MPs launch inquiry into sustainability of the fashion industry

Parliament’s cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has launched a new inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry.

Announced today (22 June), the EAC, which considers the extent to which government policies and those of public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainability, is set to investigate the social and environmental impact of disposable ‘fast fashion’ and that of the wider clothing industry. In particular, the inquiry will delve into 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. Largely thanks to the rise of ‘fast fashion’ – the quick turnover of cheap clothing that encourages consumers to replace and buy more according to trends rather than make clothing last – textiles waste in the UK has been sharply increasing in recent years. Between 2010 and 2015, domestic clothing consumption increased from one million to 1.1 million tonnes, with England and Wales sending an estimated 300,000 tonnes to landfill, according to WRAP figures. MPs launch inquiry into sustainability of the fashion industry

The environmental impact of such growth in the industry and its corresponding levels of waste is significant. The raw materials used to manufacture clothes require land and water, or extraction of fossil fuels. Clothing production involves processes which require water and energy and use chemical dyes, finishes and coatings – some of which are toxic – while carbon dioxide is emitted throughout the supply chain. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ report, launched in 2017 and which proposes a more sustainable approach for the fashion industry, found that if the fashion industry continues on its current path, it is set to use more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.

The scope of the inquiry will also extend to the impact of microfibres, which are tiny pieces of synthetic material shed by clothing when washed that then wash into rivers and out into the oceans, and the disposal of unwanted clothing in landfill, while the working conditions in UK garment factories will also be a target for the inquiry. These areas of inquiry are of particular interest to the EAC given the government’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the eighth and twelfth of which commit to ensuring ‘decent work and economic growth’ by protecting labour rights and secure working environments and ‘sustainable production and consumption’ respectively.

Commenting on the launch of the inquiry, Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, said: “Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. But the way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact. Producing clothes requires toxic chemicals and produces climate-changing emissions. Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibres wash down the drain and into the oceans. We don’t know where or how to recycle end of life clothing. Our inquiry will look at how the fashion industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable.”

The EAC is seeking responses to all or some of the following topics and questions.

Environmental impact of the fashion industry

  • Have UK clothing purchasing habits changed in recent years?
  • What is the environmental impact of the fashion supply chain? How has this changed over time?
  • What incentives have led to the rise of ‘fast fashion’ in the UK and what incentives could be put in place to make fashion more sustainable?
  • Is ‘fast fashion’ unsustainable?
  • What industry initiatives exist to minimise the environmental impact of the fashion industry?
  • How could the carbon emissions and water demand from the fashion industry be reduced?

Waste from fashion

  • What typically happens to unwanted and unwearable clothing in the UK? How can this clothing be managed in a more environmentally friendly way?
  • How much unwanted clothing is landfilled or incinerated in the UK each year?
  • Does labelling inform consumers about how to donate or recycle clothing to minimise environmental impact, including what to do with damaged clothing?
  • What actions have been taken by the fashion industry, the government and local authorities to increase reuse and recycling of clothing?
  • How could consumers be encouraged to buy fewer clothes, reuse clothes and think about how best to dispose of clothes when they are no longer wanted?

Sustainable garment manufacturing in the UK

  • How has the domestic clothing manufacturing industry changed over time? How is it set to develop in the future?
  • How are government and trade envoys ensuring they meet their commitments under the Eighth UN SDG to ‘protect workers’ rights’ and ‘ensure safe working environments’ within the garment manufacturing industry? What more could they do? Are there any industry standards or certifications in place to guarantee sustainable manufacturing of clothing to consumers?

If you would like to contribute to the inquiry, written evidence should be submitted through the inquiry page by 5pm on Monday, 3rd September 2018. The word limit is 3,000 words. Later submissions will be accepted, but may be too late to inform the first oral evidence hearing. Written submissions should be sent using the form on the inquiry page.

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