Fashion bosses to be questioned over industry sustainability

Fashion bosses will be asked to reveal the steps they are taking to improve the sustainability of their operations and reduce the environmental impact of the clothes that they sell, as part of an inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The fashion industry, said to be worth £28.1 billion to the UK economy, has a significant environmental footprint, with domestic clothing consumption increasing from one million to 1.1 million tonnes in England and Wales between 2010 and 2015, largely thanks to the rise in ‘fast fashion’ – the quick turnaround of cheap, seasonal clothing ranges. An estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothing are sent to landfill each year, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

In response to this increased environmental burden, the EAC launched an inquiry in June to investigate the social and environmental impact of ‘fast fashion’ and that of the wider clothing industry. The inquiry will focus on the carbon, resource and water use impacts of clothing throughout a garment’s entire lifecycle, while exploring options for recycling clothes at the end of life stage while reducing waste and pollution.Fashion bosses to be questioned over industry sustainability

Clothing manufacturing produces carbon emissions, contributing to climate change, while many items release microplastic fibres when washed, which then make their way into the ocean. Unwanted and outdated clothing ends up in landfill, and some charities have complained that second-hand clothes are exported and dumped on overseas markets.

Although in recent years there has been a renewed interest in clothing made in Britain, there are concerns that the demand for ‘fast fashion’ is fuelling the need for quick turnarounds in the supply chain, leading to poor working conditions in UK garment factories.

Evidence already submitted to the EAC has revealed that the UK has a higher consumption of new clothing than any other European country, with 26.7 kilogrammes (kg) per capita per year, far ahead of Germany on 16.7kg, while the global fashion industry produced around 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2015.

As part of the inquiry, fashion bosses are being asked to submit evidence regarding their approaches to reducing the environmental impact of fashion. The companies the EAC has written to are: Marks and Spencer Group, Primark Stores, Next Retail, Arcadia Group, Asda, TK Maxx and HomeSense, Tesco, JD Sports Fashion, Debenhams and Sports Direct International.

Questions posed will include:

  • Whether they pay the living wage to garment workers and how they ensure child labour is not used in their supply chains;
  • Whether they use recycled materials;
  • How long clothes are kept and how they encourage recycling;
  • Whether they incinerate unsold or returned stock;
  • What steps they are taking to reduce the risk of microplastics contaminating the ocean; and
  • What other steps they are taking to reduce the environmental impact of their clothing ranges and how they audit success.

Commenting on the call for evidence from top fashion bosses, EAC Chair and Labour MP Mary Creagh said: “The way we design, produce and discard our clothes has a huge impact on our planet. Fashion and footwear retailers have a responsibility to minimise their environmental footprint and make sure the workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage. We want to hear what they are doing to make their industry more sustainable.”

The deadline for replies to the inquiry is 12 October and the EAC may then choose to invite some of the biggest retailers into Parliament for further questioning. Hearings for the inquiry are due to take place in November.

Sustainability back in fashion

Despite the rise of ‘fast fashion’ in recent years, moves have been made from both inside and outside the fashion industry to address its sustainability issues.

Last November, circular economy organisation the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released its report, ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’, revealing the extent of the fashion industry’s impact on the environment and calling for complete system change as part of its Circular Fibres Initiative, launched in May 2017. The report acknowledges steps made by the industry to improve sustainability but insists that more needs to be done at the design stage to encourage recyclability and to increase the longevity of clothing.

WRAP has also sought to get sustainability on the fashion agenda, launching its Love Your Clothes initiative back in 2014 to encourage people to reuse or donate their old clothing, as part of its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), which set targets for the fashion industry to achieve reductions in water use (15 per cent), carbon (15 per cent) and waste (3.5 per cent) by 2020. It was revealed last year that SCAP signatories had made progress towards the goals, achieving reductions of 13.5 and 10.6 per cent for water use and carbon impact, but only a 0.8 per cent reduction in waste.

Certain fashion retailers have also announced progress on individual initiatives, with H&M reporting that 35 per cent of the materials used by the company in 2017 were recycled or sustainably-sourced, while retailer John Lewis announced in June that it would be piloting a new app-based service in which it buys back unwanted clothes, regardless of quality.

Another app-based solution was launched earlier in the year by by Jack Ostrowski, founder of Yellow Octopus, which provides commercial sustainability solutions to the fashion industry. The reGAIN app seeks to divert clothing from landfill by organising collections of unwanted clothing in return for discount coupons for major retailers and lifestyle brands, such as Superdry, Asics, boohoo and Expedia.

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