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We want to ‘fix’ fashion but the Government is not listening

4 min read

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh MP writes on the need to reform the fashion industry. 

The UK’s thriving fashion industry pumps billions into our economy, showcases our creativity, and puts the capital on the map with London Fashion Week. But the business model behind it is broken. Online retailers sell dresses for a fiver, less than the hourly minimum wage. In the UK we buy more clothes per person than anywhere else in Europe. Our appetite for fast fashion comes with a huge social and environmental price tag.

Globally, fashion produces more carbon than international flights. Dyes and bleaches cause chemical pollution, and the cotton in one pair of jeans uses more water than a person drinks in 2 years. Cheap prices and celebrity influencers have driven a “pick, click, wear and bin” mentality. The result? The overconsumption and under use of clothes, which means we send a million tonnes of clothes to landfill, incineration or abroad as waste every year.

We kickstarted a huge debate around fashion when we decided to look at the true cost of clothes. With a climate emergency upon us, people want to know how to shop responsibly and which brands to trust. We discovered Marks and Spencer, Burberry, ASOS and Primark were leading the industry. Amazon, TK Maxx, Boohoo and Missguided, were laggards, with Next, Debenhams and Arcadia somewhere in the middle.

Attitudes in the fashion industry are also shifting. Drapers, the fashion industry’s bible, published a survey showing that 85% felt the government wasn’t doing enough to help the industry become more sustainable.

We were overwhelmed by the response to the Government’s rejection of all 18 recommendations in our report on how to fix fashion. One headline summed it up: ‘Fast fashion – slow Government’.

We’d called on the government to end the era of throwaway fashion by making fashion producers responsible for their waste through a one penny per garment charge that would have raised £35 million a year to invest in clothing recycling. Instead, we’ll have to wait up to five years while they consult on a new extended producer responsibility scheme for textiles.

By then, the mountain of unwanted clothing will be colossal. With fashion purchases doubling over the last 15 years, the increasing volume of clothes outweighs any efficiencies made by the industry. The voluntary approach has failed, yet the government has rejected our call for the largest retailers to be mandated to sign up to an action plan to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint. What a contrast to France, which introduced an extended producer responsibility scheme in 2007 which has created over 1400 new jobs. Their next move? A ban on the destruction of unsold goods, including clothing, from 2021. Yet the UK government has dismissed my committee’s call to ban the burning or landfill of unwanted stock.

The Government isn’t listening and appears increasingly out of step with the public mood. Even retailers can see the way the tide is turning as more companies seek the green pound with newly launched ranges under ‘sustainable’ and ‘recycled’ banners.  

The UK has an exciting ecosystem of sustainable fashion businesses, researchers and designers who are forging a new vision for fashion. Designer Christopher Raeburn has pioneered eco-menswear for a decade, Stella McCartney has sent vegan leather down the catwalk at Paris, and young entrepreneurs like Phoebe English are rejecting the fast-fashion business model.

London’s vibrant start-up tech scene can also help fashion. Companies like Provenance and Segura have brought technology-enabled supply chain transparency to clothes, allowing retailers and shoppers to trace every piece of cotton, leather or wool to its source. These innovators are already leading the way, with consumers willing to follow. Why won’t the government help these sustainability innovators?

We must stop labour abuses in fashion’s supply chain. It’s an open secret that some garment factories in cities like Leicester don’t pay workers the national minimum wage. The average employer can expect a visit from the minimum wage inspection team once every 500 years. The government has told us that it has increased the number of inspectors and is considering calls for a new labour market enforcement body.

Beefing up the Modern Slavery Act would increase transparency and end labour abuses. But our call to require companies to ensure that materials and products are produced without forced, prison or child labour, and to penalise companies who fail to comply, has fallen on deaf ears.

We know how to fix our broken fashion system. The government says it wants to get to net zero carbon by 2050 but carries on with business as usual.

That cheap T-shirt you spotted online? It’ll cost your children the earth.

Mary Creagh is Labour MP for Wakefield and Chair of the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee.

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