A cross-party group of MPs has continued to probe how the UK fashion industry is implementing initiatives to drive sustainability and improve its social impact – with executives from Primark and the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) the latest to take part in the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion session.

An earlier investigation heard how the industry is estimated to have produced around 2.1bn tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018 alone; the equivalent to the combined emissions of France, Germany and the UK. Major contributors included fast fashion, with UK citizens believed to buy more new clothes than any other European country, and throwing away over a million tonnes of clothing every year.

Beyond this the update looked at the social impact of the sector, exploring how brands including Primark have addressed issues concerning the workers in their supply chains linked to Myanmar, where civil unrest is ongoing; in Bangladesh, which is still reeling from the effects of Covid-19 and earlier order cancellations; and Xinjiang in China, which has been linked to forced labour concerns.

Below are the key talking points from the session.

The launch of Textiles 2030

The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) recently launched a ten-year voluntary clothing and textile waste programme to try to slash the environmental impact of UK clothing and home fabrics through practical interventions along the entire textiles chain.

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First mooted in November, it has managed to secure 68 signatories – including ASOS, Boohoo, JD Sports, John Lewis, M&S, New Look, Next, Primark, Sainsbury’s, Ted Baker and Tesco – that account for around 60% of the UK clothing market share by volume.

“The goal is to transform the industry for our planet. We really want to show that the industry can build back better and greener” – Catherine Salvage

“The goal is to transform the industry for our planet. The agreements are going to bring together organisations from across the textile value chain to make progress on climate action and to move to a more circular use of products and materials. We really want to show that the industry can build back better and greener,” explained Catherine Salvage, sustainable textiles – sector specialist at WRAP.

“This is a world-leading initiative and British brands can have a really competitive edge by being part of this initiative and leading the way on sustainable fashion,” she said, adding that building the previous initiative, SCAP (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan), the move is “sufficient to put the UK textile sector on a path consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and achieving net-zero by 2050 at the latest.”

Naturally, attention was diverted to the 40% that have not yet signed up.

Salvage said given the initiative had just launched, the signatories representing 60% of UK market share was “really positive.” She added a “tough year for retail” could explain the delay in onboarding the remaining 40%.

What is helping grow uptake is potential government policy and legislation, with plans to mandate climate-related financial disclosures. “They’re going to go hand in hand…it will obviously be stronger if we have some kind of policy and legislation behind circularity as well.”

Primark: Sustainable value?

Primark has long been a target for criticism surrounding the price-point of its products, with many arguing its cheap prices fuel the throwaway fashion trend.

Katherine Stewart, corporate responsibility lead at Primark, reiterated the retailer sells “affordable product that is designed to last.”

“We do have a big focus on durability in terms of the products that we are producing. The key thing about durability is the way the products are designed; materials that we use, how clothes are cared for and washed, and we hope that our customers will wear them for a long time. Bearing in mind those steps we’ve put a lot of effort into thinking about design and how we can make sure that we’re trying to build durability into the clothes right from the outset, but equally starting to think about how clothes can be recycled.”

She also pointed to how the retailer has been including “a lot more recycled content” in its product, whether polyester or nylon and more recently sustainable cotton.

“We want to have transparency down the supply chain both in terms of garment production but also in terms of the social standards through that recycling chain” – Katherine Stewart

“There’s more work to be done. In terms of waste, we’re looking at not only the end of life aspect of it but also what happens in terms of waste in the production process. Anybody that’s done any dressmaking will know that there are offcuts. What we can do with those? That’s become a focus for us, but equally we now have recycling units in all our stores – it took us quite a lot of time to build a model that we felt was right.

“We want to have transparency down the supply chain both in terms of garment production but also in terms of the social standards through that recycling chain. We wanted to uphold the standards that we have for our factories, so it took us a little bit more time than we would like but we rolled those units out to all of our stores in the UK this year and will continue to roll out into other countries.”

Primark is working with a recycler called Yellow Octopus, which allows it to look at what can be reused and what can be repurposed. Longer-term, its ambition is to support the technology that handles clothing waste.

The retailer is one of the signatories to Textiles 2030, and one MP commented it had signed up to some “challenging targets” – including halving emissions and shifting towards a circular business model.

