The UK government is currently working on a new resources and waste strategy for the clothing sector

The UK government is currently working on a new resources and waste strategy for the clothing sector

Reducing waste, recycling and product disposal were among issues to come under the microscope in the latest parliamentary evidence session, where representatives from Marks & Spencer, Burberry and Primark were questioned by British lawmakers about efforts to deal with excess stock and unwanted garments.

Organised by the Environmental Audit Committee, the hearing on the 'Sustainability of the Fashion Industry' was the last in a series of sessions that have seen British MPs interview industry executives on the environmental impacts of the garment industry, as well as social issues such as workers' rights and fair pay.

An escalating issue

MP Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, pointed out that while clothing production has doubled over the last 15 years, across the whole industry only 13% of total material input is in some way recycled – suggesting the current systems brands have in place to tackle this are not effective enough.

"That 1.2m tonnes of fibre [the British industry uses collectively each year] that costs probably several billion pounds around the world to buy to be put into garments and sold to customers is not recovered as well as it could be," agreed Mike Barry, director of sustainable business for Marks & Spencer.

"We could have a really important industry in the UK that uses hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cotton, of wool, of leather, of any material we bring back. There is lots of potential there. M&S has made a good start and we could do so much more."

Brands have come under increasing pressure to deal with the waste in their systems, with H&M and Burberry criticised for destroying unused clothes rather than recycle them.

Addressing the Committee, Leanne Wood, chief people, strategy and corporate affairs officer for Burberry, said the company has committed to end the incineration of waste stock. "It's something we started in 2017, establishing some goals for ourselves around how we revalue waste. It is an industry practice. We're the only luxury business that has reported it in its accounts."

Take-back schemes are among initiatives trialled or implemented by a number of high street brands, including M&S and value fashion retailer Primark.

Next year Primark plans to put a take-back scheme in all of its stores, following a pilot carried out two years ago. "One thing we learnt was we need to put the boxes in front-of-store in a recognised place, as opposed to in a service area behind the cash tills," explained Paul Lister, head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability. And we're talking to a number of recyclers, and the money benefited from the take-back scheme will be donated to local charities depending on which country we operate. We have very little unused stock. It's about 0.25%. That is being donated to charity New Life."

M&S, meanwhile, gives back half a million garments a year to charity through its take-back scheme, Barry said, while the rest is sent for commercial repurposing, with nothing to landfill or incineration. The company also has a Shwopping initiative, which has taken back around 30m garments over ten years.

However, he said the great challenge in tackling waste is not about take-back, "it's what you do with 1.2m tons of fibre the British industry uses collectively each year – and we need to work harder, all of us, in terms of developing new industries that can use those fibres. It's possible to prevent anything going to landfill, to incineration. It's much harder at the moment to do something with the fibres you recover."

Barry dismissed the suggestion these initiatives are having very little impact overall, and there is no real commitment within companies or industry to make the changes for the right reasons.

"We take it very seriously and that's what we've been working on for ten years. We've done 30m garments. It could've been more, possibly. We've got to push ourselves harder. What we're running into is the constraints of the current system."

Finding a solution

In order to drive some scale, Barry said there is a need for a better outlet to take back the fibre recovered, to use that productively, and to upcycle to put it into another industry.

"We also need consistency across the high street. Consistent recovery of garments. And underpinning it all is the need for us all to sell quality goods that last a long time. The ultimate way to stop waste is to sell quality. But once you do get it back, use that material time and time again."

Creagh says the government is currently working on a new resources and waste strategy, and asked the brand representatives what policies they would like to see Ministers include to reduce and re-utilise clothing waste.

For Burberry, the answer lies in stimulating investment in innovation, in areas such as recycling technology.

"There are some fabrics where today it's very difficult to find recycling solutions, and the UK could really lead the way in this area. We participate with the Royal College of Art in a partnership to develop new kinds of fabric and I think there is a huge opportunity for us in this area," Wood told the panel.

Lister said Primark is also looking into new fabrics and is currently in discussions over technology that will "disentangle cotton and polyester" and produce virgin cotton and virgin polyester that could then be recycled.

"That could be very useful and could be done in the UK. The technology is being tested and if that works then there's no reason why it couldn't be done in a very short period of time. It would be better done here than in the developing world because this is where the clothes stay."

Barry told the panel extended producer responsibility (EPR) could be a consideration. EPR is a policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.

"Zero Waste Scotland has done some really innovative stuff to start to create micro enterprises that can take material back and reuse it. And it's very early days yet but we can see rental models starting to emerge that will get people to participate in the use of clothing in different ways. It's small and it's early but it will start to disrupt the marketplace.

"Is it quick enough? Probably not but we need to think quite rapidly how, over the next five years, we can move to a position where a significant amount of that 1.2m tonnes is either voluntarily or legally reused in the UK economy."

M&S currently has a target for 25% of its clothing contain 25% recycled content by 2025 – which could be helped along by EPR. "The percentage we're at at the moment is very tiny. But we have set a very clear target for our business that we need to move forward on."

Barry also suggested transparency is absolutely key, and that a fibre equivalent of the Modern Slavery Act, "forcing people to step forward and say whether they're doing something or not" would help drive change "without you having to micromanage every aspect of the marketplace."