The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) held an evidence hearing on 1 May to give 15 of the UK’s largest fashion retailers the opportunity to share the concrete steps they have taken to reduce their environmental impact since its 2019 “Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability” report was published.

However, out of the list only Swedish fashion retailer H&M and UK online fashion retailer Boohoo agreed to attend the meeting.

UK Member of Parliament (MP) for the Ludlow constituency and chair of the committee Phillip Dunne confessed he was “disappointed” and saw it as “poor performance” that Matalan, TK Maxx, Asos, Shein, Asda, M&S, New Look, Next, Sainsbury, and Tesco were not “prepared to stand up to their own corporate responsibilities”.

A spokesperson for Asda told Just Style: “I’m afraid that is incorrect – Asda did not decline to participate in the forum. We provided written evidence to the committee ahead of time as the representative who was invited from Asda was unavailable due to travel constraints. The evidence provided by Asda will be published on the committee’s webpage in due course.”

An Asos spokesperson also stated that it provided written answers to the EAC’s questions in advance as unfortunately, the brand was unable to attend in person.

A Marks and Spencer (M&S) representative said that its Head of Materials and Sustainability was “keen to attend but unfortunately was in Bangladesh on business at the time of the committee.”

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They added: “The Committee have however kindly accepted our invitation to visit our support centre so we can discuss these issues and others in more detail.”

The other brands had not responded to Just Style’s request for comment at the time of going to press.

The purpose of EAC’s Fixing fashion report was to call for urgent government action to “end the era of throwaway fashion” through measures such as the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme that aims to make brands responsible for their waste.

What happened during the evidence session?

MPs probed the head of public affairs at H&M Marcus Hartmann and Boohoo’s responsible sourcing, group product operations and wholesale director Andrew Reaney on their respective companies’ environmental impact including overproduction, textile waste and their use of sustainable materials.

Reaney explained the biggest move at Boohoo has been purchasing products with sustainable ingredients such as organic cotton and recycled polyester to reduce emissions but he was unable to quantify how these changes have developed five years from the original evidence session.

H&M’s Hartmann was quick to highlight that 85% of the material now used by his brand was either recycled or sustainably sourced and of that, 25% is recycled. The retailer’s garments use 100% recycled organic or sustainably sourced cotton. In 2023 organic cotton decreased by 1% to 13%, while recycled cotton remained at 11% and Better Cotton accounted for 76% of its sourcing in 2023, up from 75% in 2022.

When asked what proportion of its stock goes either to landfill or incineration Hartmann was keen to share H&M’s stock is pushed to be sold and what’s left is not sent to landfills. He explained that when out of options it is donated to charity.

Hartmann explained that garment-collected goods that can’t be sold or “hazardous” goods account for 8% of what is incinerated.

Reaney admitted that the fabric waste produced in Boohoo’s UK manufacturing facilities and damaged “irrecoverable” clothes are incinerated through a scheme, but highlighted the company’s goal of no waste landfills in the UK by 2025.

He touched on Boohoo’s mission to provide circularity with its resale platform and partnership with secondhand fashion marketplace Thrift and charity organisation Oxfam.

He also claimed that Boohoo’s UK suppliers provide declarations stating they do not dump waste in landfills but could not guarantee this for the rest of its global supply chain.

Reaney said that from Boohoo’s perspective, it has the loop “not quite completely closed but we’re working to move in that direction.”

MP for Leicester East Claudia Webbe was particularly interested in what impact the BBC’s televised Panorama investigation programme had on the decisions around Boohoo’s closure of its Thurmaston Lane factory after it was alleged its workers were changing garment labels to say “Made in UK.”

Reaney asserted that Boohoo “absolutely does not believe the Panorama programme was a fair reflection of us as a business.”

He noted the Leicester factory was closed because it failed to meet the desired manufacturing standards the company had hoped for and the realisation that “we are a retailer, not a manufacturer,” he added.  

Reaney was quick to share however that he is concerned that the narratives and challenges around Leicester could make other businesses less inclined to set up in the city as he believes it would be a “lost opportunity economically.”

Webbe then turned her attention to H&M’s approach to ensuring appropriate wages and working conditions throughout its value and supply chains. Hartmann responded and said H&M is committed to safeguarding and respecting human rights in its entire value chain.

During her speech, Webbe accused H&M of filing cases with the police against Bangladesh garment workers who protested over the failure to be paid the minimum wage. Hartmann was quick to deny these claims and said: “No, we supply from companies, we don’t have factories in that sense.”

Webbe suggested that part of the problem in the industry is that brands and retailers can say that the workers are not their employees and not their responsibility.

Hartmann argued this is why H&M is engaging with partners in a global framework agreement with trade unions, facilitating social dialogue and does not “shy away from that responsibility but rather wants to work on it together with other players and unions.”

Importance of government holding fashion brands accountable

GlobalData retail analyst Neil Saunders believes governments such as the UK taking stock of the issues and problems surrounding fashion sustainability can help them review progress on becoming more sustainable.

