Sustainability In The Fashion Industry

Sustainability In The Fashion Industry - Interim Report Analysis & Recommendations from the Environment Audit Committee

Last Autumn Fashion Roundtable submitted evidence to the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) on what we felt were the key issues surrounding fast fashion, workers’ rights, pollution and the environment, as well as unsustainable business practices. We attended evidence sessions at The V&A and Houses of Parliament listening to reports from brands: both luxury and fast fashion, as well as from Ministers including Kelly Tolhurst MP Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) and Victoria Atkins MP as well as Secretary of State for DEFRA The Right Hon Michael Gove MP.  

What felt concerning about these evidence sessions, was the lack of transparency between brand owners and factory workers: stories of over £29m of Burberry product being burnt on one hand, while on the other we heard instances of factory workers in Leicester who were being paid well under the minimum wage and working in unsafe conditions being flagged to the EAC committee members. Meanwhile in the convoluted outsourced international supply chains of many companies, buying from numerous brands within very quick turnarounds from order to delivery, meant that listening to evidence it was clear that even the most environmentally aware business are unable to fully audit where all of the components of all of the brands within all of their online or retail sales sites.  

By outsourcing production too many fashion companies have outsourced responsibility, leaving workers in insecure and unsafe working conditions, let alone contending with the needs of recycling, or a circular economy business model in the long-term. 

The Committee’s interim report publishes the retailers’ answers, and analyses companies according to their commitment to environmental sustainability and labour market initiatives. A group of retailers including JD Sports, Sports Direct, Amazon UK and Boohoo were found to be lagging behind the rest of the industry. None of these have signed up to SCAP (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan) to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint or the ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) labour rights and living-wage agreement. 

 The Interim Report is published in the sustainability of the fashion industry inquiry which is considering the ‘fast fashion’ business model amid concerns that it encourages over consumption and generates excessive waste. 

Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Chair Mary Creagh MP said: 

“We want to see a thriving fashion industry that employs people fairly, inspires creativity and contributes to the economic success of the UK. 

“It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers. It’s disappointing that only a third of the retailers we wrote to are signed up to ACT, an important global initiative working towards getting a living wage for all garment workers. 

“By publishing this information, customers can choose whether they want to spend money with a company that is doing little to protect the environment or promote proper wages for garment workers. We hope this motivates underperforming retailers to start taking responsibility for their workers and their environmental impact.” 

Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) For Textiles and Fashion Dr Lisa Cameron MP said:  

“The work of the EAC, has highlighted the need for fuller transparency in the supply chains of the fashion industry, both within the UK and our international trading partners. The APPG for Textiles and Fashion, (which includes as Vice Chair John McNally MP who sits on the EAC) support the findings of the committee and will do all we can to ensure our work within Parliament and with our fashion industry associates, highlights the recommendations and findings of this interim report.  

Our Sustainable Fashion APPG meeting in December brought numerous leaders from sustainable, designer and fast-fashion components of the sector into Parliament to outline, share and discuss their concerns as well as offering key solutions. By bringing the fashion industry into Parliament, along with the work of the EAC, I hope that awareness amongst politicians, will lead to policy amendments and implementations which support long-term sustainable business practices.” 

Katharine Hamnett CBE said:  

At Katharine Hamnett London, we welcome the findings of the Environmental Audit Committee interim report into the sustainability of the fashion industry. Katharine has been a designer in the UK for 50 years and for 30 of those years, she has been campaigning to reform the clothing industry, socially and environmentally.  

“The conclusion I have come to, having tried to change the industry from within, is that fair pay, decent work, proper health and safety, human rights, and higher environmental standards impact bottom line profits and therefore brands are mostly unwilling to change, as the report findings show. Our only option is legislation, forcing the industry to change in line with consumer expectations and environmental necessity.  

For the clothing industry to survive in the UK and EU, we need new legislation that only allows goods into our Economic Blocs that are made to the same Labour, Human Rights, Health and Safety and Environmental standards, outside as inside. This would raise the cost of outsourced goods and make domestic manufacturing (i.e. manufactured within our Economic Blocs) more competitive and viable.  

We have lost our clothing industries which were historically big employers. This legislation will level the playing field between outsourced and domestically produced goods, as it costs more if you actually have to pay and treat the people who make your clothes properly and respect the environment.  

We are proposing this idea as a basis for new EU legislation and in the event of Brexit, British legislation as well.” 

Report Findings 

Each retailer was asked about a range of actions and initiatives, including the use of organic or sustainable cotton, limiting the discharge of hazardous chemicals, and the re-use or recycling of unsold stock. Retailers were then grouped into three categories that reflect their commitment to sustainable fashion and labour market initiatives. These are: less engaged, moderately engaged and engaged retailers. 

The Committee noted that retailer Kurt Geiger did not respond to requests for written evidence. 

Least Engaged: JD Sports; Sports Direct; TK Maxx; Amazon; Boohoo; and Missguided. 

Sustainability action: none of the ‘least engaged’ retailers have signed up to SCAP targets to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint and none of them use organic or sustainable cotton in their garments. Of the six only Boohoo and Sports Direct use recycled material in their products. Only TK Maxx offers an in store take back scheme. 

Labour market initiatives: none of the six retailers are signed up to the ACT living wage initiative and only one, Missguided, is a member of ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative), which aims to improve working conditions for workers globally. The Committee acknowledges efforts Missguided has made to improve working practices in Leicester. 

Amazon UK, a patron of the British Fashion Council, is singled out for its ‘notable’ lack of engagement with questions put by the Committee. Though Amazon and TK Maxx are subsidiaries of international corporations that manage their initiatives, the Committee believes this does not absolve them of responsibilities. MPs were concerned about Boohoo’s approach to trade union representation. 

Moderately engaged: Next; Debenhams; Arcadia Group; and Asda Stores. 

Sustainability action: each ‘moderately engaged’ retailer in this group has taken some steps to address environmental sustainability issues. Arcadia Group and Next are signed up to SCAP targets, whilst Asda Group and Debenhams are not. It is noted that Next does not run a ‘take-back’ schemes for discarded clothes, citing cost as a barrier, whilst all other retailers in this group do. All retailers excluding Asda Group make use of organic cotton. 

Labour market initiatives: all retailers excluding Asda are members of ACT. All except for Arcadia Group, are members of ETI. 

The Committee noted that Debenhams deserves credit for the range of programmes it is involved with. 

Most engaged: ASOS; Marks and Spencer; Tesco; Primark; and Burberry. 

Sustainability action: all ‘most engaged’ retailers use organic or sustainable cotton and recycled material in their products as well as having in store take back schemes. Except for Burberry, all other retailers are signed up to the SCAP targets. 

The Committee welcome Burberry’s commitment to end the incineration of unsold stock and acknowledge that the company is engaged with a range of other sustainability initiatives to reduce environmental impact. 

Labour market initiatives: all five retailers are members of the ETI and ASOS, Tesco and Primark are members of ACT whilst Burberry and Marks and Spencer are not. 

The Committee welcome ASOS becoming the first online retailer to sign a Global Framework Agreement with IndustriALL, committing to the highest possible standards on trade union rights, health and safety, and labour relations. 

The report concludes: 

Current business model for UK fashion industry is unsustainable 

Exploitative practices must end 

Retailers must lead change through labour market and environmental sustainability practices 

Retailers should show leadership through engagement with industry initiatives 

To read the full report, please click here.

Published: Fashion Roundtable