Fashion producers should pay a penny per item to fund waste collection, say MPs

Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is calling for a one pence producer responsibility fee to be paid by fashion brands and retailers on each item of clothing they sell in order to fund better textile waste collection.

In a new report released yesterday (19 February), entitled ‘Fixing fashion: Clothing consumption and sustainability’, the EAC has called for the fashion industry to take more responsibility for the waste it produces through an extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime, while companies that make progress on reducing their environmental footprint should be rewarded through the tax system.

The report concludes the EAC’s inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, launched in June 2018. The clothing industry is a significant part of the UK economy, contributing £28.1 billion to national GDP in 2015, and produces a sizeable amount of waste. The UK’s domestic clothing consumption stands at about 1.1 million tonnes of clothing every year, with consumers throwing away one million tonnes of textiles every year, according to the report. While much is donated to charity shops, around 300,000 ends up in household waste bins, with an estimated 20 per cent of this going to landfill and 80 per cent being sent for incineration.

The high turnover of clothing is largely down to the rise of ‘fast fashion’, which sees retailers sell cheap clothing with short lifespans, encouraging consumers to purchase new items rather than make existing ones last.

Some retailers are making efforts to change their ways, though a large number have made little progress. The interim version of the EAC’s report, released at the end of January, revealed that retailers JD Sports, Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Amazon UK, Boohoo and Missguided were seriously lagging behind the rest of the industry when it comes to improving the sustainability of their clothes.

None of these retailers had 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 had they signed up to the ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) labour rights and living-wage agreement.

Fixing fashion’s problems

The EAC report makes a raft of recommendations to improve sustainability throughout the entire fashion supply chain, from the factory floor to the shop shelf. The report warns that the voluntary approach to improving sustainability in the fashion industry is failing, with progress made on the part of some retailers being outweighed by the precipitous increase in clothes being sold.

Currently, only 11 fashion retailers are signed up to the SCAP targets for 2020, and the EAC recommends that these targets should be made mandatory for all retailers with a turnover of more than £36 million. The government should also work with retailers to increase the use of digital supply chain technology, so that the origins of raw materials can be traced.

Furthermore, the report urges a move away from a linear ‘make, use, dispose’ model towards one that encourages textile reuse and recycling, as well as increased product longevity. The EAC believes that the tax system could be used to incentivise producers to reduce their environmental impacts through design, with policy suggestions including extending the proposed plastics tax to synthetic textile products to stimulate the UK market for recycled fibres.

A new EPR regime was also proposed to ensure producers take responsibility for the items of clothing they produce at their end of life; it is estimated that a one pence levy per garment has the potential to raise £35 million for investment in better clothing collection and recycling in the UK.

On top of this, the EAC calls on the government to explore how it can support the sharing economy, which would shift the dial towards hiring, swapping and subscription clothes services, while it is also calling for a ban on the incineration or landfilling of unsold stock that could be reused or recycled.

Poor working conditions

Not only does the fashion industry have a significant environmental impact, there are also serious issues regarding labour rights and wages in the workplace. Most clothes in the UK are produced in Asian countries where labour costs are low and environmental governance is weak – according to the global trade union IndustriALL, over 90 per cent of workers in the global garment industry have no possibility to negotiate their wages or conditions. The UK is not exempt from this, with the underpayment of the minimum wage widespread in Leicester’s garment factories, the EAC heard.

The report calls for changes to the Modern Slavery Act and Companies Act to increase transparency and require large fashion brands and retailers to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains to ensure their products are produced without forced or child labour.

The key recommendations in the report

  • Mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover above £36 million;
  • A new EPR scheme to reduce textile waste with a one penny charge per garment on producers;
  • The scheme should reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not;
  • The report calls on the government to use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible fashion companies;
  • The government should follow Sweden's lead and reduce VAT on repair services;
  • Lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes should be in the school curriculum;
  • The government should publish a publicly accessible list of retailers required to release a modern slavery statement. This should be supported by an appropriate penalty for those companies who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act; and
  • The fashion industry must come together to set out their blueprint for a net zero emissions world, reducing their carbon consumption back to 1990 levels.

‘Fashion retailers must take responsibility’

Commenting on the report, EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP said: “Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. Our insatiable appetite for clothes comes with a huge social and environmental price tag: carbon emissions, water use, chemical and plastic pollution are all destroying our environment.

“In the UK we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. ‘Fast fashion’ means we over consume and under use clothes. As a result, we get rid of over a million tonnes of clothes, with £140m worth going to landfill, every year.

“Fashion retailers must take responsibility for the clothes they produce. That means asking producers to consider and pay for the end-of-life process for their products through a new extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme. The government must act to end the era of throwaway fashion by incentivising companies that offer sustainable designs and repair services. Children should be taught the joy of making and mending clothes in school as an antidote to anxiety and the mental health crisis in teenagers. Consumers must play their part by buying less, mending, renting and sharing more.”

The final EAC report, ‘Fixing fashion: Clothing consumption and sustainability’, is available on the Parliament website.

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