not fundamentally different; for textiles, they have adopted EU standards in their legislation. Like Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Austria are also planning mandatory sorted textile collection, whereas until then it is only voluntary.

The collective of founders and designers of I’m Not a Robot believe that there are more people in Slovakia dealing with issues related to the fashion industry than there were a few years ago. According to them, people are thinking more about the materials from which clothes are made or even about the actual purchase of clothes, whether it is a purchase in fast or slow fashion stores or second-hand shops. ‘Although we are lagging behind many neighboring countries, we are pleased that Slovaks are more often willing to pay more for a quality piece, they see it as an investment,’ they add. At the same time, according to the designers, customers are aware of the impact they are creating by their purchase and who they are supporting by such a purchase.

The designers from I’m Not a Robot think that is why it is necessary to talk about slow fashion and educate people about the issues in the fashion industry. ‘We at I'm Not a Robot brand try to do this through short videos in which we reveal the process of creating a garment and what goes on behind the production of a particular piece. We try to make our customers and viewers aware of what and who is behind the creation of a particular piece of clothing and achieve a greater emotional connection from the wearer of the garment,’ they add.

NEHERA’s brand directors say they would be grateful for clearer rules from the state and the EU, as well as benefits for those who can meet them. ‘We try to behave responsibly. We are not necessarily driven by legislation but by the desire for long-term sustainable solutions,’ the directors say.

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