IS FASHION COSTING US THE EARTH?
Rhian Greaves
12/03/2019

“The way we make, use and throw away our clothes is unsustainable”.  So begins the recent report, “Fixing Fashion” published by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).  In a blistering attack, the report laments our growing obsession with fast fashion and the health, safety and environmental impacts this is having around the globe.

Vital statistics

The garment industry is reportedly the third largest manufacturing sector in the world.  UK shoppers buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe with the domestic industry worth £32 billion in 2017, growing at a rate of 1.6% higher than the rest of the economy.  Fuelled by celebrity endorsed social media campaigns and the growth of online retail, fashion’s performance has outstripped even high-tech sectors in recent years.

But behind the success story lurks an apparently less commendable reality with textile production understood to contribute more to climate change than the international shipping and aviation industries combined.  Most of the effects are felt in developing nations, which welcome the jobs but are ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. With global apparel consumption projected to rise by 63% by 2030 – the equivalent of more than 500 billion additional t-shirts – things have to change.

The report

Having heard evidence from a range of industry stakeholders, the EAC published its report on 19 February 2019.

The tenor of the report is plain from the opening summary, which talks of an industry which has, “marked its own homework for too long”.  Voluntary schemes and self-regulation are said to have failed, with the report calling for a tougher Government stance.

The outcomes

The report set out a list of very clear recommendations.

Health and safety:-

  • “Made in the UK” should be a badge representing workers who are paid at least the minimum wage in safe workspaces.  The EAC heard evidence of serious health and safety breaches and urged retailers operating internationally to sign up to Global Framework Agreements that implement the highest standards across their operations, regardless of local laws.

 

  • Concerned about the occupational health implications of working with microfibres, the EAC recommended the Health and Safety Executive be asked to review the available evidence on the attendant risks and take action accordingly.

Modern slavery:-

  • There is “a strong case” for the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to be strengthened, a view shared widely beyond the confines of the report. Current requirements to publish modern slavery statements are not monitored so there is no way to ensure the action is actually taken.  The EAC recommended a publically accessible list of all retailers required to publish statements supported by an appropriate penalty for non-compliance.

 

  • The EAC advocated the amendment of the Companies Act 2006 to include explicit references to “modern slavery” and “supply chains” with statements on the approach to human rights in this context becoming mandatory.

 

 

  • Large retailers should also be required to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains to ensure products are created without forced or child labour.

Environmental measures:-

  • A joint Government/industry approach is needed to trace the sources of raw materials in order to tackle social and environmental abuses. The EAC was almost incredulous that technologies widely used elsewhere were not being implemented in fashion.  They felt this was, “essential if fashion is to tackle its waste, water, chemical and carbon footprint”.

 

  • The Government was also called upon to facilitate collaboration between fashion and appliance manufacturers to alleviate microfibre pollution, whilst being clear that the buck stops with those making the fibre shedding products. The report suggests the sector has been too reactive; waiting for research to resolve the issue.  Instead, a proactive approach is encouraged.

 

  • The report asks the Government (with industry) to accelerate research into the relative environmental performance of alternative materials, particularly where microfibre pollution may be reduced.

 

  • The EAC is critical of the funding of WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), which has fallen by more than 80% since 2010. WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) is praised but requires adequate funding to achieve its aims.  The EAC recommends that retailers fund this scheme so that its assistance is available across the industry, with contributions set relative to revenue.

 

  • Being committed to SCAP should be seen as a “licence to practice”. The EAC wants to see compliance with SCAP targets becoming mandatory for all retailers with turnover exceeding £36m.

 

  • The Government should reform taxation to reward those designing products with a lower environmental impact, conversely penalising those that do not. This should include investigating whether the proposed tax on virgin plastics due to come into force in 2022 should be applied to textile products that contain less than 50% recycled PET.

 

  • The waste hierarchy requires recycling and reuse before destruction or disposal of products. The EAC recommends banning incineration or landfilling of unsold stock that could otherwise be reused or recycled.

 

  • There is also a recommendation that lessons on “designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes be included in schools at Key stage 2 and 3”. The report alludes to a wider benefit of allowing youngsters to benefit from the satisfaction such achievement brings, “as an antidote to the growing anxiety and mental health issues amongst teenagers”.

 

  • An Extended Producer Responsibility scheme is recommended to, “make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create…and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste”. A suggested 1p per garment would raise an estimated £35m for better clothing collection and sorting in the UK.

 

  • On a wider scale, the EAC believes that new economic models for fashion are required to reduce material consumption. It recommends use of the tax system to “shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling” to support responsible companies.

 

  • In conclusion, the report requires retailers to use their market power to demand higher standards from suppliers to reduce the environmental, social and health impacts of the clothes they produce. Offering rental schemes and repair services are suggestions, along with the provision of customer information about the true source of the clothes on their backs.

In response to the report Peter Maddox, Director of WRAP said:

“While the messages are hard hitting, we are grateful this lack of sustainability is being given such prominence by the EAC. Sunlight is the best disinfectant…and given the fact that only housing, transport and food have greater environmental impacts than clothing, it’s vital these issues are tackled.”

What next?

Attention has focussed on the potential for an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme and the attendant revenue that could generate.  But behind the headlines is a very detailed (and critical) root and branch review of the compliance picture currently evident in the sector.  Whilst the EAC has strong words for the industry, it also criticised the Government, which has been described as “too slow” to act with a myriad of examples given of inadequacies in current arrangements.

It is clear that it will take some time to implement any, let alone all of the EAC’s recommendations. This may be where the final piece of the jigsaw, the consumer, plays a part.  The question is whether increasing awareness of these issues will lead us to hold our fashion brands and retailers to a higher standard when it comes to sustainability and corporate social responsibility?

The full report is available to read here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/1952/1952.pdf

If you have any queries on the issues raised by this update, please contact Rhian Greaves on 0161 393 9072.

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