Fashion giants urged to decrease clothing production as part of their sustainability plans

The British Fashion Council (BFC) is urging big-name companies to go beyond setting headline sustainability targets to cut emissions and waste in-house, and reduce the number of garments they are producing.

Globally, more than 100 billion garments and 20 billion pairs of shoes are produced every year

Globally, more than 100 billion garments and 20 billion pairs of shoes are produced every year

Doing so, the not-for-profit is arguing, could create some 500,000 jobs by 2035, as well as shrinking the fashion sector’s sizeable contributions to the climate crisis and the global waste mountain.

A new report from the BFC today (23 September), describes itself as a “blueprint for the future of fashion” in a world that is aiming to reach net-zero by mid-century, improve resource efficiency and improve social equality. It is entitled ‘The Circular Fashion Ecosystem: A Blueprint for the Future’.

Drawing on past research into the sheer scale of the negative environmental and social impacts historically caused by the fashion sector, as well as interviews with dozens of experts across the fashion value chain, the report sets out three new targets the BFC would like to see the industry adopt: cutting the volume of new products manufactured annually; working with consumers to reduce new purchases and increasing investment in recycling technologies.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, just 1% of the textiles produced by the global fashion sector every year are recycled in a closed-loop manner.  The new report from the BFC estimates that this portion is higher in the UK, at 3%, but ultimately concludes that reduced production and consumption must be prioritised as recycling technologies, infrastructure and systems improve.

On the report’s recommendation that brands work together to reduce production, a specific, time-bound, numerical target has not been set. Experts in the field have repeatedly stated that brands are generally reluctant to disclose the amount of products they sell. Some have disclosed: Inditex, for example, has stated that it markets around 450 million different products annually, selling some three billion pieces. Global manufacturing levels are believed to surpass 100 billion garments and 20 billion pairs of shoes.

The BFC report states: “The current UK demand for new clothing is unsustainable, driving a significant material, carbon, and water footprint for the industry.

“Reducing the demand for new physical clothing is also important because the current volume of used clothing exported by the UK will likely not be viable in the long-term; 60% of clothing collected for reuse and recycling was exported in 2017."

However, there is a time-bound, numerical target on reducing consumption. The report recommends that UK shoppers should be supported to halve the amount of fashion items they purchase annually. It reiterates the fact that UK adults currently buy more clothing, by weight, than most other high-income countries; the rate is 16kg per person per year.

Alternatives to new clothes for consumers include pre-owned garments, rented, repaired and virtual outfits. The report emphasises how many shoppers are already using these options. It states that 37% of shoppers use a rental service, while 58% repair clothing at home and 63% buy some level of pre-owned fashion. The report also argues that alternative business models can be just as economically successful as traditional take-make-sell-dispose models – if not more.

In interviewing experts for the report, the BFC uncovered differing opinions on how brands should decrease production and engage with consumers. Some called for a financial imperative for retailers to change their practices, others for legal mandates, others for more qualitative research into what enhances the emotional durability of an item of clothing. Physical durability refers to how much wear an item can take, while emotional durability is about whether the owner feels they want to keep and use the item. Challenges to emotional durability discussed in the report include an ever-accelerating trend cycle, with many fast-fashion retailers now offering daily or weekly product drops, compared to the industry’s traditional seasonal approach.  

Policy interventions

Taking all of the interviews and secondary research into account, the BFC has put forward a string of recommendations for policymakers in the UK, which it claims could be major enablers of a systemic shift for the industry.

The headline recommendation is for alterations to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, so that manufacturers and fast fashion brands are legally required to contribute to the cost of dealing with textile waste. 60% of the UK fashion sector’s waste is generated at the consumer level, the report states.

New EPR requirements for the sector are in the pipeline, under the Resources and Waste Strategy. This Strategy was first published in 2018. Several key strategy consultations had originally been diarised for 2020 but were pushed back due to Covid-19.

The BFC also recommends that the Government should increase the investment of public funds into new sorting and recycling technologies for textiles, as well as start-ups adopting circular business models.

The UK Government has long faced scrutiny over its lack of green policy provisions for the fashion sector. 2019 saw the Government throwing out all recommendations made by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in its ‘Fixing Fashion’ inquiry, including mandatory carbon, waste and water targets for large businesses and a 1p tax on all garments to fund recycling. The EAC began a follow-up inquiry in late 2020 but progress has proven slow as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

“The UK has all the ingredients needed to create a blueprint for a circular fashion economy that will deliver significant environmental, commercial and societal benefits,” the BFC’s chief executive Caroline Rush said.

“The mammoth job at hand to put this into action can be supercharged through a Sustainable Fashion Programme that sees, industry, Government and stakeholders all come to the table to play their part beyond their focus of each individual business.  We are already seeing this with our emerging designers, however with large commercial businesses, re-commerce businesses, academia, innovators, funders, logistics providers, waste management and recycling providers and the broader ecosystem coming together with Government, we have an opportunity to create this target state quicker and in doing so creating jobs and skills benefiting the UK as a whole.”

Sarah George



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