Environmental inquiry ready to rail against online fashion retailers

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) will be demanding answers from five fast fashion retailers as part of its investigation into the sustainability of the fashion industry.

The Chair of the committee, Mary Creagh MP, has published letters sent to online retail giants Amazon, Asos, Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided, inviting them to give evidence. This is the first time the inquiry, which was launched in June, will be hearing directly from online fashion bosses on subjects including staff wages, the life-cycle of clothing and how each company is intending to reduce the environmental and social impact of their business. Environmental inquiry ready to rail against online fashion retailers

“Our recent evidence hearing raised alarm bells about the growing online-only retail sector,” said Creagh. “Low quality £5 dresses aimed at young people are said to be made by workers on illegally low wages and are discarded almost instantly, causing mountains of non-recycled waste to pile up.”

Creagh continued: “We will be calling some of these online retailers in front of the committee to answer questions, but in the meantime, my letters encourage them to face up to the social and environmental consequences of their business models. We want to know that they are fully compliant with employment law, that garments have a decent life-span, and that profit is not put before environmental damage.”

A dangerous trajectory

The throwaway culture around clothing is an ever-growing problem: between 2010 and 2015, domestic clothing consumption increased from one million to 1.1 million tonnes, and England and Wales combined contributed 300,000 tonnes of clothing to landfill during that time, according to WRAP figures.

The industry is on a dangerous trajectory, predicted to use up more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050. Not to mention there are tiny plastic fibres released into our sewage systems (and subsequently, the oceans) every time we wash our synthetic clothing.

Read more: What are you wearing? New campaign targets microfibre pollution

The social consequences of fast fashion are also a major concern for the EAC. An estimated 300 million people work for the UK textiles industry, but many are unfairly treated.

As well as collecting written evidence from brick and mortar retailers, the committee previously heard from a panel of reporters, campaigners and sustainability experts on 30 October at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with the suggestion arising that some online fashion retailers may be putting British clothing manufacturers in a position where they can only afford to pay workers illegally low wages, whilst producing cheap clothing that is almost instantly thrown away.

Stella Claxton, Senior Lecturer of the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University, told the hearing that those who buy dresses for such low prices then associate little monetary or emotional value with the item in question. “The incentive for them to then recycle or want to pass that on in some way, or even for charity shops to want that kind of product in theirs shops, is very low.”

Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times investigative reporter, added: “The going rate for a garment worker in lots of places in Leicester is £3.50, £4 an hour. I was told that £5 was a really top rate.”

O’Connor refers to these payment issues as an ‘open secret’, commonly known by central and local government and HMRC, but still not addressed.

Changes required

Alan Wheeler, Director of the Textiles Recycling Association, commented: “In Britain we have a pretty good collection rate per head of population. We are one of the best in the world, but we are also one of the most wasteful.”

Wheeler suggested that clothing consumption has risen as much as five times from the levels of the 1980s. He continued: “Even though we are collecting around 11 kilos of clothing per head of population, which is roughly what the Germans do and virtually no other country in the world gets anywhere near that, we are throwing away a lot more than the Germans. The question is what can we do with that clothing.

“I would like to see producers and retailers in some way being made to take more responsibility for the clothing that they are putting on the market, and offering incentives for design for recycling.”

The EAC's next evidence session will hear from leading fashion designers, entrepreneurs and campaigners at an evidence session on 13 November at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

To read the letters sent by the EAC, you can look on the committee website. The evidence session will be held tomorrow and all findings will be published.

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