The Environmental Audit Committee conducted a critical interrogation of the UK government during its final hearing, concluding its investigation into the UK's fashion industry. The Committee was particularly scathing about the government's failure to investigate UK factories that manufacture clothing, the small progress made in reaching environmental targets, and the ineffectiveness of enforcement measures to encourage better behaviour by manufacturers and retailers.
Government representatives were questioned about the systematic failings within British retail supply chains, such as illegally low wages for British factory workers, and its proposals to reduce the environmental footprint of clothing produced in the UK.
Kelly Tolhurst MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility (BEIS), in particular came under fire from the Committee for being unable to provide sufficient information about current investigations into non-payment of the national minimum wage by factories. The Committee noted that the current penalties are unlikely to be sufficiently punitive to prevent employers from paying illegally low wages, essentially that factories "are just getting away with it". The government suggested that a particular difficulty is that the opaqueness of supply chains (such as the multiple supply chain tiers) makes enforcement action difficult. The government's evidence indicated that it is unlikely to link fines to the turnover of factories, but will be looking, as part of its Labour Market Enforcement Strategy consultation, at joint responsibility for fines between the retailers and factories, with any solutions having to be workable, implementable and proportionate.
The Committee and government also clashed over the extent to which the government should encourage better consumer and brand behaviour. The government's opinion was that consumer behaviour and culture needs to change, with Kelly Tolhurst MP stating that "legislation should be a last resort... not the first point, unless there is unwillingness of that industry to change", and that businesses should provide consumers with any information requested about garments. Conversely, for the Committee, waiting for the industry "to step up and do the right thing" would mean a long wait, whereas simply providing consumers with information will not make much difference. Representatives acknowledged that companies which adhere to compliance requirements are likely to be at a competitive disadvantage as compared to other businesses which are not expected to meet the same standards.
In response to the Committee's concerns at the lack of progress in reducing the environmental footprint of clothing production, the government noted that there are practical challenges to identifying how clothes are reused, how clothes are resold, whether they are donated to charity shops and so on. There is also insufficient data to understand how people pass on their clothes, or if they retain them.
The government sought to justify its slow progress in achieving the UK's environmental targets on its recent focus on reducing plastic usage and Brexit. It is planning further investigations to extend producer responsibility within the supply chain, and appears to be focused on shifting responsibility onto the producers. As is clear from the evidence, the Committee became increasingly frustrated with the government's lack of action and poor commitment to achieve progress in this area.
One proposed government solution to tackle the sustainability issue is a new domestic ecolabel system which aims to assist consumers with making informed purchase decisions. However, this will only be created post-Brexit. The government will also be undertaking an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 this year, noting that only 60% of businesses within its scope have published modern slavery statements.
The government's response to the Committee's questions was disappointing, particularly in relation to the lack of detail around potential solutions it has explored to date to tackle sustainability issues.
All three Committee hearings have made clear that the retail and fashion industries are aware of the environmental issue and want to improve their practices, and so it is now for these industries and government to agree on the suitable solutions. We look forward to the Committee's recommendations, due in February, which we hope will include clear, tangible and practical solutions to assist the government and the retail industry to come together and agree on the best path forward to tackle this critical issue.
Click here and here to read our previous articles on the investigation.