Call for Government to ban destruction of unsold clothing

A new report by Green Alliance advocates governmental intervention in the UK’s fashion industry to address its overproduction and waste issues. 

Someone picking out second hand clothingChanging Fashion outlines key steps the government and businesses could take to improve sustainability within one of the world's most resource-intensive industries.

The fashion industry has a substantial environmental impact, including substantial greenhouse gas emissions, excessive water use, and pollution. In the UK, the sector is particularly significant, consuming more clothing per capita than any other European country. This high consumption level is associated with an increase in textile waste, much of which is neither recycled or reused but simply discarded or incinerated.

The report calls on the Government to implement a ban on the destruction of unsold and returned garments. This practice, currently widespread across the industry, contributes significantly to environmental waste. Going beyond a ban, the report also endorses the development of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system in the UK, something that the European Union has already legislated to implement.

As many international companies are already adjusting to changes in environmental regulations, the UK is well-placed to adopt similar measures. To achieve this, the first step will be the introduction of robust data collection, to accurately track textile production, its environmental footprint, and the disposal routes of garments.

Additionally, the government must use its authority under the Environment Act to set and enforce ambitious targets specifically for recycling, reuse, and, crucially, reduction in textile production. The immediate establishment of these targets is essential to drive meaningful change within the industry.

Moreover, the UK should leverage its regulatory powers to set standards for the production impacts and durability of textiles. These standards would ensure that garments are designed to last longer and, as a result, more likely to be reused rather than discarded. The criteria set could also influence the fees levied on producers under the EPR system, encouraging the production of higher quality and less environmentally damaging clothing.

Aligning EPR fees with the environmental impact of products could incentivise manufacturers to adopt innovative, less impactful production methods. These methods could potentially reduce costs associated with energy, water, and material use, which is particularly significant in times of high inflation affecting both businesses and consumers.

In addition to regulatory measures, the report encourages the government to set and enforce strict resource reduction targets for the fashion sector (as well as other high-impact industries).

For businesses, the recommendations focus on transitioning away from the fast fashion model towards producing high-quality, durable garments. The report suggests that businesses should invest in innovative technologies to streamline resale platforms, making it easier for consumers to buy and sell used clothing. It also encourages partnerships with charities to manage unsold stock responsibly, helping to extend the life of garments and reduce waste.

According to an analysis by Green Alliance, significant reductions in raw material consumption are achievable through increased reuse and recycling in the UK's clothing industry. In a moderate scenario envisioned by the think tank, where 40 per cent of clothing is reused and fibre-to-fibre recycling is enhanced to 26 per cent —a substantial increase from the current rate of less than one per cent —the industry could reduce its consumption of raw materials by 30 per cent.

The potential for even greater efficiency is highlighted in a transformative scenario provided by Green Alliance. In this model, if 60 per cent of clothing were to be reused and fibre-to-fibre recycling were to reach its maximum technical potential, along with a higher displacement of new clothes by reused items, the UK textile industry could see a reduction in raw material usage by as much as 63 per cent.

Public Opinion on Industry Practices

Supporting these recommendations, a YouGov poll commissioned by Green Alliance reveals strong public disapproval of the current wasteful practices in the fashion industry. Approximately 85 per cent of respondents opposed the destruction of unsold goods, indicating widespread support for governmental action against such practices.

Libby Peake, Head of Resource Policy at Green Alliance, reflected on the public sentiment:
“British people clearly think destroying wearable clothing is wrong – and that the government should step in to stop the reckless waste of resources. They also innately understand the 3Rs and want government to do more to encourage reduction and reuse before recycling. This can be done with existing legal powers. The government can and should make producers take more responsibility for what happens to their products, set standards for durability, and improve the data that’s collected on what is happening in the industry.”

Additionally, there is considerable support for more robust governmental intervention in fashion sustainability. The data shows strong public backing for implementing standards for long-lasting, high-quality clothing, with 81 per cent in favour. Similarly, initiatives to increase the reuse of clothing and reduce clothing waste had the support from 77 per cent and 82 per cent of respondents, respectively.