Fixing Fashion 5 years on: lobbying continues

Fixing Fashion 5 years on
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In February 2019, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published ‘Fixing Fashion’, the landmark final report from their inquiry into the significant environmental and social impact of the fashion industry.

At the time, our Senior Managing Partner Sian Conway-Wood, a UK Government Green Ambassador with extensive experience of communications in the ethical and sustainable fashion industry, supported a number of UK ethical fashion SMEs, industry bodies and sustainability-focused designers to respond to the inquiry, and reported on the impacts and recommended policy action to help shape public consciousness and drive industry engagement.

On 1 May 2024, five years on from the Fixing Fashion report, the EAC gathered in the Palace of Westminster to take stock of the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts since the report. 

The oral evidence session also comes just one month after the UK Competition and Markets Authority concluded their investigation into 3 major fast fashion brands, and published an open letter to the industry which updated the Green Claims Code with fashion industry specific regulations as to how brands can promote their sustainability initiatives.

Today, Sian explores the progress, policy recommendations and role of legislation in driving real change…

Fixing Fashion: understanding the issues 

The British Fashion Council has said that we have enough clothing on the planet to dress the next six generations. 

And yet 100 billion new garments are produced annually around the world.

In 2021, a report by Oxford Economics found that in the UK the fashion industry contributes £62 billion in GDP and supports one in every 25 jobs, as well as generating £1 in every £30 of HMRC’s total tax receipts in 2021.

With complex global supply chains comes labour issues, high emissions and a huge waste footprint generated from throwaway fast fashion and overconsumption. 

But the economic footprint of the industry is also significant, and driving real change is complex.

The Fixing Fashion report included 17 policy recommendations, including strengthening the Modern Slavery Act for textiles, introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR), and offering tax incentives for reuse and repair.

Unfortunately, the government rejected all of them – although some have since become key pillars in the EU’s bid to legislate within the fashion industry.

Since the inquiry ended, voluntary action has been nowhere near the scale needed to address the issues in fashion supply chains, many of which were brought starkly into the spotlight in 2020 when fashion brands cancelled orders due to the pandemic, triggering a humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh.

In the same year fast fashion brand Boohoo was rocked by scandal when the working conditions in their Leicester factory made headlines for lax safety measures and paying workers less than minimum wage. 

The year before, Boohoo Group stated that they do not see the benefit of joining the Ethical Trading Initiative; an alliance that protects the rights of workers around the world. Carol Kane, Boohoo Group’s co-founder and joint Chief Executive, told the Fixing Fashion inquiry: “being members we will be required to publish our whole supply chain, which is currently our engine room”.

And since the Fixing Fashion report’s publication we’ve also witnessed the introduction of the ‘ultra fast fashion’ category – increasing production and waste even further, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt encouraging Chinese fast fashion giant Shein to list in London despite lobbying from Britain’s largest retailers over alleged tax loopholes allowing Shein to pay much lower customs duty bills than UK competitors.

Fixing Fashion: finding solutions

At this week’s EAC oral evidence session, brands were asked to submit evidence on the extent of their social and environmental impacts, share the progress made in the last 5 years and feedback on how government policies have or could support them to achieve more.

15 of the invited brands declined to attend, with only 3 of those submitting written evidence following the meeting.

During the session, Claudia Webbe, MP for Leicester East, took the opportunity to question Boohoo about their supply chain, and called for a statutory garment regulator to ensure goods are made ethically, and only imported if this can be proven.

Again, there were calls for Extended Producer Responsibility, more investment in recycling infrastructure and a levy on new products for EPR. Modern slavery remained a significant concern.

During the session Professor Dilys Williams, Founder and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at University of the Arts London, observed that there is no infrastructure set up to enable fashion companies to be responsible, and there is no competitive advantage to behaving that way, citing the current system as a ‘licence to do harm’.

By not adopting any of the report’s recommendations five years ago, the government has left the fashion industry to mark its own homework, and we can clearly see that that hasn’t worked.

