UK Fashion Retailers Failing to Commit to Reduce Environmental and Social Impact

After consultations with brands, retailers and organisations in the past few months, The Environmental Audit Committee today released its Interim Report from the sustainability of the fashion industry inquiry, concluding that the current business model for the UK fashion industry is unsustainable and that retailers must lead change through labour market and environmental sustainability practices.  Livia Firth discussed the report findings with Justin Webb live on the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning. Here are her takeaways from the inquiry so far:

The work of Mary Creagh MP and the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has been a welcome breath of fresh air, making the UK the first government ever to establish a committee to listen to brands and retailers and to question their practices, both on environmental and social impact levels.  It has been wonderful to see MPs galvanised around the subject of sustainability in the fashion industry and we are grateful for all of the energy put behind it.  While the findings of the report are not shocking for us, hopefully this is the first step towards stricter UK legislation on corporate governance for producing abroad.

We submitted written evidence to the inquiry at the end of last year, identifying over production and consumption, unrealistic pricing throughout the supply chain, outsourcing, traceability and the living wage as the most pressing issues the fashion industry faces.  We also introduced a range of potential solutions that could contribute to a more sustainable and equitable industry, relating to living wage, education, government regulation, brand engagement and consumer engagement.

(Read the full submission from Eco-Age: ECO AGE LTD – written evidence | PDF version (171 KB))

Globalisation has enabled brands and companies to outsource production to factories in developing countries, leading to major issues resulting in a lack of environmental and social regulation and increased difficulty for brands to properly manage their supply chains. Currently this system means that it is not just the physical apparel that’s outsourced, but all responsibility too. In fact, the readymade garment (RMG) industry stands as the poster child for exploitation. In an increasingly globalised world, companies source goods from factories where people work in conditions and for wages that would be illegal, and likely criminal, in the main market places for those goods. As we stand, the system does not police, protect or penalize.  

The Living Wage report and the work of the Lawyer’s Circle is a starting point for looking at the issue of the living wage under a legal lens  – something that has not been done before – to address what we see as the root of the problem of fast fashion. Increasing consumption rates enabled by cheap product prices and constant ‘mini collections’, and the subsequent environmental and social impacts of this over-consumption, are down to the fast fashion business model.  This business model is only possible because of inadequate protection of human rights, and the pervasive engagement of forced and underpaid labour, both abroad and in the UK. Without this exploitative use of cheap labour, there could not be this mass production level that fast fashion retailers rely on, with consequences including the degradation of our natural environments and communities. 

Therefore it was not surprising to see the results of the Committee and the singling out of brands such as Amazon and Boohoo as being bad and disengaged.  The report comes after the EAC wrote to sixteen UK fashion retailers at the end of last year, asking what they are doing to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes and shoes they sell.

Today, the Committee published the retailers’ answers, finding that many retailers have not 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.

Although Primark was listed as one of the “most engaged” because of its use of organic cotton, this doesn’t mean that they can get away with producing garments at such low prices.  We are churning out clothes at a rate that we have never done before and this is not only heavy on the environment and on the social justice, but also on the wallet – in the end we may find out that we spent far too much money on clothes that we throw away too quickly.

“It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers,” said Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP. “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.”

While we are so excited for this report and the beginning of a new era in which brands are going to be more and more scrutinised for their behaviour, we keep our alert high and vigilant. This week H&M have announced they have hired Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie to help with data analytics in an effort to drive more sales – the selling of the myth of democracy of the fast fashion system has never been so sophisticated and scary. But there is an alternative –  Adopt the #30wears mantra and join the Eco-Age world to explore all the wonderful opportunities for fashion with beautiful stories.

Listen again to Livia Firth speaking to Justin Webb about the report findings on the BBC Radio 4 Today show this morning – fast forward to 1 hour 18 minutes.

Read more about Sustainability of the Fashion Industry UK Government Inquiry