Sustainability of the Fashion Industry UK Government Inquiry

Here’s everything you need to know about the Environmental Audit Committee’s ongoing Sustainability of the Fashion Industry inquiry.

UPDATE: Government Rejects Recommendations of Fixing Fashion Report

The pressure keeps building as on 27th November 2018, the third public hearing for the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry was held at the House of Commons.

This time we were happy to see brands and retailers in the witness seats, answering questions relating to social and environmental governance, with a focus on supply chain traceability and the management of human rights in supply chains, as well as the over production and mismanagement of waste. Representatives from brick and mortar retailers Marks and Spencer, Primark, Arcadia Group and Burberry were present together with, ASOS, and Missguided.

We were grateful to the EAC as they expressed deep concern for workers across the fashion supply chain as brands ‘chase the fashion needle around the world’. Whilst a range of initiatives and policies were referenced by some of the brands, there was an overall feeling that all too much the fashion industry is in fact ‘marking its own homework’. As explored in previous hearings, possible solutions consisted of additional legislation and Extended Producer Responsibility, as well as extra investment to stimulate growth and innovation in the textiles and recycling industries. Along with working conditions in the supply chain, waste was found to be a serious problem, for which solutions are needed throughout the supply chain, at the responsibility of brands and manufacturers alike.

It seems like finally the time for excuses is coming to an end and, whilst there are real efforts being made by some brands, for many there is still a distinct lack of understanding of (or willingness to understand) the disastrous environmental and social effects of their fast-moving and low-cost business models, and the impact of the see-now-buy-now culture they have played a part in creating.

The Sustainability of the Fashion Industry Inquiry – Experts & Campaigners Session (13th November) 

On an historic day for the fight against fast fashion, Livia Firth gave evidence on the disastrous repercussions of the fast fashion industry at the largest ever public hearing for a parliamentary select committee in UK history.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s Sustainability of the Fashion Industry inquiry – an official parliamentary hearing into the social and environmental impact of disposable fast fashion – took place today at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Eco-Age submitted evidence on a range of social and environmental issues within the fashion industry such as overproduction and consumption, traceability, outsourcing and the lack of a universal living wage.

The evidence gathered during the inquiry will help inform recommendations that the EAC will be making to Government in a major report on sustainable fashion to be released next year.

Other witnesses included Eco-Age Contributing Editor Lucy Siegle;  Clare Bergkamp – Sustainability & Innovation Director of Stella McCartney; Professor Dilys Williams – Director and Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability, London College of Fashion; Designer Phoebe English and Andrea Speranza – Head of Campaigns at TRAID.

If you missed our live coverage, here are our top 10 takeaways from the hearing or watch the session in full here.

1. We’ve forgotten The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Each year across the world, 1.5 billion garments are sewn by an estimated 40 million people, working in 250,000 factories. However, this huge fast fashion industry doesn’t always accommodate the values that were established 70 years ago in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically, Article 23 declares that everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, and to form and join trade unions for the protection of their interests. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work and to ensure for himself (and importantly in this industry, herself) – and their families – an existence worthy of human dignity.

2. A Living Wage is a fundamental human right
“Fashion is one of the biggest polluters of the world, but also one of the biggest employers of modern day slavery”, said Livia. Walk Free, the slavery NGO, estimates through their Global Slavery Index that there are 35.8 million people trapped in modern slavery today. 
As next year marks the 100 year anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, which states the right to“the payment to the employed of a wage adequate to maintain reasonable standard of life as this is understood in their time and country”, it is concerning to see that companies still source goods from factories where people work in conditions and for wages that would be illegal, and likely criminal, in the main market place.  A failure to implement living wage condemns a workforce of millions to live a life that cannot be deemed decent. 

The law is a strong tool to fight issues of exploitation, which is why The Lawyer’s Circle has spearheaded a substantive research project to join the dots between international law, the fashion industry and human rights in The Living Wage Report.
While the Modern Slavery Act was a good piece of legislation, “without legal repercussions, it is voluntary,” said Livia. This means that currently brands are technically able to make an ubstantiated statement, or to not make one at all.