For too long, the responsibility has fallen to the consumer to “make the right choice” – but in an industry where greenwashing is rife, the cost of living is high and the fast fashion production model over-stimulates the ‘excitement of new’, that’s virtually impossible to do.

When it comes to sustainability in fashion, the scale of production and consumption has always been the elephant in the room. 

Many larger brands have been willing to make changes around the edges – introducing ‘responsible’ capsule collections, organic cotton and ‘recycled’ materials (which still cause microplastics), and controversial in-store recycling drop points (another area rocked by scandal when a 2023 report by the Changing Markets Foundation uncovered significant discrepancies between the brands’ claims of recycling garments and their actual fate) – but none have been willing to address the volume problem behind the industry’s ethical and sustainability issues.

As many as 40% of clothes made each year (60bn garments) are not sold. 

There is very little transparency around the overproduction levels in the industry, and brands have had their reputations tarnished by scandal surrounding the disposal of unsold stock. 

The current manufacturing system incentivises volume, with high minimum order quantities and economies of scale bringing the unit price down as the order quantity grows. 

Fashion SMEs that have prioritised ethics and sustainability find their growth negatively impacted by the pressure to keep clothes cheap, in line with expectations set by the fast fashion industry. Without large profit margins they struggle to reach economies of scale when sourcing raw materials like organic cotton or placing orders with their factories, which, in turn, prevents them reaching significant market share comparable to the industry’s fast fashion giants.

And as Professor Williams pointed out during the hearing, “The UK is the fourth highest emitter per person of fashion in the G20, and it is not just people with low incomes. There is this myth that low-priced fashion is for people with low incomes. If you look at the footprint of fashion across the different income sectors, it is actually the middle to high-income earners.”

According to the Hot or Cool report 2022, the richest 20% need to reduce their footprint of fashion consumption by 83% in the UK.

Fashion brands are clearly reluctant to be transparent about their supply chains and production levels. But without transparency, conscious consumers cannot make informed decisions or hold brands accountable, which makes individual behaviour change even harder to achieve.

To reduce consumption at the scale and speed required to meet 2030 and 2050 climate targets, we need widespread change across the industry and its highest volume consumers.

That won’t come from individual behavioural nudges alone. 

legislation for change

Legislation is always the slowest piece of the puzzle when it comes to driving real change, but it’s an essential one. 

Without incentives, support and a level competitive playing field, brands won’t invest in real circular solutions, or risk shrinking their margins by implementing more ethical trade standards and higher wages when others are not doing the same.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Lorna Fallon, Trading Director at Oxfam, emphasised the importance of creating a level playing field through regulation: “The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion states that consumers are buying 60% more clothing than they did 15 years ago. The status quo is bringing with it a high cost to the planet and to people. The fashion industry has a responsibility to address this urgently.”

“At Oxfam, we do not believe that voluntary will resolve this. We feel that there needs to be legislation to hold the fashion industry to account. We do not have a precise policy ask, but we do feel that there needs to be better regulation of the industry to bring it up to standard and ensure there is a level playing field.”

Marcus Hartmann, Head of Public Affairs at H&M agreed: “We welcome sound and good legislation. We want to create a level playing field for the industry. There are a lot of companies doing a lot of good pushing the agenda on this, but we need the others to join as well.”

“I fully agree with what Lorna was saying that, voluntarily, this probably will not happen, but we need this to be a level playing field and as harmonised as possible. We are a global company and we operate, as I said, in almost 80 markets. I realise that it is maybe a utopian dream to find harmonised legislation in 79 markets, but let’s see what we can do to come as close as possible to that.”

Sustainability and human rights legislation and reporting standards are continuing to develop and evolve around the world. And while not every brand is currently willing to come to the table, the EAC is continuing to shine a spotlight on the industry’s challenges and push for regulatory changes, which some of the industry’s biggest brands are engaging with.

That’s why it’s essential that sustainability-focused and ethical fashion brands engage in the process too. Campaigners, SMEs and industry experts must have a voice in the development of new regulations and continue to lobby for change to ensure that their people, planet and business priorities are represented at the political table.

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