The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has today published its final report on its inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry “Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability”. TRAID welcomes many of the recommendations of the Committee and urges retailers and the Government to work towards their implementation.

The inquiry launched in June 2018 to examine the social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry. It has concluded that the Government must act to end the era of throwaway fashion and that brands must take responsibility for the waste they produce and the conditions are clothes are made in. Key recommendations of the report are that: –

  • Mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover above £36 million
  • The Government should use taxation to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible fashion companies. For example, the Government should follow Sweden and reduce VAT on repair services
  • The fashion industry must come together to set out their blueprint for a net zero emissions world reducing their carbon consumption back to 1990 levels
  • Lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes should be in the school curriculum for Key Stage 2 and 3
  • A new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme to make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create. EPR should reward fashion companies that take positive actions to reduce waste and penalise those that don’t. A charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise 35 million pounds for investment into better clothing collection and sorting in the UK.
  • The Resources and Waste strategy should incorporate eco-design principles and offer incentives for design for recycling, design for disassembly and design for durability. It should also set up a new investment fund to stimulate markets for recycled fibres.
  • The Government should ban retailers from incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that could be reused or recycled.
  • The Government should publish a publicly accessible list of retailers required to release a modern slavery statement. This should be supported by an appropriate penalty for those companies who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

Why is this inquiry report is so important?

In October 2018, leading climate change scientists called for “urgent and unprecedented changes” after the landmark United Nations Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change report which warned that if the average global temperature rises by further 1.5 degrees this will have a catastrophic effect on millions of people and our planet.

This makes the next 11 years critical for the global effort to avoid irreversible climate change. Yet, when we look at the fashion industry, the carbon footprint for clothes in use in the UK has increased from 24 million tonnes of CO2e in 2012, to 26 million tonnes of CO2e in 2016. Globally, the carbon output generated by the fashion industry is expected to double by 2030.

In no uncertain terms, the EAC’s inquiry findings show that the current business model of the fashion industry is accelerating irreversible climate change.

“Given the stark scientific warnings we face on climate change and biodiversity loss, we must reinvent fashion.” (P.50)

Moving away from an unsustainable model

Since 2012, clothing brands, manufacturers and charity retailers have been working on reducing the environmental impacts of clothing under the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), a voluntary agreement led by WRAP that represents nearly 60% of the clothes sold on the UK market.

Under SCAP, brands and retailers have agreed to reduce their carbon and water footprints by 15%, waste to landfill by 15% and the whole lifecycle of waste by 3.5% by 2020. Positively, the SCAP water target has been met however, more action is needed to hit the carbon target while the waste footprint target seems to be extremely unlikely to be met by 2020.

Without wishing to undermine progress made, it is clear that reliance on voluntary initiatives alone is not not enough. In an era of climate change and biodiversity loss, change must happen swiftly enough to meet scientific recommendations. The EAC report has been extremely clear stating that a ‘voluntary approach has failed.’

This is why TRAID welcomes the EAC recommendation to make SCAP targets mandatory for all retailers with a turnover of more than £36 million pounds and that meeting the targets are ‘a license to practice’.

Unfortunately, Defra’s recently launched Waste and Resources Strategy – ‘Our Waste, Our Resources; A Strategy for England’ – does not make any commitments to mandatory compliance but but instead places the role of the government as one that “continues to support voluntary industry action”.

TRAID urges the Government to reconsider this direction and to follow instead the EAC’s recommendations on this key issue. As the report points out “the fashion industry has marked its own homework for too long”.

Credit: Marc Sethi

Promoting reuse and repair

Increasing levels of waste pollution has been another emblematic feature of the fashion industry and its current unsustainable model. It is estimated that a staggering 300,000 tonnes of clothes is thrown into the bins of UK households each year. However, even a figure like this could be eclipsed by the 800,000 tonnes of supply chain waste that is generated by the clothes in use in the UK.

This is waste that is created as result of the UK public’s demands for clothing, but whose environmental and financial costs are paid for by people in the countries where the clothes for the UK market are produced.

This is why the EAC’s call for the Government to put an end to the throwaway culture of fashion is so crucial: –

“Often it is more expensive to repair an item than buy a new one. Many of us also lack the skills to perform more than basic clothing repairs. The Government should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste. A charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise £35 million to invest in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK.” (P.4)

TRAID agrees that the recent Government pledge to review and consult on Extended Producer Responsibility – a policy approach where producers are given responsibility for the treatment and disposal of the products they produce – for the textile industry by 2025 is too slow and that we need action before the end of parliament.

The report also points out that a charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise £35 million pounds which could be invested too create new ‘green’ jobs in the clothes sorting sector particularly in areas like West Yorkshire where textile recycling is already a specialist industry.

Another key recommendation in this report supported by TRAID is to follow Sweden’s lead and reduce VAT on repair services. Indeed, in January 2018, as part of its sustainable consumption policy, the Swedish Government enacted a package of tax breaks and VAT cuts to make it more affordable to repair clothes and shoes, as well as other things. These tax breaks aim to incentivise a repair industry in Sweden which will also create more jobs.

TRAID also strongly supports the reports call for more craft education in schools and the introduction of lessons in schools on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes at Key Stage 2 and 3:

“The creative satisfaction of designing and repairing clothing can offer an antidote to the growing anxiety and mental health issues amongst teenagers. As well as providing a space to promote creative expression, the skills learnt can also provide a potential pathway towards job opportunities.”

TRAID has been pioneering the delivery of repair and mend workshops in schools for the last 13 years as well working with local authorities on education initiatives aimed at helping local residents to gain a better understanding of the socio- environmental benefits of giving longer life to clothes. As an extension of this work, TRAID is planning to launch a new programme for teachers to help them deliver the type of educational initiatives recommended in the report.

At the same time, TRAID’s recently launched 23% campaign is the first re-use campaign that lets the public know the approximate water, waste or carbon savings made as a result of passing on the clothes they no longer wear. It also places the United Nation’s Sustainable Goal Number 12 to ensure more sustainable consumption and production at the heart of the campaign, asking people to pass on clothes don’t need, as well as those they don’t want, recognising that we need to do more with less when we have finite resources. This is the keystone of sustainability.

Finally, we hope that the inquiry process and its findings and recommendations marks the beginning of more fact finding, knowledge and awareness raising about the sustainability of the fashion industry, and how we – government, retailers, consumers, communities – can fix it. This inquiry has played a significant role in drawing media and public attention not only to the unacceptable social consequences and unsustainable practices of the fashion industry but also to the issue of clothing over-consumption in the UK, which is something rarely addressed.

The unprecedented ecological crisis that we face and the limited window of time to tackle irreversible climate change makes it clear that change in the fashion industry is no longer simply an option, but is now an imperative.

Now, it is vital to build up enough pressure to ensure that as many of the EAC’s report recommendations are translated into policies as soon as possible.

  • Click here to read TRAID submission to the inquiry.
  • Click here to watch TRAID oral evidence to the inquiry.