3. Overproduction is possible because of exploitation
Lucy Siegle said that we now consume 60% more garments than we did in 2000. At this rate, by 2050 we would need three times the amount of resources we currently use if we plan to continue working with this fast fashion business model based on constant production and consumption.  

“Overproduction is a symptom of exploitation and is possible because we can exploit cheap labour,” added Livia. This is why looking at legislation and a legal living wage is crucial to mitigating the repercussions of the fast fashion industry.

4. Traceability should be the focus, then transparency
Traceability is an issue directly linked to outsourcing (meaning the manufacturing of products abroad, usually to achieve the lowest price possible), affecting both garment manufacture and textile procurement. “Traceability should be the focus rather than transparency,” said Lucy, who pointed out that we still don’t have full data sets available to analyse for orders, production and what factories are being paid.

Brands signing up to the Bangladesh Accord and then paying factories 2% less than order value is precisely why the voluntary system doesn’t work, and why there is the need for a legal mandate to help with traceability. From a consumer point of view, Lucy said, “we need to be more ambitious consumers, we need to demand more.”

5. Sustainability has to be designed in from the beginning
A focus on lower impact materials and responsible production is key for all companies. Claire Bergkamp said that Stella McCartney’s EP&L found that 60% of their environmental impacts are at the raw material stage, furthest away from the final product. Brands should therefore collaboratively work with supply chains to truly drive change and design sustainability into their products from the very first stages of development and production.

6. The Government should invest in material innovations to help companies move away from animal products
Moving away from animal-derived products adds a level of complexity to the business, both from a quality and sustainability perspective.  If using more ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’ animal-derived materials, such as wool (which does not require the animal to be killed), there is a need for supply chain traceability to ensure farms high standards of animal welfare throughout the supply chain. Luxury brand Stella McCartney has long been investing in innovative materials to be used as alternatives to leather or silk. Claire Bergkamp said that there is a real opportunity for the UK Government to invest in such innovations and make them commercially viable for brands.

7. Sharing economy and resale could be solutions to fast fashion 
The witnesses were asked if they could design a £5 shirt sustainably and the unanimous answer was that this would be impossible. According to Professor Dilys Williams, “if a business is set up with fair wages and within ecological boundaries, then no, we can’t continue to design and sell cheaply”.  
Fast fashion businesses know that their model is broken and that people won’t be able to buy in the same way forever, but they need government support and legislation to make real, lasting change. Another possible solution presented by Phoebe English was to strengthen the sharing economy and post-ownership economy. Clothing hire companies have grown in the last few years as people feel a sense of excitement in wearing a special item once or twice only before returning it guilt-free. Phoebe suggested this would be an exciting business model to be replicated on the high street.

8. Legislation and guidance is needed for waste reduction
Minimising waste in a company is time consuming and can require a lot of space and resources, argued Phoebe. There is not yet a satisfying solution for dealing with fabric offcuts, with legislation needed to persuade bigger companies to stop producing waste and sending it to landfill.

9. Repair should be facilitated by the Government in order to minimise waste
Clothes need to be cared for properly to give them the longest possible lifespan, which is one of the best ways we can reduce the impact of clothing.  Unfortunately, it is currently cheaper to buy new clothes than get them repaired, so Dilys Williams suggested to “take VAT off all repair services” in order to make it economically viable for both customers and companies.

10.Education is needed across the board
Andrea Speranza said that people need to be educated about the environmental impact of clothing, as 47% of Londoners in a recent TRAID survey said that they didn’t know enough about the issues within the fashion industry.
Lucy also argued the next generation will need a good mix of practical skills and dexterity, an interest in innovation and a willingness to work across disciplines. “Education in school is fundamental,” Livia said, recalling how she learned her sewing skills in school and has kept repairing clothes throughout her life (including here in the Eco-Age office).


Read more about the Living Wage Report and the damaging impact of fast fashion industry.

See our guide for where to start when it comes to dressing ethically and ethically-minded recommended brands.

Read the full submission from Eco-Age: ECO AGE LTD – written evidence.