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Your 5 minute snapshot: practical recommendations for brands and retailers to improve their sustainability practices

Posted on 21 January 2019

Your 5 minute snapshot: practical recommendations for brands and retailers to improve their sustainability practices

The Environmental Audit Committee's investigation into the UK's fashion industry continued at the end of 2018, with the Committee hearing from two sets of witnesses in November, and holding a final hearing just before Christmas. The second hearing, which had a particular focus on "fast fashion", generated considerable press interest.  It built on the themes noted in the first hearing, as we reported here, but with a greater focus on workers' rights and the practicalities of auditing the supply chain. It also highlighted the extent of the sustainability issue in the UK, with the purchase rate of new clothes in the UK now higher than in any other European country. The Committee's final report is due to be published in February.

Representatives from well known UK brands and retailers (Marks & Spencer, Primark, Arcadia Group and Burberry) attended the first half of the hearing, with representatives from the UK's "fast fashion" industry (Boohoo, ASOS and Missguided) attending the second half.

The key recommendations which we expect the Committee to make in its report, further to the second hearing, are:

  • Brands should have a better awareness of factory working conditions and an understanding of their supply chain (from the raw materials right through to the shop floor). Particular emphasis was placed on ensuring that factory workers are paid a fair wage. Where brands discover a problem with a particular supplier, they should maintain that relationship, helping them to implement positive changes and meet the required standards. Brands should only cease dealing with a supplier if it refuses to implement any necessary changes.
  • Brands should meet regularly with worker representatives to gain an understanding of working conditions. Having a union in place, with the freedom to voice concerns, is one of the checks and balance within a factory, and brands should implement a suitable channel for workers to voice their concerns and consider allowing factory workers to be part of collective bargaining agreements.  
  • Brands should implement a code of conduct and regularly audit members of their supply chain, working with affected suppliers to fix any issues that are identified. However, auditing is not perfect and is simply a statement of what can be seen at the time of the audit. Business teams should work closely with auditors, when selecting and reviewing suppliers, and listen to all stakeholders within their supply chain (including any trade unions, local NGOs, government advisors and other brands operating with that particular supplier) to form an opinion of a particular country or factory, and to monitor any developments with a supplier. When undertaking audits, brands should use independent third party auditors to set the standards and conduct the audits. Brands should also make random and unannounced visits to suppliers to check on their working practices.
  • Maintaining control throughout the supply chain is important, particularly when brands allow for subcontracting. The Committee noted that having multiple tiers of suppliers "sounds like a recipe for underpayment of wages" and so auditing at all levels of the supply chain is important. This will also lower the risk of unauthorised subcontracting by suppliers.
  • The second half of the hearing, in particular, undertook a robust and somewhat cynical analysis of the low retail price of items, and the likelihood of workers being paid at least minimum wage, with the Committee asking "how can you sell a dress for £5 when the minimum wage is £7.83?" In response, the "fast fashion" brands noted that the lower priced items form only a small part of their entire collection, are often loss leaders or a marketing tool to drive visits to their websites.
  • The witnesses considered the potential channels for dealing with excess stock and waste, with burning excess stock identified as an industry wide problem. The hearing discussed the possibility of take back schemes, encouraging customers to return items in store or donating any excess stock to charity. Whilst the acknowledgement of this issue is welcome, it was clear that there does not yet appear to be a satisfactory solution to this problem. Brands should be aware of the prominence given to any particular solution and how it is marketed and presented to consumers; for example placing recycling bins at the back of a store would not encourage customer engagement in the initiative.
  • As identified during the first hearing, there are issues with manufacturing with manmade materials e.g. fibre. New industries need to be encouraged to identify ways of reusing or recycling these materials, such as separating cotton from polyester to create raw cotton, and how best to use any leftover material. More research is needed on materials currently in use, for example the effect of coated cotton on the environment is unknown.
  • The first half of the hearing reviewed the durability issues of "fast fashion" products. Designers need to consider the durability and environmental effect of products from the outset. The "fast fashion" brands, who faced criticism from the Committee for encouraging their customer base to regularly buy cheap clothes, acknowledge this, but also noted that including sustainable fibres within production would consequentially increase the final product cost. The majority of attendees noted the power of social media to help guide and educate their customers about increasing the longevity of their purchases.
  • The witnesses commented on the need for legislation in this area to encourage positive behaviour. Attendees suggested a collaborative approach by brands, the government and consumers, and noted that any legislation needs to create a level playing field between brands (considering those solely operating online and the size of the retailer). Brands should also share information and learnings with each other. ASOS, in particular, highlighted details of its initiatives to the Committee, stating that any knowledge and progress should not form a competitive advantage for brands.

As with the first hearing, the attendees were clearly well aware of, and willing to engage with, the issue of sustainability. However there was no general consensus about how best to bring together the efforts of the industry, the government and consumers to tackle this issue. Given the numerous headlines surrounding the time in which the world has to tackle damaging climate change, the timetable is a pressured one. It is therefore hoped that the Committee's recommendations will offer clear and practical steps for the fashion and retail industries to implement.

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