With the rising levels of clothing consumption, the current linear business model of the fashion industry is unsustainable. Since mid-2018 the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has been looking into the sustainability of the fashion industry from an environmental and social perspective.
The goal of the inquiry was to investigate how the industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable. The EAC have now published their final report on ‘fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability’.
We all want to see a thriving, positive fashion industry that provides decent work, inspires creativity and contributes to the economic success of the UK. Anthesis Technical Director Susan Harris summarises the key recommendations for the industry to take on board.
1. Labour Standards and Modern Slavery
The report raises serious issues around fair treatment of garment workers and modern slavery in the UK and abroad.
- There should be a publicly accessible list of the retailers required to release a modern slavery statement, supported by penalties for companies who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act.
- Supply chain due diligence checks should be mandated to ensure materials and products are being produced under the right conditions.
- Statements on a business’ approach to human rights should be mandatory as part Annual Reporting.
- The Companies Act 2006 and related disclosure rules should be updated to include explicit reference to ‘modern slavery’ and ‘supply chain’.
2. Sustainable sourcing
The EAC pushes for supply chain transparency, and for government and industry to work together to achieve it.
- Government should work with industry to better trace raw materials and tackle social and environmental abuses in the supply chain.
- Government and industry should accelerate research into the relative environmental performance of different materials, particularly with respect to measures to reduce microfibre pollution.
There is a strong focus on microfibres, recycled polyester and sustainable cotton.
- Government should facilitate collaboration between fashion retailers, water companies and washing machine manufacturers to tackle microfibre pollution.
- Government should investigate whether its proposed tax on virgin plastics (due in 2022) should be applied to textile products that contain less than 50% recycled PET to stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK.
- Any new sector commitment (post-SCAP2020) should include new targets aligned with the EU Ecodesign Directive, including reducing microplastic shedding.
4. Health and safety
Shockingly, the report points to serious breaches of health and safety in the UK as well as abroad. The EAC requests the HSE (the UK government agency responsible for workplace health and safety) investigate.
- The Health and Safety Executive should review the Enquiry’s evidence and take action accordingly, as serious breaches of Health and Safety standards are occurring in the UK and abroad.
- Manufacturers must be mindful of potential risks and reduce the exposure of garment workers to airborne synthetic fibres.
We all know good design is vital for sustainability, but the EAC take this one step further, suggesting tax reform to incentivise sustainable design.
- Taxation should be reformed to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not.
6. Re-use and repair
Likewise the report suggests tax incentives for reuse and repair, along with VAT reductions for repair services.
- The tax system should change to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies. The Government should reduce VAT on repair services.
7. Waste & resources
The big news on waste is the EAC’s recommendation that Extended Producer Responsibility should be introduced for clothing, and that it should happen soon – before 2025.
- Government should ban incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled.
- Government should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create by introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste.
- The Resources and Waste Strategy should incorporate eco-design principles and offer incentives for design for recycling, design for disassembly and design for durability. It should also set up a new investment fund to stimulate markets for recycled fibres.
We know educating the next generation about how clothes are made, and how to repair and care for them is important. The EAC makes specific recommendations for incorporating this into the school curriculum.
- Designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes be included in schools at Key stage 2 and 3.
The report calls for action “before the end of this parliament” – an uncertain timeframe in this current political climate! However, the level of scrutiny CEOs and business leaders within retailers and brands have faced during the Commission’s inquiry will, in itself, create an understanding of the need for rapid action, even in the tough current High Street trading environment.
About the author
Susan Harris is a Technical Director at Anthesis, specialising in resource efficiency in the clothing sector, sustainable supply chains, and industry engagement. She was strongly involved in the development of the SCAP2020 and has worked with numerous high-street and high-end clothing brands to help them develop and embed a business-focused approach to sustainability.