The United Kingdom's House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee has brought out a report which shows that the way we make, use and throw away our clothes is unsustainable. According to the report, textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution.
Synthetic fibres are being found in the deep sea, in Arctic sea ice, in fish and shellfish. It also mentions how the biggest retailers have ‘chased the cheap needle around the planet’, commissioning production in countries with low pay, little trade union representation and weak environmental protection. In many countries, poverty pay and conditions are standard for garment workers, most of whom are women.
The report has also raised concern about the use of child labour, prison labour, forced labour and bonded labour in factories and the garment supply chain.
As per the report, fashion is a big business in the UK. “We buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe. The fashion industry was worth £32 billion to the UK economy in 2017. This was an increase of 5.4% on 2016; a growth rate 1.6% higher than the rest of the economy” the report said.
The industry employs 890,000 people in the UK in retail, manufacturing, brands and fashion design businesses. According to consultants McKinsey the global apparel, fashion and luxury industry outperformed all other market indexes in profitability between 2003 - 2013 ‘outstripping even high-growth sectors like technology and telecommunications.’
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The garment industry is reportedly the world’s third biggest manufacturing industry after automotive and technology industries. While the report states that our consumption creates jobs and growth in developing nations, it also leaves them with the bulk of environmental and social costs. “Eco Age warned that competition between countries for inward investment was driving a race to the bottom in terms of standards: Countries have to compete against each other for inward investment and production in their jurisdiction. Because of this competition for lower wages and standards they are unable to raise their minimum wage to a level that provides for a decent life, that is, a living wage. There is a race to the bottom in terms of wages and environmental standards.”
“Fast Fashion” Encouraging Over-Consumption
Fast Fashion business model, a term used to describe a new accelerated fashion business model that has evolved since the 1980s, involves increased numbers of new fashion collections every year, quick turnarounds and often lower prices. However, concerns were raised throughout the inquiry that the current ‘fast fashion’ business model is encouraging over-consumption and generating excessive waste.
The report noted, “Many of our witnesses criticised the fast fashion business model for driving overconsumption, the production of clothes so cheap they are being treated disposably, and excessive waste. Stella Claxton from the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University said that the value of much fast fashion clothing was low, not only in financial (terms) but also in emotional terms.”
The report named, “Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability” concluded that Fast fashions’ overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is based on the globalisation of indifference towards manual workers and environment or sustainable development.
“Forced labour is used to pick cotton in two of the world’s biggest cotton producing countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Labour exploitation is also taking place in the UK” it said. It further noted that while ‘Made in the UK’ should mean workers are paid at least the minimum wage, it was found that some garment factories in places like Leicester were not paying the minimum wage.
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The report also noted that while this must stop, but if the risk of being caught is low, then the incentive to cut corners is high. People buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe. Therefore, a glut of second-hand clothing swamping the market is depressing prices for used textiles.
The main concern highlighted in the report was that what can’t be sold is torn up and turned into insulation and mattress stuffing and worse still, around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in household black bins every year, sent to landfill or incinerators. “Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life. Meanwhile, retailers are burning new unsold stock merely to preserve their brand. Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. But the fashion industry has marked its own homework for too long.”
While the scientific warnings are stark on sustainability, voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives have failed significantly to improve pay and working conditions or reduce waste. Overconsumption and climate change are driving mass extinction.
The report has suggested the need for new economic model for fashion. A range of exciting, innovative and sustainable fashion businesses and designers in the UK who are forging a new vision for fashion, are faced with competition from businesses who are focused on reducing costs and maximising profits regardless of the environmental or social costs. It has recommended that the Government should change the law 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.
They have also recommended that the Government reform 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 (in garments designed to minimise shedding) would also help to reduce the negative impact of the clothing industry.
“The Government should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste. A charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise £35 million to invest in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK” the report said. It also added that UK Government’s recent pledge to review and consult on extended producer responsibility for the textile industry by 2025 is too slow and that action is needed to be taken before the end of the current Parliament.