UK Government Reopens Investigation Into The Fashion Industry

The UK Government’s inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry has been reopened, and Eco-Age has once again submitted evidence. Here our head of sustainable fashion and textiles Charlotte Turner discusses the inquiry progress so far.

In June 2018 the Environmental Audit Committee, led by Mary Creagh, launched what was at the time a ground-breaking inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, calling on government and industry to come together to transparently and responsibly address the key issues facing the fashion industry. The issues included: poverty wages and modern slavery, both in the UK and abroad; unrealistic pricing throughout the supply chain; over-consumption and production; the impacts of garments after they are discarded – and the question of whose responsibility is it all?

The inquiry saw evidence submitted and presented by a wide range of organisations, businesses and educational establishments, including written evidence from Eco-Age, and the largest public hearing of its kind, during which Eco-Age co-founder Livia Firth and many others presented evidence.

The key areas for engagement we saw as essential for transformation change related to introducing legislation for living wages, development of education from early age onwards, varied government regulation for business, increased brand engagement on social and environmental topics, and transparent and responsible consumer engagement to help citizens make informed and responsible choices.

The inquiry resulted in the report ‘Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability’, setting out 18 recommendations to government including:

  • A charge of one penny per garment on retailers and producers that could raise £35 million to pay for better clothing collection and recycling in the UK;
  • Reforms to taxation to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible fashion companies;
  • Mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover above £36 million;
  • A penalty for fashion firms who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act;

Disappointingly, the UK government failed to act on any of the recommendations put forward in the 2019 report, but we are pleased to say that the inquiry is now being revisited, and Eco-Age is committed to once again pushing for tangible change from government to business.

You can read our full 2020 evidence submission here.

Livia Firth presented evidence during the 2019 public hearing

It goes without saying that action is even more critical now, at a time when the global COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant social and economic impacts across the fashion supply chain, including a failure of brands to pay for orders, loss of livelihoods across the fashion supply chain, and in some cases neglect or abuse of human rights. In addition, we are increasingly experiencing environmental catastrophes such as prolonged forest fires, illustrating the need for us to work together as an industry to reduce our environmental impact and work to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

We do think there is hope this time round though. We are seeing these issues come to the attention of more people, from David Attenborough reaching new generations through social media and Netflix, to a growth in youth activism spanning the globe.

Since the release of the Fixing Fashion report, there has also been, in some areas, a more collaborative approach to try to address and raise visibility of some of the key social and environmental issues facing the fashion industry. This includes the launch of both the Fashion Pact and the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion in 2019, and grassroots organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, and youth activists such as Greta Thunberg have been able to galvanise a new generation to take action and demand greater responsibility and accountability from the business sector.

From academia, the Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan was launched as a “visionary and radical invitation to fashion researchers, practitioners, business leaders and decision makers to call out as fiction the idea that sustainability can be achieved within economic growth logic; and instead to ‘stay with the trouble’ of envisioning fashion connected with nature, people and long term healthy futures.” This Plan challenges the industry to completely rethink the way the whole economy of fashion functions – something that would require complete collaboration and systems change.

However, despite an increase in engagement around sustainability for fashion, it is estimated that following its current trajectory, “the fashion industry will miss the 1.5-degree pathway by 50%.” This is significantly linked to the fact that production and consumption continue to rise, whilst there are insufficient incentives and measures in place to ensure that social and environmental impacts are properly managed by brands and producers.

So what we desperately need is to reduce production and consumption. In order to achieve this, we need to strengthen regulation and incentivisation to encourage more responsible practices from brands, and to rethink the relationship between ‘consumers’ buying disposable ‘consumables’, instead returning to a value system of citizens who value the craft and resources that go into making the products they purchase and care for. 

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant social and economic impacts across global supply chains, notably affecting the most vulnerable people in the industry, particularly women in developing countries. Global garment workers and suppliers have been affected by brands and retailers pushing the risks and costs down the supply chain, with reduced or cancelling orders that were placed before the pandemic, and in some cases refusal of brands to pay for orders that had been shipped already, some citing force majeure as a justification for reneging on contracts, when in fact this was not necessarily legally allowable – but many producers do not have the resources to even challenge such happenings. One estimate suggests that global fashion brands refused to pay for more than $16 billion worth of products, resulting in thousands of workers losing wages or employment, and in some cases forcing manufacturing businesses to close.

Taking into consideration the changing landscape of the fashion market in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular the adapting priorities and demands of citizens, we have submitted that the government has a unique opportunity to formally support and advocate for a more socially and environmentally sustainable fashion industry, and to take tangible action that did not happen following the initial 2018 inquiry. This should happen through legislative measures, but also through looking at and collaborating with global partners so we may be able to ‘level the playing field’ and have a more tangible and long-lasting impact across global supply chains.

We have seen that now more than ever, community and empathy are essential, and mindless consumption is not the answer to fixing the challenging year that the globe has faced – despite the economic precipice we find ourselves on. We are truly hopeful that by coming together once again to transparently assess this globally significant industry, that we can once and for all step on to the path of transformational change.