In-depth: Fixing Fashion – MPs set out their vision on how to clean up the industry

Environmental Audit Committee
Waste is just one of the issues in the spotlight

MP Mary Creagh has arguably been on the highest profile individuals in fashion over the past 12 months and, of course, she isn’t in the industry at all but has been keeping a beady eye on it as chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and overseeing its inquiry into how fashion can improve its sustainable and ethical credentials.

The Committee’s in-depth report on their inquiry findings was published this week and contained a number of recommendations, some of which may be transformed into legislation in the coming years. A regular speaker on the fashion industry conference circuit (starting with our very own Fashion Futures Forum in partnership with Avery Dennison last November), Creagh has made it clear she wouldn’t be producing a report that didn’t have outcomes.

Through her evidence gathering sessions, and in particular the one in which she grilled fashion giants from ASOS to Boohoo and Burberry, she also made it clear that she was far from impressed by a business model that promoted so much consumption and, in many cases, took so little responsibility for the recovery and recycling of those garments.

One of her solutions to the 1m tonnes of textiles discarded each year (300,000 of which end up in landfill) is a 1p tax on every garment sold to go towards its recovery and recycling, and she is also urging consumers to buy less, re-use and repair, before they recycle (not the recycle, not throw away, their clothes). See video below.

But her report, in which the industry from influencers to producers, designers, educators and retailers were all invited to contribute, goes much further than recommending ways to tackle waste and reduce consumption. It suggests new business models, greater transparency on how clothes are made, fairer conditions for workers (one of the most explosive moments during her inquiry was when Missguided revealed its auditors had been beaten up trying to inspect a factory in Leicester that it was considering using).

Here are just some of the highlights:

The environmental cost of our clothes

Fashion is one of the least environmentally friendly industry’s on the planet. It’s an uncomfortable fact that we all have to face up  to. The democratisation of fashion, which has brought the joy of clothes to more people that ever before has had a very real impact on the planet.

According to the report, textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution. In addition, synthetic fibres (from the washing of polyester clothing) are being found in the deep sea, in Arctic sea ice, in fish and shellfish.

Satellite images of the Aral sea in Central Asia show how much it has shrunk by since rivers flowing into the lake were dammed to irrigate cotton fields in the 1960s. This image was taken in 2018 and the yellow lines show the extent of the lake in 1960. Source: NASA’s Earth Observatory.

The social cost of our clothes

Our biggest retailers have “chased the cheap needle around the planet”, the report claims, commissioning production in countries with low pay, little trade union representation and weak environmental protection. In many countries, it continues, poverty pay and conditions are standard for garment workers, most of whom are women. The report does, however, give credit to those brands and retailers who have engaged in schemes to improve conditions for workers.

That said evidence was found of forced labour, child labour and prison labour in supply chains and it is claimed “overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is based on the globalisation of indifference towards these manual workers”.

Clothes made in the UK must mean workers are paid at least the minimum wage, and it is clear that this can’t be taken for granted given the Missguided auditors’ experience at the Leicester factory. At similar factories in Leicester, clothes are made so cheaply that they are considered to be “single-use” items.

Environmental Audit Committee

Textile waste and collection

Apart from the fact that 300,000 tonnes of textiles end up in landfill every year. The glut of used clothes that make their way to charity shops and recycling points mean their value has been suppressed. Instead of clothes being resold, reused and repaired, they are often simply ripped up and turned into insulation and mattress stuffing. In many cases the garments have never been worn.

The report concludes that voluntary schemes to address the issue have failed to do and here is one area where legislation, and even the aforementioned 1p levy, could come into play.

Sustainability
Clothing in landfill

New economic models for the fashion industry

The current model for fashion is broken and unsustainable, the report claims. The report urges the Government to change the law to require companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains.

It also praised some of the UK’s most innovative designers, such as Christopher Raeburn, for basing his brand around sustainability, with its remade, reduce, recycle mantra. Larger brands are urged to follow his example.

Christopher Raeburn
Raeburn AW19

Of course such brands are often at a disadvantage price and cost wise since it is more expensive to produce clothes sustainably. As such the report is recommending tax breaks to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalties for those that do not.

Moving from conventional to organic cotton and from virgin polyester to recycled PET (in garments designed to minimise shedding) would help to reduce the negative impact of the clothing industry, the report claims.

To encourage brands to make the switch, it says the Government should investigate whether its proposed tax on virgin plastics, which comes into force in 2022, should be applied to textile products that contain less than 50% recycled PET to stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK.

Mary Creagh
Mary Creagh speaking at The Industry’s Fashion Futures Forum in November

Conclusions and recommendations

In a nutshell, the report states the Government needs to act now on these issues. “[Its] recent pledge to review and consult on extended producer responsibility for the textile industry by 2025 is too slow,” the report concludes. It wants action on the points below by the end of this Parliament (scheduled to be 2022 but given the political turmoil in the UK it could come much sooner).

The Committee is recommending:

  • – the Government should publish a publicly accessible list of all those 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.
  • – that the Companies Act 2006 be updated to include explicit reference to ‘modern slavery’ and ‘supply chains’. Statements on a business’ approach to human rights in its supply chain should be mandatory as part of the Annual Report. The Financial Reporting Council’s (FRC) Corporate Governance Code and UK Stewardship Code, and the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) listing rules should likewise be amended to require modern slavery disclosures on a comply or explain basis by 2022. If this is not possible then a Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law, as in France, should be considered.
  • – that the Government strengthen the Modern Slavery Act to require large companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains to ensure their materials and products are being produced without forced or child labour. We also recommend that Government procurement should be covered by the Modern Slavery Act.
  • – that the Government works with industry to trace the source of raw material in garments to tackle social and environmental abuses in their supply chains.
  • – the Government should facilitate collaboration between fashion retailers, water companies and washing machine manufacturers and take a lead on solving the problem of microfibre pollution.
  • – the Government should ask the Health and Safety Executive to review the evidence and take action accordingly.
  • – manufacturers must be mindful of potential risks now and should seek to reduce the exposure of garment workers to airborne synthetic fibres.
  • post 2020 SCAP should include new targets following the Ecodesign Directive, including reducing microplastic shedding.
  • – that the Government reforms taxation to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not.
  • – the Government should investigate whether its proposed tax on virgin plastics, which comes into force in 2022, should be applied to textile products that contain less than 50% recycled PET to stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK.
  • – as part of the new EPR scheme, Government and industry should accelerate research into the relative environmental performance of different materials, particularly with respect to measures to reduce microfibre pollution.
  • – the Government should ban incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled.
  • – that lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes be included in schools at Key stage 2 and 3.
  • – the Government must end the era of throwaway fashion. It should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create by introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste.
  • – the Resources and Waste strategy should incorporate eco-design principles and offer incentives for design for recycling, design for disassembly and design for durability. It should also set up a new investment fund to stimulate markets for recycled fibres.
  • – that the Chancellor should use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies. The Government should follow Sweden’s lead and reduce VAT on repair services.

Download the full report here.