Business models for UK fashion industry unsustainable, MPs warn

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has today (31 January) criticised major fashion retailers, including Sports Direct, Amazon and Missguided, for "failing to take action" to protect workers and promote environmental sustainability.

According to the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed £28.1bn to national GDP in 2015, up from £21bn in 2009

According to the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed £28.1bn to national GDP in 2015, up from £21bn in 2009

In autumn 2018 the (EAC) wrote to 16 UK fashion retailers, requesting information on the environmental and social impacts of their products. Having collated the responses, the EAC has today ranked the retailers based on their responses.

While companies like ASOS, Marks and Spencer (M&S), Tesco, Primark and Burberry were defined as “most engaged” for sourcing sustainable cotton, using recycled material and enrolling in collaborative initiatives, JD Sports, Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Amazon, Boohoo and Missguided were the “least engaged”.

Specifically, none of the “least engaged” retailers have signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan – a voluntary collaborative agreement to reduce carbon, water and waste footprints – or to the Action, Collaboration, Transformation (ACT) labour rights and living-wage agreement.

The EAC’s chair Mary Creagh MP said: “We want to see a thriving fashion industry that employs people fairly, inspires creativity and contributes to the economic success of the UK. It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers.

“By publishing this information, customers can choose whether they want to spend money with a company that is doing little to protect the environment or promote proper wages for garment workers. We hope this motivates underperforming retailers to start taking responsibility for their workers and their environmental impact.”

Exploitative and unsustainable

According to the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed £28.1bn to national GDP in 2015, up from £21bn in 2009. New research has revealed that UK residents are consuming new clothing at a faster rate than their counterparts in mainland Europe, purchasing an average of 26.7kg every year.

The EAC report concludes that the “current business model for UK fashion industry is unsustainable” and calls on the industry to end exploitative practices. The least engaged retailers were all highlighted for a failure to champion resource efficiency; of the six, only Boohoo and Sports Direct use recycled material in their products and only TK Maxx offers an in-store take back scheme.

Fortunately, some of the retailers’ responses have highlighted visible improvements for both working standards and environmental stewardship. ASOS, M&S, Tesco, Primark and Burberry use organic or sustainable cotton and some form of recycled material in their products. All except for Burberry are signed up to the SCAP initiative.

The EAC, additionally, welcomed Burberry’s announcement that it would end the incineration of unsold stock, after it was revealed that the brand had burned more than £28m worth of stock over a 12-month period.

The Committee welcomed Burberry’s commitment to end the incineration of unsold stock and acknowledge that the company is engaged with a range of other sustainability initiatives to reduce environmental impact.

Matt Mace


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