The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a critical new report last month that provides an appraisal of the UK fashion industry’s environmental price tag. Entitled Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumptions and Sustainability,” the robust report examines the impact of how we make, use, and dispose of our clothing.
As a cross-party committee of backbench MPs that is formed by the House of Commons, the EAC is committed investigating the environmental performance and policies of the Government and its public bodies and to hold them accountable. In conducting their inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, they focus on both environmental and social sustainability in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which the UK Government signed up to in 2015.
On top of the many alarming findings the report makes about the effects of the fashion industry, the central driving force behind the EACs call-to-action is our culture of consumption.
We buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe. More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
By 2030 global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63%, from 62 million tons today to 102 million tons””equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts. The UN says that by 2050 the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles given the growth in global population.
As the clothing charity TRAID states, “the over-consumption of clothes in the UK plays its part in deepening the main environmental challenges that we face at national and global level.”
Professor Tim Cooper from the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University agrees that our behaviour is reflective of a far greater issue. He argues that “sustainable consumption demands cultural change. The throwaway culture applies to the whole economy, not merely the clothing sector. If consumers are to be encouraged to buy fewer clothes there needs to be a wider public debate on the future of the consumer society, including an evaluation of its benefits and costs.”
The designer Phoebe English believes history will look on the waste and exploitation involved in todays fashion industry as unsavoury, “in the same way we now look back at Victorian Workhouses with utter incredulous horror.” She is firm in her assertion that legislators must keep pace with the demands of ethical consumers to shape a better future for fashion.
The UK has an exciting ecosystem of sustainable fashion businesses, researchers and designers who are already forging a new vision for fashion. The value of the ethical clothing market increased by 19.9% in 2018, according to Ethical Consumer magazine.
Despite promising growth, there are certain barriers that the UKs ethical fashion companies face. Innovators who care about the people and planet are faced with competition from businesses who are concentrated on reducing costs and maximising profits regardless of the environmental or social costs.
Kate Osborne from Butterfly Mark awarded shoe brand Po-Zu comments “Sustainable fashion is competing on a completely unlevel playing field and this is especially apparent during the Black Friday /Cyber Monday holiday season. The reason fast fashion businesses can afford to discount so heavily is that somewhere along the supply chain, someone has paid the price”“be it environmentally or through sweatshop labour.”
The EAC is passionate about fostering a thriving fashion industry in the UK that provides decent work, inspires creativity and contributes to the economic success of the UK. The exploitative and linear business model for fashion must change and the report demands a new economic standard of fashion. They are calling for the Government to require companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains and to provide clear economic incentives for retailers to do the right thing.
Furthermore, they recommend that the Government reforms taxation to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not. Moving from conventional to organic cotton and from virgin polyester to recycled PET to minimise microplastic shedding which would help to reduce the negative impact of the clothing industry.
As Graeme Raeburn of Raeburn contends, “there is an opportunity here to stimulate industry and growth, and place the UK at the forefront of responsible, innovative and – most importantly – desirable and stylish fashion.”
Image credits: Unsplash and Po-Zu