Cohort of fast fashion brands chastised for lagging behind rest of the industry when it comes to environmental action
Committee rooms in Westminster are not known for offering gripping entertainment, but for fashion insiders interested in sustainability, the recent slew of interviews with bosses from fast fashion retailers made for addictive viewing.
Not only did they provide a fascinating insight into how the booming fashion world of £8 dresses and £3 t-shirts actually operates, it shone a harsh spotlight on the lack of consideration environmental issues are given under such business models. Leading online fashion brands were left visibly non-plussed when asked by Committee members about the steps they were taking to reduce their environmental impact and reduce waste.
But the EAC wasn't there to make good TV. The hearing was part of a wider investigation into the UK's fast fashion industry, which included writing to 16 of the UK's leading fashion retailers demanding more detail on how the industry is mitigating its environmental impact. The letter, sent to firms including Marks & Spencer, Primark, Next, Arcadia, Asda, Tesco, JD Sports, and Sports Direct, asked executives to explain how they are working to increase the use of recycled materials, encourage people to keep clothes for longer, and cut the carbon impact of their operations.
The Committee's final report will be released in the coming weeks, but today the EAC releases its assessment of retailers' efforts to drive change across the industry, based on their responses to the letters.
Its findings suggest a group of retailers, including JD Sports, Sports Direct, Amazon UK and Boohoo, are lagging behind the rest of industry when it comes to sustainability issues.
Members of this cohort, labelled as the 'less engaged' retailers, have all failed to sign up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) that encourages members to set targets for cutting water, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. They have also not signed up to the Action, Collaboration, and Transformation (ACT) agreement on labour rights and living wage entitlement. None use organic or sustainable cotton in their garments, and just two - Boohoo and Sports Direct - use any recycled materials.
Amazon, in particular, was called out for its lack of engagement. "We received a two-page response which did not engage substantively with the questions posed," the Committee said in its report. "While we understand that Amazon is a logistics provider and a seller on behalf of other businesses, Amazon UK is a growing member of the UK fashion industry, with own label brands and as a patron of the British Fashion Council. Its size, online reach and potential for growth as a fashion retailer means it will have to engage more seriously with its sustainability responsibilities in future."
The responses also exposed the gaps in some firms' grasp of sustainability issues. For example, when asked about microplastics, the microscopic plastic fibres clothes shed when washed, JD Sports responded by explaining its recycling efforts. When asked about its use of recycled fabrics, Missguided said because it does not sell much fleece, which is made of recycled bottles, it had little to say on the subject.
According to the EAC, the response from Missguided "demonstrates a lack of understanding of the range of industry initiatives on recycled materials". "The retailer has a wide online reach and is influential amongst its target audience of 16 to 29-year-old women," the report said. "We believe they can do much more to understand, raise awareness and address sustainability issues in the industry."
EAC chair Mary Creagh was left decidedly unimpressed. "It's shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers," she stated.
By comparison, ASOS, Primark, Burberry, Marks & Spencer, and Tesco were flagged as the 'most engaged' retailers. All use organic cotton and recycled material for some of their products, run 'take back' schemes for customers to dispose of old clothes, and all - with the exception of Burberry - have signed up to SCAP.
Others, such as Next and Arcadia - which owns the Topshop brands - were found to be making some effort to ramp up their environmental activities and strengthen their work on labour market rights, but the EAC concluded they "have the potential to do more".
The findings suggest a splintering of the UK fashion market, between firms keen to be seen leading the pack on sustainability issues, and laggard companies paying little focus to their environmental impacts.
However, what is clear that both sides of this two tier market have a substantial environmental footprint. Shoppers in the UK buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe and the industry remains a huge source of emissions, waste, and water use.
Creagh said she hoped the publication of the EAC's interim report today would encourage customers to reconsider where they spend their money and reward those firms that are doing the most to tackle these environmental challenges.
"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," she said. "We hope this motivates underperforming retailers to start taking responsibility for their workers and their environmental impact."
The advent of fast fashion has changed how Britain buys, and wears, its clothes. In some ways, it has been a revelation. Consumers have more choice, and access, to new garments than ever before. But that comes with a hefty environmental and social toll. It is clear the industry must find a way to please shoppers without wrecking the environment - but so far, only some firms are taking this challenge seriously.
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