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January 31, 2019

UK lawmakers rule fast-fashion model “unsustainable”

UK fashion brands and retailers are "failing to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers," the UK Environmental Audit Committee has ruled following a probe into the environmental and social impacts of the garment industry at the end of last year.

By Hannah Abdulla

UK fashion brands and retailers are “failing to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers,” the UK Environmental Audit Committee has ruled following a probe into the environmental and social impacts of the garment industry at the end of last year.

16 UK fashion retailers – including M&S, Next, Primark, Debenhams and online apparel retailers including Missguided, Asos and Boohoo – were quizzed by British 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.

Each retailer was asked about a range of actions and initiatives, including the use of organic or sustainable cotton, limiting the discharge of hazardous chemicals, and the re-use or recycling of unsold stock.

just-style’s coverage of the EAC investigation can be found here.

Boohoo, Missguided, Sports Direct and JD Sports were ruled to be the “least engaged” apparel retailers when it comes to sustainability actions and labour market initiatives. None has signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) targets to cut their carbon, water and waste footprint, and none use organic or sustainable cotton in their garments. Only Boohoo and Sports Direct are using recycled material in their products.

In terms of labour market initiatives none are signed up to the ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) living wage initiative and only one, Missguided, is a member of ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative), which aims to improve working conditions for workers globally. MPs added they were “concerned” about Boohoo’s approach to trade union representation.

Next, Debenhams and the Arcadia Group – owner of brands including Topshop, Burton and Miss Selfridge – were deemed to be “moderately engaged” having taken “some steps to address environmental sustainability issues.

Arcadia Group and Next are signed up to SCAP targets whilst Debenhams is not, but all three make some use of organic cotton. All are members of ACT, and all, with the exception of Arcadia Group, are members of ETI.

Asos, M&S, Primark and Burberry were the retailers named as “most engaged” with them all using organic or sustainable cotton and recycled material in their products as well as having in-store take back schemes. Except for Burberry, all other retailers are signed up to the SCAP targets.

All are members of the ETI and Asos and Primark are members of ACT.  The committee also welcomed the move by Asos to become the first online retailer to sign a Global Framework Agreement with trade union IndustriAll, committing to the highest possible standards on trade union rights, health and safety, and labour relations.

However, in conclusion, the report found the current business model for the UK fashion industry to be “unsustainable.”

“Exploitative practices must end and retailers must lead change through labour market and environmental sustainability practices as well as showing leadership through engagement with industry initiatives,” said the EAC.

Mary Creagh MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “We want to see a thriving fashion industry that employs people fairly, inspires creativity and contributes to the economic success of the UK. It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers. It’s disappointing that only a third of the retailers we wrote to are signed up to ACT, an important global initiative working towards getting a living wage for all garment workers.

“By publishing this information, customers can choose whether they want to spend money with a company that is doing little to protect the environment or promote proper wages for garment workers. We hope this motivates underperforming retailers to start taking responsibility for their workers and their environmental impact.”

Meanwhile, Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby said the city had “a long and proud history of textile manufacturing” – and that the problem of ethical compliance in supply chains is “not just an issue for Leicester, but a national one.” 

During the investigation, some of the city’s factories, which supply brands including Asos, Boohoo and Missguided to name a few, came under fire for paying illegally low wages, again.

In a letter to Creagh, Soulsby pointed out that with over 1500 businesses and 10,000 textile workers, Leicester has the second largest concentration of textile manufacturers in the UK, “which provides both an imperative and an opportunity to deliver positive change.”

“Ethical compliance throughout supply chains is an essential pre-requisite for this potential to be realised. This is a huge challenge however and requires effective partnerships between the regulators, the retailers and the manufacturers.”

He added Leicester had been tackling the issue of ethical compliance head on. “We want to make sure that Leicester has the highest standards of employment; that workers are properly paid, well-trained, and work in safe environments. We want to support our factories to be the best they can and to set an example that others can follow.

“This work has included the council delivering a series of ethical compliance workshops with local manufacturers, and providing business support to help these companies to grow.”

UK industry executives spoke exclusively to just-style late last year about what’s going wrong with domestic manufacturing, and why tough government action is needed: UK manufacturing – a ticking time bomb or sourcing gold?

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