UK consumers buy approximately 38 million items of clothing weekly. This was one of the staggering statistics given to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in its recent evidence hearing at the Victoria & Albert Museum, looking at the environmental effect of the UK's love of fast fashion and the wider fashion industry (we discussed the launch of the investigation in a previous edition of Brand Matters). As part of its enquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, the Committee heard evidence from a variety of industry players, including designers, upcyclers, innovators and industry commentators. This has been followed up by a more recent evidentiary hearing which has been attended by "fast fashion" businesses (including online). We will report on the evidence before the latest hearing shortly but both have attracted significant press attention.
The Committee will also be hearing from Ministers before Christmas. Following the completion of the evidentiary hearings, the Committee will make recommendations on how to improve sustainability within the fashion industry next year. It is anticipated that this will also influence the new resource and waste strategy currently being developed by the government.
The hearing at the V&A lasted three hours and the following key themes emerge from the transcript. These themes are, of course, not new and have been regularly discussed within the industry, particularly since the terrible tragedy at Rana Plaza:
- a need for greater transparency about the journey from raw materials to the final product, appreciating that achieving this transparency and traceability takes time and resources and is particularly challenging for larger retailers. This transparency should also be leveraged by companies to call out their suppliers for any poor practice;
- a need for greater accountability for every person involved in the supply chain, for example where items are described as "sustainable" by producers;
- identifying a practical way for waste fabrics to be utilised, whether in educational environments (such as schools) or by designers reusing the fabrics to make textiles for future collections. The attendees, however, noted that it can be difficult in practice to oblige manufacturers to return scrap fabric to designers, or to identify a reliable way to recycle waste fabric;
- a lack of suppliers providing aftercare or repair services for products, such as repairing zips and buttons, which would encourage consumers to hold onto products for longer. The hearing also discussed how the sharing economy and "post ownership economy" could be encouraged in the UK, for example by educating consumers to sew and repair clothes. It was noted in the hearing that the reuse, rewear and resale economy is projected to be worth $33 billion by 2021;
- improving consumer understanding as to why a particular product may cost more, because of the unseen values and responsibly sourced materials making up the product. For businesses operating within the luxury and high end sector, there is an obligation also to consider the consequences on the design and quality of a product when thinking about making a switch to a more environmentally friendly material;
- protecting workers who are manufacturing clothes and ensuring that they receive a fair wage and appropriate working conditions; and
- the role of legislation to encourage retailers and other members of the supply chain to be more environmentally friendly and to assist small businesses operating in the repair, upcycling and sustainability sectors. The hearing discussed how other countries have tackled the problem, such as the "duty of vigilance" under French law, which makes French companies more accountable for actions in their supply chains, and the tax imposed by the authorities in New York on companies producing more than a certain amount of textile waste.
Attendees also discussed how they: structure their businesses to utilise raw materials and services which are close to their bases; choose to make smaller collections to improve sustainability; make sure that any raw materials which are used are responsibly sourced; and assess their environmental impact on an annual basis. One attendee mentioned that it is rare for sustainability teams within retail organisations to have conversations with the buying team; this dialogue is crucial so that businesses do not undermine their good sustainability practices through their purchasing practices. Attendees also highlighted on several occasions the tension between using materials responsibly, and taking the time to undertake research into suppliers, and competing with the "fast fashion" trend.
It is clear that action needs to be undertaken to improve the UK's sustainability record within the fashion industry. The hope is that, following the formal evidentiary hearings, discussion of these now well considered themes will translate into concrete, practical recommendations for businesses and consumers.