The request for evidence will inform the Committee’s inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry

The request for evidence will inform the Committee’s inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry

Industry heavyweights Marks & Spencer, Primark, Next, and Arcadia Group are among ten fashion retailers that have been asked to submit evidence to a UK government inquiry into the sustainability of the country's fashion industry.

The request comes from the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, who has written to the chief executives of the UK's ten leading fashion retailers to find out what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes and shoes they sell.

Also on the list are Asda, TK Maxx and HomeSense, Tesco, JD Sports Fashion, Debenhams, and Sports Direct International.

The evidence will inform the Committee's inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, which is investigating how the UK's fashion industry – worth GBP28bn (US$36.5bn) a year to the UK economy – can reduce its environmental footprint.

"The way we design, produce and discard our clothes has a huge impact on our planet. Fashion and footwear retailers have a responsibility to minimise their environmental footprint and make sure the workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage," Creagh says. "We want to hear what they are doing to make their industry more sustainable."

Clothing production contributes to climate change, and when clothes are washed they release microplastic fibres, which make their way into the ocean. Unwanted and outdated clothing end up in landfill, while some charities have complained that second-hand clothes are exported and dumped on overseas markets.

Although there has been a renewed interest in recent years in clothing made in Britain, there are concerns that the demand for fast fashion is fuelling the need for quick turnarounds in the supply chain, leading to poor working conditions in UK garment factories.

Fashion retailers are being asked about their environmental footprint to inform the Committee's recommendations to Government on how to solve these problems. Among the questions fashion retailers are being asked to respond to are:

  • Whether they pay the living wage to garment workers and how they ensure child labour is not used in their supply chains;
  • Whether they use recycled materials;
  • How long clothes are kept and how they encourage recycling;
  • Whether they incinerate unsold or returned stock;
  • What steps they are taking to reduce the risk of microplastics contaminating the ocean; and
  • What other steps they are taking to reduce the environmental impact of their clothing ranges and how they audit success.

The deadline for replies is 12 October 2018 and the Committee may then choose to invite some of the biggest retailers into Parliament for further questioning. Hearings for the inquiry are due to take place in November.

The request for evidence has been welcomed by environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, which says clothing firms must come clean about their impact on the environment.

"Clothes washing generates thousands of tonnes of plastic microfibre pollution every year – much of which ends up in our rivers and estuaries, where it can enter the food chain," says Friends of the Earth plastics campaigner Emma Priestland.

"The fashion industry must do far more to reduce the significant damage it does to our planet. And if it doesn't, the government must make them."

In addition, the group is urging retailers to identify which are the most polluting fabrics and find solutions to stop them shedding microplastic pollution. The group is also calling on the public to embrace 'slow fashion' rather than fast fashion, and to buy fewer, better quality items made with sustainable material instead.

Meanwhile, findings from a new research report conducted by European payments provider Klarna show 44% of decision makers in the fashion sector would like to see increased sustainability and better ethical standards in the future of fashion, while 26% would like to introduce more clothes that have an entirely traceable supply chain that customers can access and view using technology.

The study also claims 18% of consumers would like to see more clothes with an entirely traceable and ethical supply chain - this is of interest to shoppers aged 16-24 where over a quarter (26%) want to see more of this - and 37% of consumers say they would pay more for an item if it had a traceable and ethical supply chain.

"The statistics show that sustainability is clearly on the agenda for both shoppers and consumers, but other priorities can often overtake sustainability," Klarna warns. "Things like variety of styles [27%] and more options from independent designers [23%] are higher on their list of priorities for shoppers when it comes to buying fashion."