EAC report finds leading retailers lagging behind on fashion sustainability

A group of major UK retailers are not doing enough to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes they sell, according to an interim report published by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The interim report summarises the findings of the EAC’s inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, launched in June 2018. The inquiry has seen MPs collect evidence from fashion retailers, designers and campaigners to investigate the environmental impact of clothing throughout the lifecycle of a garment in terms of carbon, resource and water use, while also looking at how clothes can be recycled and waste and pollution reduced.

The fashion industry represents a significant part of the UK economy, contributing £28.1 billion to national GDP in 2015, according to the British Fashion Council. This is largely due to the rise of ‘fast fashion’, which encourages the fast turnover of cheap clothing, resulting in a precipitous increase in waste. The UK’s domestic clothing consumption stands at around 1.1 million tonnes of clothing every year, with England and Wales sending an estimated 300,000 tonnes to landfill, according to figures from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

EAC report finds leading retailers lagging behind on fashion sustainabilityThe report concludes that to achieve a significant improvements in sustainability, the fashion industry must move away from the ‘fast fashion’ business model, exploitative labour practices must end, and retailers must lead change through labour market and environmental sustainability practices and engagement with industry initiatives.

As part of the interim report, the EAC has published retailers’ responses to questions given throughout the inquiry, in the form of oral and written evidence, as well as analyses of companies’ commitment to environmental sustainability and labour market initiatives.

Which retailers are singled out?

The analyses find that a group of retailers including JD Sports, Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Amazon UK, Boohoo and Missguided are lagging behind the rest of the industry when it comes to improving the sustainability of the clothes they sell throughout the entire supply chain.

None of these retailers have signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) – a voluntary commitment launched by WRAP in 2013 to reduce carbon, water use and waste by fashion businesses by 2020 – nor have they signed up to the ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) labour rights and living-wage agreement.

Commenting on the report, EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP said: “We want to see a thriving fashion industry that employs people fairly, inspires creativity and contributes to the economic success of the UK.

“It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers. It’s disappointing that only a third of the retailers we wrote to are signed up to ACT, an important global initiative working towards getting a living wage for all garment workers.

“By publishing this information, customers can choose whether they want to spend money with a company that is doing little to protect the environment or promote proper wages for garment workers. We hope this motivates underperforming retailers to start taking responsibility for their workers and their environmental impact.”

Varying levels of engagement

The EAC interim report groups the 16 retailers asked to give evidence to the inquiry into three groups: least engaged, moderately engaged and most engaged.

Regarding the least engaged retailers, as mentioned above, none have signed up to the SCAP targets (15 per cent water use reduction, 15 per cent carbon reduction and 3.5 per cent waste reduction by 2020) and none use organic or sustainable cotton in their clothing. Only Boohoo and Sports Direct use recycled material in their products while only TK Maxx offers an in-store take back scheme. None of the six retailers are signed up to the ACT living wage initiative and only Missguided is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which aims to improve working conditions for workers around the world. The EAC report notes the efforts made by Missguided to improve working practices and conditions at its warehouse in Leicester.

Amazon UK has been singled out for its ‘notable’ lack of engagement, with its status as a subsidiary of an international corporation not absolving it of its responsibilities. The EAC also held concerns regarding Boohoo’s approach to trade union representation.

Four retailers have been classed as moderately engaged: Next, Debenhams, Arcadia Group and Asda Stores. All have taken some steps to improve their sustainability, although Asda Stores and Debenhams are not signed up to the SCAP targets. All the retailers apart from Next run in-store take back schemes, while all apart from Asda Stores use organic cotton. With regard to labour market initiatives, only Asda Stores is not a member of ACT and only Arcadia Group is not a member of the ETI. The EAC noted that Debenhams deserves credit for the range of programmes it is involved in.

The most engaged retailers – ASOS, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Primark and Burberry – all use organic or sustainable cotton and have in-store take back schemes. All except Burberry are signed up to the SCAP targets.

The EAC welcomes Burberry's commitment to end the incineration of unsold stock and acknowledge that it is engaged in a range of other initiatives to reduce its environmental impact.

All five retailers are signed up to ACT while Burberry and Marks and Spencer are the only two of the five not signed up to the ETI. The EAC welcomes ASOS becoming the first online retailer to sign a Global Framework Agreement with IndustriALL, committing to the highest possible standards on trade union rights, health and safety, and labour relations.

The full EAC interim report on the sustainability of the fashion industry can be viewed on the Parliament website.

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