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New Plans Unveiled to Tackle Harmful Waste Fuelled by Fast Fashion

Posted on 20 April 2021

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has launched a consultation on a new Waste Prevention Programme (WPP) which aims to reduce waste by increasing the reuse, repair and remanufacture of products. This is a clear step in further increasing the implementation of the "circular economy" within UK industry, focussing on the following key sectors: construction; furniture; electrical and electronics products; road vehicles; packaging, plastics and single-use items; food; and textiles.

In particular, the WPP seeks to highlight waste in the textiles industry as an urgent issue. According to the consultation document, approximately 921,000 tonnes of used textiles are disposed of in household residual waste each year, destined for landfill and incineration. DEFRA cites fast fashion as a key contributor to textiles waste explaining that "inexpensive clothing supported by low labour costs, often poor working conditions globally, seasonal trends, and increased purchasing power, lead to many consuming and disposing of more clothes." This builds on the findings of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's investigation into the UK's fashion industry in 2019, which also concluded that reuse and recycling of unsold stock and repair of products were key solutions to tackling fashion's waste problem.

The WPP proposals for textiles waste, summarised below, aim to tackle this large problem.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

A key pillar of the WPP is the "polluter pays" principle, which requires companies to take greater responsibility for products they place on the market once they become waste.

To embed this principle in the fashion industry, DEFRA is planning to develop an EPR scheme specifically for businesses which place textiles on the market, with the aim of launching a consultation on the proposal by the end of 2022. Whilst no explanation was provided for this date, the Government may require such a lengthy period to consider the EPR scheme alongside other possible measures (such as a landfill/incineration ban).

There is currently a lack of detail on any specific obligations which the EPR scheme could impose on textiles producers; it may be that further detail is provided in advance of the consultation. However, EPR schemes often involve producers taking responsibility for the collection of waste products and sorting them before final treatment and recycling. Producers do so either by contributing to the cost of this or by setting up their own collection schemes. An example of an EPR scheme which has been implemented in the UK is that for waste electrical and electronic equipment, and it may be that some of the learnings from this take back scheme can be used for the textile industry. Some businesses have already independently introduced their own collection schemes, including high street fashion brand H&M – an approach which DEFRA advocates.

DEFRA has stated that, where feasible, it will explore a modulated fee structure which would link any fees payable under the EPR scheme to the environmental performance of the business. This aims to incentivise a shift towards design for durability, reparability and recyclability, a key pillar of the circular economy, as well as responsibility for the management of products at end of life. The fee structure will also seek to penalise those who fail to engage with the issue.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) previously recommended a similar proposal, following its 2019 investigation. A review of the EAC Report was launched in October 2020 after the Government rejected most of the Committee's other recommendations. To date, the review has focused on collating further evidence directly from the fashion industry on the issue, including via a series of formal meetings with industry leaders.

Compulsory Standards for Textile Products

Another prominent theme of the WPP is sustainable product design. The WPP encourages the fashion industry to set its own effective standards on resource efficient product design. However, DEFRA has stated that, if the industry fails to self-regulate, it will seek to use powers acquired through the Environment Bill to enforce change. It is currently unclear when the Environment Bill will come into force, following a series of postponements due to COVID-19.

The regulations envisaged in the WPP could see the introduction of compulsory minimum design standards for textile products. DEFRA is currently exploring the potential for product design requirements on resistance to abrasion and colour fastness to improve durability. As part of this, improved product labelling obligations are also being considered to ensure that consumers are provided with adequate information on the environmental impact of products. This could require that information on recyclability, recycled content and the environmental impact of production is included on garment labels. In order to be successful, there would need to be one, clear, set of standards which is consistently applied across the fashion industry and, importantly, across multi-jurisdictions. This would assist consumers in making informed choices about products and reduce the risk of any overstated "green" claims by brands. However, the current proposals do not comment on whether the government intends to consult with other countries before setting the new standards.

Finally, DEFRA has allocated £30 million of funding to establish five circular economy research centres, including a designated centre to support a more circular economy for textiles.

A New Voluntary Agreement for the Fashion Industry

In addition to DEFRA's efforts, a new voluntary agreement for 2021 – 2030, Textiles 2030, led by the charity WRAP and the Textiles 2030 Advisory Group, will be introduced in April 2021 to "galvanise ambitious industry action". Member signatories of this new voluntary agreement will be required to commit to reduce their environmental footprint and meet certain targets by 2030, including a 30% reduction in their water footprint.

Final Thoughts

The WWP is a welcome step in addressing some of the recognised environmental problems created by fast fashion. However, the plans currently lack sufficient detail to be able to determine if they will bring about any meaningful change within the industry.

That said, DEFRA has made it clear that it will use the Environment Bill to bring in necessary legislative changes to tackle the problem, if required. A key question will be how to identify and measure the threshold which needs to be met before associated legislation is introduced. In order to enact such widespread change across the fashion industry, legislation is arguably required but any laws will need to be proportionate to avoid creating unintended obstacles for SME brands and those working hard on their sustainability practices.

Further, the government will need to consider the implications of any new measures in the global context. Internationally, fashion is a $2.4tn industry employing 60 million people, most of whom are women. It is characterised by highly complex multi-jurisdictional supply chains. Any unilateral legislative changes on sustainability relating to end of product life and waste can have a catalytic effect on the industry as a whole. The UK Government should therefore consult with all stakeholders to ensure that it fully understands the possible social and environmental implications of their proposals before it moves forward with implementation. The industry is already working together on this issue through the Fashion Pact, which is a global coalition of companies in the fashion and textile industry which have all committed to a common core of key environmental goals in three areas: mitigating climate change, restoring biodiversity and protecting the oceans. The United Nations is also providing support through the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. However, it is crucial that there is coordinated leadership at government level to be able to drive change at the speed needed. Improving supply chains and supply chain due diligence is increasingly on the agenda of governments and regulators. It is therefore likely that further legislation in this space is not a remote possibility, for which retail businesses should be prepared. If you require further assistance with your environmental, social and governance requirements and obligations, please speak to a member of the Mishcon Purpose team for further information.

The consultation on the WPP closes on 10 June 2021. Interested parties can submit their views on the new proposals to DEFRA here.

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