He explained committee meetings “shine a light” on this and can act as a forum to see what is working and what needs more attention.

“Essentially, they are a pressure point for retailers that nudges them into becoming more sustainable,” he said.

Despite this, he thinks the UK government’s efforts have been somewhat “lacklustre” as more focus has been applied to electronic waste rather than fashion.

The government rejected most of the committee’s recommendations from the report’s first enquiry in 2018.

The report followed the EAC’s list of recommendations to the UK government urging it to introduce legislation that requires fashion brands and retailers to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains, tackle labour abuses and take more responsibility for the environmental impact of their businesses.

Saunders highlighted that this too was rejected by the UK government, a decision that EAC labelled as “not good enough” and “out of step with the public.”

He pointed out the UK government’s issue is that it “cannot simply legislate and place undue burdens on the fashion industry,” and attributes this to its approach to collaboration and encouraging voluntary action.

He added: “Measures to address greenwashing are more prevalent now through agencies such as the Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Authority.”

Saunders would advise committees to appreciate the balance that needs to be struck between sustainability and meeting consumer needs for “sharp price points” and the latest fashions.

GlobalData apparel analyst Pippa Stephens agrees and states affordable propositions by players such as Shein have boosted popularity amid the cost-of-living crisis in the UK.

She says: “Consumers are unlikely to start prioritising the sustainability of their purchases until their discretionary incomes start to recover.”

Saunders admitted more efforts are needed around reducing disposable fashion but highlights this is more driven by consumer attitudes rather than things in control of retailers.

He doesn’t doubt that there have been some efforts after witnessing more retailers focus on the circular economy, including pre-loved apparel as part of their offerings and even touched on H&M’s efforts in monitoring emissions by committing to fossil fuel-free commercial transport.

Why H&M and Boohoo were targets of EAC’s evidence session?

Both H&M and Boohoo are said to exemplify the “fast fashion” business model of producing inexpensive clothing rapidly in response to the latest trends. A model such as this is claimed to encourage overconsumption and textile waste.

Reaney quickly admitted that Boohoo did not like the term “fast fashion” as it uses the term in the context of monetising a trend.

“It doesn’t in any way from our perspective mean that the products we sell don’t have a long life and are durable,” argued Reaney.

According to GlobalData senior apparel analyst Pippa Stephens sustainability is one of the “least important” factors to UK consumers when shopping despite the increasing awareness of the “negative impacts of the fashion industry on the environment.”

She said this has allowed fast fashion to grow immensely over the years, whilst also being driven by younger consumers’ desire to keep up with the latest trends.

This was H&M’s first time in the EAC’s hot seat, however Boohoo was part of the initial group of retailers that were quizzed by MPs in 2018 about supplier fines for lateness, water reduction targets and potential unions within the supply chain.

Boohoo has faced allegations around its ethicality in sourcing and working conditions in recent years and following the BBC Panorama investigation in November 2023 alleging staff pressured suppliers to drive down prices, the retailer told Just Style it has continued to deliver on its ethical commitments.

During a session at last year’s Source Fashion trade show, senior executives from Boohoo shared how to improve a brand’s reputation through building ethical standards.

Head of sustainability Lianne Pemberton admitted during the session that no fashion brand can ever claim to be truly sustainable but she explained the retailer was trying to invest in its future which includes “longevity and sustainability.”

She continued: “For us, it’s about addressing where we can make change and including our pledge to reduce our textile waste to no waste to landfill by 2025 in the UK.”

In November 2022 H&M was under fire in the US for alleged greenwashing via the sustainability claims made in its Conscious Choice range which was described as neither sustainable nor environmentally friendly because it is made from recycled polyester, a disposable plastic considered to be a “one-way street to landfill or incineration.”

Two days after this H&M implemented an annual budget of around SEK3bn ($272bn) to work towards its goal of slashing its absolute scope 1,2 and 3 emissions by 56% respectively by 2030 from a 2019 baseline.

In 2023 it was called out by IndusriALL a non-profit organisation for continuing to source from Myanmar despite the country’s humanitarian crisis brought on by the military coup. This resulted in H&M planning a phased exit from the country.

In the same year, the company began making more due diligence and sustainable changes as founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange Mostafiz Uddin confirmed he received a letter from the Swedish retailer stating it was increasing prices paid to its garment manufacturers.

Following this H&M announced a “first of its kind” partnership with Southeast Asia’s bank DBS to introduce a green loan programme to accelerate the decarbonisation of fashion supply chains.

Despite this, H&M was caught in the crosshairs of an investigation in April 2024 by non-profit Earthsight which found cotton linked to illegal deforestation, land grabbing and violence against local communities being sold by retailers including the Swedish retailer.

A spokesperson for H&M told Just Style at the time the findings were “highly concerning” and it was taking them “very seriously.”