The EACwill revisit fashion sustainability and working conditions in the UK garment industry

The EACwill revisit fashion sustainability and working conditions in the UK garment industry

The UK Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has announced plans to follow up on its 2018 inquiry into the state of the British fashion industry due to what it says are continued concerns around the environmental impact of the sector and working conditions in UK garment factories.

The Government rejected most of the Committee's recommendations from its 'Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability' inquiry in 2019. Recommendations ranged from a producer responsibility charge to pay for better clothing collection and recycling to requiring due diligence checks across fashion supply chains to root out forced or child labour. However, the Government has identified textile waste as a priority area to address its Resources and Waste Strategy.

Fashion production has a considerable impact on climate and biodiversity, the EAC says, noting the global industry is estimated to have produced around 2.1bn tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018; the equivalent to the combined emissions of France, Germany and the UK.

Fast fashion also creates a waste problem in the UK and developing countries, with UK citizens buying more new clothes than any other European country and throwing away over a million tonnes of clothing every year, it adds.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on garment factories in Leicester. Reports of poor working conditions suggests there has been little improvement since the Committee's report, which recommended regular audits and for companies to engage with unions for their workers.

The EAC's initial probe saw 16 fashion retailers – including M&S, Next, Primark, Debenhams and online apparel retailers including Missguided, Asos and Boohoo – quizzed by MPs on what they were doing to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the apparel they sell, amid concerns the so-called fast-fashion' business model encourages over-consumption and generates excessive waste.

"Two years, four fashion seasons and billions of tonnes of harmful emissions from textile production later, my Committee has decided to revisit its fashion sustainability work," said EAC chairman Philip Dunne.

"The fashion industry has a major environmental footprint – from the extraordinary amount of water to create cotton and polyester, to the sheer scale of waste with many items being worn once and thrown away. Our thirst for the latest trends is simply unsustainable.

"But, as we found two years ago, this inquiry goes beyond the harmful impact to the environment. Accusations of labour market exploitation in the UK remain, with poor working conditions and illegally low wages.

"Two years on, I hope there have been some improvements in the fashion industry. We will be unearthing whether this is the case, and what more needs to be done to secure our goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050."

The EAC announced its plans on Twitter and said its follow-up work will consist of gathering written evidence and a one-off oral evidence session.

It is inviting written evidence on a number of topics, including What progress has been made in reducing the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry since the Fixing Fashion report came out?; What impact has the pandemic had on fashion waste?; and What impact has the pandemic had on the relationship between fashion retailers and suppliers?

Other areas include, How could employment law and payment of the minimum wage be more effectively enforced within the UK fashion industry? and What would be the most effective measures industry or Government could put in place to ensure that materials or products made with forced or prison camp labour are removed from the supply chain?

The news comes after the results of an independent review into online fashion retailer Boohoo Group's UK supply chain. The probe, which was conducted by senior barrister Alison Levitt QC, was launched after media reports surfaced in July that one of Boohoo's Leicester-based supplier factories was paying staff just GBP3.50 (US$4.38) an hour to work in unsafe conditions and in breach of UK coronavirus lockdowns.

The retailer said it would cut ties with factories that breached its supplier code of conduct, while a number of retailers removed the group's brands from their websites as a result of the claims. 

Boohoo has pledged to strengthen its sourcing team and work more closely with suppliers after the review identified "many failings" but determined its business model is not founded on exploiting workers in Leicester.