Corporate action on fashion sustainability ‘insufficient’, MPs warned

A group of environmentally-conscious fashion designers and academics have warned MPs that the current business models used across the fashion industry are unsustainable and that corporate efforts to embed circular economy principles into operations have proved themselves to be "insufficient".

Speaking at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) hearing at the V&A Museum in London on Tuesday (13 November) – which turned out to be the most-attended UK select committee hearing to date – representatives from Stella McCartney, Phoebe English, Christopher Raeburn, Hiut Denim and the London College of Fashion were quizzed on what needs to be done to ensure that the fashion industry operates within planetary boundaries.

The questioning formed part of the Committee’s ongoing inquiry into the impact of the so-called “fast-fashion” sector – where low-cost, low-quality items are produced in massive amounts within a cradle-to-grave business model.  

During the session, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked the witnesses how businesses were beginning to “embed sustainability” into their business models at all product stages, from design to end-of-life.

London College of Fashion’s head of fashion design for sustainability Dilys Williams told the hearing that big-name fashion retailers are moving source certified raw materials in bulk, rather than shifting to new business models that would be less resource or carbon-intensive.

“A lot of big businesses tend to concentrate on symptoms of the current unsustainability of the fashion industry and believe that businesses like theirs are the most appropriate place to start,” Williams explained.

“However, [this] approach is not sufficient. We can sustain the fashion industry as it currently is, but if we want to live within the planetary boundaries and create more equality, we need to take a more eco-centric approach.”

For such an approach to be adopted over a profit-led model, Williams urged companies to set goals on material reduction and avoid setting “consumer-driven” sales targets, while incorporating environmental and social sustainability into the cost of their products.

Reuse, resale and radical shifts

Speakers at the session were then asked how the fashion sector could reinvent itself as one driven by social and environmental sustainability rather than “profit at any cost”.

Stella McCartney’s sustainability director Claire Bergkamp noted that the luxury brand had adopted this ethos by using a natural capital approach to accounting, assigning a monetary value to natural resources to help factor environmental sustainability into all decisions.

Designers Phoebe English and Graeme Raeburn, meanwhile, encouraged other brands to follow their lead in offering garment repair and servitisation services and called for the Government to implement policies to make repair cheaper than buying new clothes.

“There is a big problem with how high-street brands are functioning at the moment and I think they know their time is coming,” English said.  

“They know that the generations of kids growing up currently will not be shopping in the way that we are now. The sharing economy and post-ownership are strange, mythical things in discussion, but in practice, this is actually a ground-breaking new route which can not only make a huge difference to how we consume clothes but generate real excitement from business.”

While brands such as VF Corporation are already making this shift towards closed-loop, service-based models, Williams argued that the transition will need to be “culture-wide” if it is to have any impact.

“We really need to realise the value of things more and be incentivised to not just buy, but to wear and repair, instead of feeling like the only way to be socially acceptable is by buying more stuff and discarding what we’ve already got,” Williams said.

“The so-called democratisation of fashion that is seen to be through low prices is a myth – we are buying 400% more pieces than we were 20 years ago, and we are spending more money on things that we are chucking away. I think that we have to change cultures.”

For Williams, such a change of culture would entail the teaching of repair and reuse in schools and new advertising legislations on consumerist messages, in addition to action from businesses.

Fast fashion frenzy

As part of its enquiry, the EAC has sent letters to the likes of Primark, Next and Marks and Spencer (M&S) to demand greater disclosure on their environmental and social impact, with brands informed that any information may be used as evidence in the probe.

Last week, the Committee sent similar letters to online-only retailers such as Amazon UK and Boohoo, after evidence from academics, investigative journalists and industry body representatives suggested that some UK garment workers are paid between £3.50 and £5 per hour to make clothes for such brands.

The enquiry comes at a time when UK residents are believed to be purchasing an average of 26.7kg of clothing every year  – more than any other European nation – and spending more than £1,000 per year on fashion. Many of these purchases are believed to end up as waste, with the World Wear Project estimating that 85% of the 35kg of clothing disposed of annually by the average household is sent to landfill.

Sarah George

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