Sustainability of the UK fashion industry — 3 takeaways from parliament

On Tuesday 27th November, senior business leaders from the UK’s leading fashion retailers, including M&S, Primark, Arcadia, Burberry, Missguided, Boohoo and ASOS, were called into parliament to give evidence of the steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of their businesses. This session was part of an inquiry being conducted by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which is assessing the sustainability of the fashion industry in light of the growing awareness and concern of its social and environmental impact.

I went along to watch events unfold and here are 3 of my key takeaways:

Slave labour is widespread in fashion — and it’s happening in the UK

The exploitation of workers in the fashion industry has been well documented since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2014 (in which a number of UK retailers were implicated), receiving widespread media coverage through documentaries and campaigns — coverage that makes this evidence far more disconcerting.

Boohoo and Missguided, both fast fashion online retailers, have been exposed and implicated in the use of slave labour in their manufacturing facilities in Leicester. In fact, a recent piece of research by the Financial Times found that 75–90% of garment workers in Leicester are paid below the National Minimum Wage, with £5 considered the top wage for workers in a city in which both these brands have a total of 174 manufacturing sites combined. During the inquiry, neither brand was able to oppose these findings, with both making the assertion that they “need to do more to understand the costs in their supply chain.”

Not wrong there, I suppose.

75–90% of garment workers in Leicester are paid below the National Minimum Wage

While this is clearly unacceptable, and the brands implicated should receive suitable punishment, it reflects the challenges that the wider industry is facing in understanding where and under what conditions our clothes are made. There are examples of good practice — ASOS, for example, adopted the Fast Forward auditing programme to ensure factory compliance in the UK; M&S openly publish their Tier 1 suppliers for customers to view online — however the industry still has a long way to go and lacks the basic infrastructure needed to support transparency and eradicate slave labour.

Building on the value of the Modern Slavery Act, further legislation to demand disclosure on material sourcing and workers’ rights, alongside punitive measures for companies that are not compliant (in a similar approach to the response of the Financial Conduct Authority after the 2008 financial crash), would help to drive radical change and would be a valuable outcome of this inquiry.

Millennials may not be the sustainable consumers we’re told they are

One of the big challenges facing brands is understanding the millennial consumer and identifying how they can best serve their demands in a digital and service led world. When it comes to sustainability, the message is clear; the millennial consumer wants to make a positive difference, they want to buy from brands that have an authentic position on the environment, they will not buy from brands they don’t trust and price, although important, is secondary to function.

The statistics support these claims; 66% of millennials will spend more on brands that are sustainable, 9 in 10 would switch brands to one associated with a cause. The millennial consumer is the driving force for corporate responsibility.

Our sustainable future is assured, right?

Well, despite this overwhelming evidence, actual buying behaviour of millennials in the fashion industry paints a very different picture. Boohoo and Missguided, brands that explicitly target a millennial consumers, have both seen rapid growth in recent years, with Boohoo doubling its value to £2.3bn since public listing in 2014. How are these brands, both known to have unethical and unsustainable business models, able to grow so rapidly when targeting the very consumer segment that data tells us would not be interested? For me, there are two key challenges.

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There is a lack of data on actual purchasing behaviour of millennials when it comes to sustainability

First, there is an issue with the quality of the data. Data on this topic is based on theoretical surveys of how consumers would choose to purchase given a certain situation and is not based on actual purchasing data. As a result, this data is subject to bias and driven by a participant’s desire of how they want to appear, not how they actually behave. A greater focus on obtaining actual purchasing data from sustainable products, in comparison to unsustainable or unethical alternatives, would be hugely beneficial in providing more accurate data.

Secondly, if these data points are to be taken with any level of accuracy, it appears that there must be a lack of awareness and knowledge among millennial consumers of how certain brands operate. As a result, further efforts to educate millennial consumers about the issues of the fashion industry, and to expose those brands that are most negligent when it comes to environmental and social issues in engaging ways, would be valuable in driving the sustainable fashion agenda.

We need investment in clothing take back and recycling, but let’s be careful

The fashion industry has a huge waste problem — in the past 15 years, global clothing production has doubled while on average consumers are keeping clothes half as long before throwing them away as they did at the turn of the millennium. Here in the UK, we are some of the worst contributors — on average we consume 26.7kg of clothing per capita, more than any other European country.

Where does all the waste go?

A study by Friends of the Earth found that 75% of waste textiles go to landfill or are incinerated, costing the UK government £82m each year, while just 1% of waste is recycled back into new clothing. This is an issue the government is taking very seriously, and brands are working towards a target of reducing waste by 7.5% by 2020. Progress so far? The current figure is a reduction of just 0.8%, largely driven by brands adopting take back schemes that allow customers back clothes to the store. Of all the brands part of this inquiry, M&S and Primark have adopted in store collection, while 3rd party take back schemes such as ReGAIN and Thrift are helping to get more garments back from consumers.

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Fashion waste costs the UK government £82m each year; just 1% of waste is recycled back into new clothing

Getting the clothing back is one problem, what happens to them next is another.

The challenge here is that clothing recycling infrastructure does not exist at a scale that is sufficient to help effectively mitigate against waste, with barriers existing around cost, quality and the availability of technology to recycle blended material garments. This will change, and innovators like Worn Again and Evrnu are at the frontier of clothing recycling with new chemical processes, however, given both the volume of waste produced and the lack of recycling infrastructure in place, it did strike me as rather disconcerting that most of the major brands identified take back and clothing recycling as key aspects of their waste strategy.

The reality is that the model of the fashion industry is designed to create excessive waste through driving a high volume of garments and, until this model changes, any small efficiency gains in waste reduction will be outweighed by the growing volume of clothing that is produced on an annual basis, resulting in a continual rise in net clothing waste produced. If fashion brands are serious about reducing waste, they need to reconsider their fundamental business model in terms of how they sell and make clothes, exploring new business models such as renting, sharing and subscription.

In not recognising this reality, this inquiry may be missing an opportunity to engage brands on the real problem that is the linear and wasteful model of the fashion industry as a whole, and the disruptive changes needed to solve it.

What next? The UK can become a sustainable fashion hub, but legislation must be bold

This inquiry into the fashion industry is timely in bringing this important topic to the table given the urgency of our environmental crisis and the impact the fashion industry is having on a global scale.

It also presents an opportunity — by taking leadership in driving real policy changes, and in working and engaging with the leading fashion brands as part of the process, the UK has the opportunity to lead the way in creating a more sustainable fashion industry, while at the same time driving growth and innovation in the UK economy. To make this happen, however, this inquiry must propose transformative legislation that moves the industry forward and enables a fundamental change in the business model on which the fashion industry is based, coupled with punitive measures for companies that do not meet existing standards.

The timing for this change could not be better — the huge public attention on the issue of plastic waste has been enabled by its universal nature, and there is no reason why fashion, pervasive and visible to us all, should not be the next issue to move into the spotlight.

Full minutes of the EAC Evidence Inquiry can be found here. The EAC inquiry is ongoing following the evidence hearing

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