Stewart said she was encouraged by the drive of the buying team, which is very much “behind the work” Primark is trying to do.

She was asked if this might mark the end of the GBP2 T-shirt?

“We are absolutely adamant that we’ve stood for offering value to our customers, and for many of our customers Primark is an important part of how they can afford to clothe themselves and their families.

“It is possible to deliver great value product that’s sustainable and, from the business point of view, the cotton programme that we started in 2013 was set up with that in mind. Key things were full traceability down the supply chain, which was critical so that we could stand up claims we were making and measure progress. Unless you understand your supply chain, it’s not possible to measure some of the impacts.

“The second thing was that we wanted to continue to deliver great value to customers and reduce the environmental footprint for improved livelihoods, so we actually set up a model slightly different from other common initiatives. That meant working with the farmers who go through a three-year programme that helps them understand how to grow more with less. Specifically, less use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, less use of water, and through improved agricultural techniques the yield that they’re getting is significant so their livelihoods are impacted directly. We saw increases in income for those farmers of upwards of 200%, which is substantive. And we can still do that at the same price, so we’re able to maintain the value to the customer as well.”

Microfibre pollution

The panel was somewhat disappointed to hear of limited progress on tackling microfibre pollution.

Salvage said WRAP was hoping to work more closely with initiatives and organisations researching the issue, such as The Microfibre Consortium. She also pointed to part of the problem being a lack of funding.

“It’s on our radar – it’s not something we are going to forget about and we plan to work with The Microfibre Consortium to ensure we align with their roadmap and feed into what they are doing. In terms of what the government could do, funding for that research so the information is publicly available and so we can share information more easily, would help.”

Transparency and traceability

Because Textiles 2030 is a self-reporting initiative, one of the key questions is what verification is in place to check the bolder claims that are being made?

Salvage asserted the claims would have to be backed up by the various certifications that exist. For example, if a brand claimed to be using organic cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the certification would need to be shown as proof.

“Also, a lot of our brands and retailers employ external auditors to make sure that they are submitting the correct data. There isn’t really an incentive for signatories to falsify their results and their data because we don’t report individual signature data publicly. For those brands and retailers to get the most out of their membership and the most out of their membership fee, to be able to measure correctly is really important to see where they need to progress.

“If brands and retailers don’t report correct data, there could be real consequences for them if that does come out. Consumers now are a lot more aware” – Catherine Salvage

“I guess the other area is around the consumer perception of those brands and greenwashing issues. If brands and retailers don’t report correct data, there could be real consequences for them if that does come out. Consumers now are a lot more aware, so to get the most out of this agreement there isn’t really an incentive for them to not report the correct data.

“When signatories sign up to Textiles 2030, they are committed to building transparency and visibility into their supply chains – that is one of the requirements that we’ve added into Textiles 2030 that wasn’t in SCAP. To create this circular economy we do need transparency of supply chains. That’s going to help us build more resilient supply chains.”

Extended Producer Responsibility

The government is presently weighing an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which would ensure the industry contributes to the costs of recycling, supported by measures to encourage better design and labelling. This will help to boost the reuse and recycling of textiles and reduce the environmental footprint of the sector.

But how could an EPR be designed in a way that supports responsible retailers in the transition to sustainability?

Stewart said many brands and retailers are showing a willingness to get behind initiatives like recycling units. But the gap lies in how to support the infrastructure sitting behind it to be able to successfully do it at scale. “We need to know how to support infrastructure that allows it to actually scale-up, and the technologies; at the moment it is all quite manual. That’s where we believe the focus needs to be.

She added the EPR needed to be designed in a way that supports cross-sectoral collaboration. “We would hope that an EPR scheme would focus on carbon emissions and circularity, which are two main focus points for Textiles 2030, and that it would be a clear financial driver for investment in more circular systems.

“We need this EPR funding to encourage innovation in the recycling sector and the investment that we need in the recycling sector, but also that it promotes changes in the impacts that clothing has across its whole life cycle.

“That would promote changes in the design process, making those garments more durable, or if it’s making garments recyclable, again making changes to design. Incentivising the use of recycled content is going to be really key, and then also incentivising these business models and circular business models so they are on more of a level playing field.”