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Fixing fashion: a sustainability issue

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Environmental Select Committee, fashion, report, Fixing fashion: a sustainability issue, modern slavery, Leicester, waste, Extended Producer Responsibility, A voluntary approach to improving the sustainability of the fashion industry is failing.

The Environmental Audit Committee has called on the government to make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create.

A one penny ‘producer responsibility charge’ on each item of clothing, they said, could pay for better clothing collection and recycling.

Taxation should also be reformed to reward companies that offer clothing repairs and reduce the environmental footprint of their products.

Their report, Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability, warns that although some parts of the fashion industry are making progress in reducing their carbon and water consumption, these improvements have been outweighed by the increased volumes of clothing being sold.

And it concludes that a voluntary approach to improving the sustainability of the fashion industry is failing; just 10 fashion retailers have signed up to reduce their water, waste and carbon footprints.

It recommends that compliance with the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s Sustainability Clothing Action Plan targets should be made mandatory for all retailers with a turnover of more than £36 million as a ‘licence to practice’.

It also recommended that the government work with retailers to increase the use of digital supply chain technology for better traceability.

We need, the MPs said, new economic models for fashion which are based on reducing the material consumption associated with growth.

And to drive improvements, the government should reform taxation to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts.

This could include extending the proposed tax on virgin plastics to synthetic textile products to stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK.

The Committee also wants the new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme to accelerate research by government and industry into the environmental performance of different materials and measures to reduce microfibre pollution.

Their report also calls on Ministers to explore how they can support a new ’sharing economy’ – with hiring, swapping or subscription clothes services.

Increasing a garment’s lifetime is one of the most effective means of reducing its environmental footprint.

Around 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in household bins every year with around 80 per cent of this incinerated and 20 per cent sent to landfill.

A charge of one penny per garment paid by producers as part of a new EPR scheme could raise £35 million for investment in better clothing collection and recycling in the UK.

The government should also offer incentives for design for recycling, design for disassembly and design for durability.

And following Burberry’s incinerating of unsold stock worth millions last year, the Committee is calling on the government to ban incineration or landfilling of unsold stock that could be reused or recycled.

Most clothes sold in the UK are produced in Asian countries with low labour costs and weak environmental governance, but recently there has been a growth in garment manufacturing in the UK as brands and retailers seek to respond faster to consumer demand.

And the Committee heard evidence that payment of less than the minimum wage was widespread in Leicester’s garment factories and that manufacturers are under pressure from retailers to produce garments at unrealistically low prices.

The report calls for changes to the Modern Slavery Act and Companies Act to increase transparency and require large fashion brands and retailers to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains to ensure their products are produced without forced or child labour.

The Committee’s key recommendations are:

Mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover above £36 million;

A new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme to reduce textile waste with a one penny charge per garment on producers;

The scheme should reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not;

The report calls on the government to use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible fashion companies;

The government should follow Sweden’s lead and reduce VAT on repair services;

Lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes should be in the school curriculum;

The government should publish a publicly accessible list of retailers required to release a modern slavery statement. This should be supported by an appropriate penalty for those companies who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act; and

The fashion industry must come together to set out their blueprint for a net zero emissions world, reducing their carbon consumption back to 1990 levels.

Remarking on the report, the Environmental Audit Committee’s Chair, Mary Creagh MP, said: “Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth.

“Our insatiable appetite for clothes comes with a huge social and environmental price tag: carbon emissions, water use, chemical and plastic pollution are all destroying our environment.

“In the UK we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. ‘Fast fashion’ means we overconsume and under use clothes. As a result, we get rid of over a million tonnes of clothes, with £140m worth going to landfill, every year.

“Fashion retailers must take responsibility for the clothes they produce.

“That means asking producers to consider and pay for the end of life process for their products through a new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme.

“The government must act to end the era of throwaway fashion by incentivising companies that offer sustainable designs and repair services.

“Children should be taught the joy of making and mending clothes in school as an antidote to anxiety and the mental health crisis in teenagers.

“Consumers must play their part by buying less, mending, renting and sharing more.”

On workers’ rights Creagh said: “Fashion retailers have ‘chased the cheap needle around the planet’, commissioning production in countries with low pay and little trade union representation.

“Behind the perfect Instagram profiles and the pristine shop fronts of our fashion retailers the reality is shocking.

“Illegally low pay, and the use of child labour, prison labour, forced labour and bonded labour in the global garment supply chain.

“We recommend that the government strengthen the Modern Slavery Act to require large companies to ensure forced labour is not in their supply chains.

“Retailers including Foot Locker and Versace are failing to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

“Company law must be updated to require modern slavery disclosures by 2022. Companies must report, or face a fine.”

To read the full report, click here.

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