Promote repair and reuse to increase fashion sustainability, MPs told

Fashion designers and campaigners questioned at a select committee hearing have called on government to better support repair and reuse of clothing and provide more information for consumers on the environmental impacts of their fashion choices.

The hearing formed part of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, launched in June, which is gathering evidence from representatives across the industry, including leading online and high street retailers, before making recommendations to government.

The public evidence session, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 13 November, was the largest select committee hearing ever held, thanks to the large public audience in attendance. Split into two sessions, the committee first heard from fashion designers and entrepreneurs, followed by campaigners.Promote repair and reuse to increase fashion sustainability, MPs told

Present in the panel of fashion designers and entrepreneurs facing the committee were:

  • Claire Bergkamp, Director of Innovation and Sustainability for Stella McCartney;
  • Graeme Raeburn, Performance Director at Christopher Raeburn, a sustainable fashion label in east London;
  • Professor Dilys Williams, Director at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability at London College of Fashion;
  • Clare Hieatt, founder of Hiut Denim, a company based in Cardigan in west Wales; and
  • Phoebe English, designer of her own label Phoebe English based in south London.

Fashion’s throwaway culture of rapid production and consumption at low prices – known as ‘fast fashion’ – is exerting immense pressure on the environment, with domestic clothing consumption in England and Wales increasing from one million to 1.1 million tonnes between 2010 and 2015, and 300,000 tonnes being sent to landfill in that time. The fashion industry is very resource intensive, with the global supply chain predicted to use up one quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

Businesses ‘are aware their model is broken’

The panel faced questions on their visions for a sustainable fashion industry, the biggest barriers and challenges to sustainability, how they determine sustainability in the materials and designs they use, how they minimise waste in their operations, what policies they would like to see to reduce clothing waste and whether sustainable fashion can be available at high street prices.

In terms of an overarching future vision for a sustainable fashion industry, Bergkamp urged the industry to learn from the past to reduce its environmental impact, imploring the industry to “take a step back and figure out a system where we do not work this way”. Raeburn called for “much more awareness, knowledge, accountability and responsibility for everybody involved”, from the design stage to the supply chain to the consumer.

Panellists shared their opinions on the biggest barriers to increasing sustainability for small businesses in the industry, with English citing the affordability of sustainability consultants as well as the difficulty of getting manufacturers to return their waste fabrics for re-use. Raeburn pointed to business rates and a lack of awareness from consumers over why certain products cost slightly more than others. For larger companies, as Bergkamp explained, identifying waste throughout the supply chain and enacting changes to transparency and traceability pose sizeable problems.

Part of the appeal of fast fashion and why it is difficult to detach ourselves from it is its affordability and convenience for the consumer – what Professor Williams calls the ‘democratisation of fashion’. Companies like H&M and Primark will sell items of clothing such as T-shirts for as little as £3-6, but it is hugely difficult to create those clothes sustainably and sell them at that price. Professor Williams states that those businesses “are aware of the fact their model is broken” and called for legislation from the government to ensure that that model was not available.

In terms of keeping the price down but still limiting the environmental impact of items of clothing, Hieatt and English stated that selling straight to the consumer rather than through a third party can help to reduce costs, while Bergkamp called for an exploration of different business models, stating that “resale and rental are an opportunity to have access to higher-quality products at a lower price point”.

All witnesses, in advance of the Resources and Waste Strategy, called for support from government to encourage manufacturers to repair products, with Professor Williams calling specifically for the removal of VAT for repair services, and Raeburn floating the idea of a deposit scheme for textiles at their end of life.

Pushing repair and reuse

The second session saw evidence given by campaigners, including:

  • Lucy Siegle, a journalist and writer specialising in fast fashion;
  • Jane Grice, founder of Waste Not, Want Not, a group of artisans and crafters who upcycle clothing;
  • Livia Firth, founder and Creative Director of Eco-Age, a consultancy specialising in sustainability strategies;
  • Andrea Speranza, representing the charity TRAID (Textile Recycling and International Development); and
  • Jenny Holdcroft, from IndustriALL Global Union, which represents garment workers in supply chains.

Questions to the panellists touched on how to create a more sustainable fashion industry, how to increase transparency in supply chains, encouraging the recycling and reuse of used clothing and how the internet has changed the way we consume fashion.

With the fast fashion model – the three fundamentals of which, according to Siegle, are “low cost, high volume and consequence-free production” – in the crosshairs, the evidence provided by the panellists echoed the sentiments of the first session about the need to change the business models prevalent in the fashion industry, while ensuring that companies doing the right thing do not get outcompeted by those that do not, as expressed by Holdcroft.

Speranza called for a “sustainable consumption strategy” as well as a “waste prevention strategy”, with more information provided to consumers on the impact of their clothing consumption and disposal patterns, encouraging people to buy second-hand clothing. Education was highlighted as crucial to getting people to understand the value of their clothes and how to repair them, with Firth citing her upbringing in Italy that saw her learn how to sew from a very young age, stating “education is definitely the key”.

Repair and reuse was presented as central to reducing waste, with Siegle citing figures that the reuse, rewear and resale economy is set to be worth $33 billion (£25.67 billion) by 2021, which provides much opportunity to recalibrate business models towards that approach.

The panel agreed with suggestions in the earlier session to drop VAT on repair and reuse to encourage businesses to offer such services, When questioned on the possibility of taxing the plastics in synthetic clothing that produce microplastics, Grice agreed that plastics need to be taxed to reduce their use in production in tandem with increased recycling on materials already in circulation, summarising the ideal approach as “we need to buy less, we need to buy better and we need to keep things for longer”.

Following the end of the evidence session, EAC Chair Mary Creagh stated that the committee would be hearing from online and high street fashion retailers in the near future, while government ministers would be expected to give evidence to the committee before Christmas.

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