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UK Government 'out of step with the public' as it rejects recomendations to fix the fashion industry

Posted on 23 July 2019

UK Government 'out of step with the public' as it rejects recomendations to fix the fashion industry

The UK government has rejected the Environmental Audit Select Committee's recommendations for improving sustainability in the UK's fashion industry. Unsurprisingly, this has prompted the Committee to criticise the government in strong terms, given what it identified as the devastating impact the fashion industry has on the environment.

As we have previously reported, the Committee's recommendations included a range of suggestions split into four themes, from the widely reported 1p per garment charge to tax relief for repair businesses. However, the government has rejected all 18 of the Committee's recommendations and instead put the onus for resolving the issue on the industry itself and on consumers: "Considering the global nature of the sector and its supply chains, the industry has the primary role to play in achieving change, helped by consumer behaviour and underpinned by support, where appropriate, from Government".  This echoes comments made by government representatives during the Committee's evidentiary hearings.

In its response, the government argues that some results could be achieved through its planned Resources and Waste Strategy, and through further consultation. In relation to destruction of unwanted stock, it notes that "positive approaches" are needed to find outlets for waste textiles, although offers no further details on the form these approaches could take. In relation to workers, the government states that it has already provided additional resources to ensure British workers are paid at least minimum wage and that Prime Minister Theresa May has recently announced plans to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015. It also emphasises its support for the voluntary Sustainable Clothing Action Plan ("SCAP"), co-ordinated by WRAP. SCAP asks retailers to pledge to reduce their carbon emissions, water usage and waste. However, only eleven retailers in the UK are signatories to SCAP; this suggests that the government's hope, of the industry playing the primary role in delivering the much needed change, is unlikely to materialise quickly.

The government's unwillingness to adopt the Committee's recommendations has been met with widespread disappointment. Mary Creagh, the Chair of the EAC Committee, stated that "the Government is out of step with the public … Ministers have failed to recognise that urgent action must be taken to change the fast fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the earth." Ms Creagh's comments have been largely echoed in the press and by designers such as Stella McCartney and Katharine Hamnett. It is worth noting though that the UK government's position is also at odds with other legislators. The French government, by contrast, has recently announced plans to outlaw the destruction of unsold consumer goods (including clothing). Nevertheless no country appears to be prepared to take real and significant measures to tackle sustainability within the fashion industry; perhaps indicating that countries are concerned about putting into place measures which may make their business conditions less competitive.

Given the current state of UK politics, the continuing spectre of Brexit and the struggles of the UK's high street, the UK government may be forgiven in some quarters for not tackling the issue by enacting the Committee's recommendations. Despite the Committee's efforts, the recent investigation has resulted in simply raising the profile of the issue, rather than offering real, tangible change. The well documented environmental impact caused by the fashion industry remains a concern and so it appears that the current industry model is unlikely to be sustainable, with or without UK legislative action.

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