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Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs

Textiles and clothing in the EU

Textiles and clothing is a diverse sector that plays an important role in the European manufacturing industry, employing 1.5 million people and producing a turnover of €162 billion. The sector has undergone a radical change recently to maintain its competitiveness by moving towards high value-added products.

Characteristics of the industry

The textile and clothing industry covers a range of activities from the transformation of natural (cotton, flax, wool, etc.) or synthetic (polyester, polyamide, etc.) fibres into yarns and fabrics, to the production of a wide variety of products such as hi-tech synthetic yarns, bed-linens, industrial filters and clothing.

The EU textiles ecosystem produces value added and creates opportunities for investments and innovation. Competitiveness challenges are linked to environmental footprint. A key challenge for the green transformation is boosting investments to accelerate sustainability and circularity. 

SMEs in the textiles ecosystem are held back by a lack of skilled employees. Recent skills trends and occupational profile developments have led to the baseline assumption of a gradual shift from lower towards medium and higher-skilled employees.

Competitiveness strengths

  • High quality of production, especially in technical textile and high-end fashion 
  • Rapid integration of new and innovative materials 
  • Design, creativity, strong brand names, especially in the high-end industries 
  • Strong leadership in high-value-added segments where drivers of competitiveness are difficult to replicate
  • Specialised firms taking advantage of new tech and consumer trends

Competitiveness challenges

  • Increased competition from emerging players, as well as companies in other sectors (e.g. e-commerce)
  • Low profit margins, especially for SMEs 
  • Sustainability in the value chain, including a big environmental footprint (high cost of compliance with environmental and chemical legislation) 
  • Fierce international competition, also due to factors such as lower environmental and social standards in third countries 
  • Skills gaps
  • High labour costs
  • Ageing workforce
  • Innovative capacities concentrated in a few EU countries
  • High dependence on imported goods

Economic importance of the industry

The textile and clothing sector is an important part of the European manufacturing industry, playing a crucial role in the economy and social well-being in many regions of Europe. According to data from 2019, there are 160,000 companies in the industry employing 1.5 million people and generating a turnover of €162 billion. The sector in the EU is based on small businesses. Companies with less than 50 employees account for more than 90% of the workforce and produce almost 60% of the value-added.

The biggest producers in the industry are Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. Together, they account for about three-quarters of EU production.

Southern EU countries contribute more to total clothing production. Whilst northern countries such as Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria contribute more to textile production, notably technical textiles.

Competitiveness of the textile and clothing industry

The sector experienced a series of major transformations over recent decades due to a combination of technological changes, the evolution of production costs, the emergence of strong international competitors, and the elimination of imports quotas in 2004.

European producers are world leaders in technical textiles and non-wovens (industrial filters, hygiene products, products for the automotive and medical sectors, etc.), as well as for high-quality garments with high design content.

The textile and clothing industry is one of the most globalised sectors, with 38% of EU turnover coming from the global market. Free trade agreements offer market opportunities for the ecosystem. Textile and clothing has seen a strong export performance. Exports increased by 58% between 2010-2019, whilst imports increased by 43%.

More statistics on the European textiles and clothing industry

The CIRCABC database (the Commission’s Communication and Information Resource Centre for Administrations, Businesses and Citizens) has detailed production and trade data on the textile and clothing industry in the EU.

EU textile and clothing industry statistics from CIRCABC