The absence of coherent regulation in the EU means that potentially hazardous chemicals are "continuously" being used in all stages of the production process in the textiles industry, a Norwegian study has said.
And current EU policies for this sector and for mobile phones "often let member states shape the laws and their implementation themselves", the European Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade (Smart) project said in a release.
This leads to "more use of chemicals and less sustainable waste management".
Smart, funded by EU research and innovation programme Horizon 2020, focuses on the environmental and social footprint of global supply chains for clothes and mobile phones. It comprises researchers from 25 institutions from around the world. It started in March 2016 and will run until February 2020.
The EU today has "a wide range of sustainability-oriented policies and regulations, but there is a lack of coherence and sufficiently stringent and enforceable regulation," Smart project leader Beate Sjåfjell said.
"Reforms adopted by the EU to promote sustainability often give a broad scope to the member states on how to implement these. Unfortunately, member states tend to aim for minimum implementation, out of fears of jeopardising their own competitive position or that of their businesses," she added.
Commenting on the study, Mauro Scalia from textiles and apparel industry association Euratex said: "Coherent regulation is already in place, yet the enforcement is a competence of the member states and it significantly varies, both on domestic production and especially on imported goods."
He added that "different and difficult" enforcement and non-application of REACH outside the EU can lead to chemicals being used in "very different ways" in textile manufacturing globally.
That, however, does not mean a "responsible business would use more chemicals within the current EU regulatory framework", he said. On the contrary, Mr Scalia added, an "ample set" of high level industry standards have "for decades" ensured strict levels of protection.
Considering the mobile phone sector, the Smart project said lack of consistency means hazardous materials end up being spread across the world, often in low-income countries where waste management is lacking.
In Ghana, for example, phones are used and repaired until "only a few parts" are "collected for recycling abroad, and most just gets thrown away", Smart’s Maja Van der Velden said.
"The lack of sustainable recycling practices leads to the pollution of land, water and air," she added.
It is not easy for consumers to consider sustainability when making their purchasing decisions because "there is a lack of public information from the companies regarding their business operations and their various impacts," Smart’s María Jesús Muñoz Torres said.
Smart's Tineke Lambooy added that the EU should "introduce new regulation that mandates companies to disclose reliable and comparable information, and operate in a more sustainable way".
Businesses, she went on, "cannot do this alone because there has to be a level playing field. So, it is up to the regulators to introduce this, at least that is what many companies and/or their representatives express."
The Smart project results will be presented on 24 January at the European Commission Department for Justice (DG Just) in Brussels. DG Just is responsible for the Commission's policies on justice, consumer rights and gender equality.