Credit: Ricky Romero

From catwalk to doghouse: fashion brands criticised

Fashion retailers should be legally responsible for the huge environmental and social impacts along their supply chains. That’s the view of a landmark UK Parliament report into the sustainability of the fashion industry.

The report comes amid growing concerns about the impact of so-called ‘fast fashion’. Over 100 climate change activists protested at London Fashion Week last weekend, calling on the fashion industry to recognise the current climate and ecological emergency.

Over 150 billion garments are now produced annually and twice as much clothing is sold today compared to just a decade ago – a state of affairs that is “unsustainable on a planet with finite resources” according to the Extinction Rebellion campaigners.

This week’s parliamentary report was published by MPs on the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) who are wrapping up a special inquiry into fast fashion.

Mary Creagh MP, who headed up the inquiry, 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.”

1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 are emitted by the textile industry every year. Water sources are being depleted through intensive industrial cotton farming. Thousands of toxic chemicals used in production harm humans and the environment and huge amounts of plastic microfibres are released when synthetic clothes are washed.

And with 350,000 tonnes of textiles sent to landfill each year in the UK alone, Creagh said that fashion retailers “must take responsibility for the clothes they produce“. The inquiry recommends “asking producers to consider and pay for the end of life process for their products through a new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme.”

To pay for better clothing collection and recycling, the MPs suggest levying a producer responsibility charge of one pence (sterling) on each item of clothing. Similar EPR schemes for fashion already exist in France.

As part of the fast fashion inquiry, the MPs wrote to 16 leading UK fashion retailers to find out how engaged they were on taking responsibility for the environmental and social impact of their supply chains. They assessed whether the brands had signed up to voluntary environmental initiatives such as the ‘Sustainable Clothing Action Plan’ (SCAP) to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint.

The inquiry also assessed whether brands were members of ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation), a ground-breaking agreement brokered between global brands, retailers and trade unions to transform the garment, textile and footwear sector and achieve living wages for workers through collective bargaining at industry level. This April will mark six years since 1,134 people were killed in Bangladesh when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. The factory manufactured clothes for global brands.

But the MPs found that while some brands are engaged in sustainability initiatives, many “do not seem to consider social and environmental responsibility as a priority“. They concluded changes to the law were needed to move beyond failed voluntary approaches and that the fashion industry has “marked its own homework for too long“.

The inquiry recommends that the UK government set mandatory requirements on companies with turnovers greater than £36 million “to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains“.

At a special conference on responsible business conduct in the garment and footwear industry held last week at the OECD in Paris, Brune Poirson, Secretary of State to the French Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, said that “fashion businesses must reinvent themselves” and that:

Citizens around the world are just as shocked by how wasteful the fashion industry is as they are about single-use plastics,

A recent global survey carried out by Changing Markets Foundation revealed that the majority of people expect fashion brands to take responsibility for pollution and workers’ rights in their supply chains. The designer Phoebe English told the UK parliamentary inquiry that there is a “massive swing of ethical commercial consumer desire“.