MPs accuse government of being 'out of step' with the public after Whitehall rejects pleas for fashion industry crackdown
The government has been accused of being "out of step" with the public mood today, after it refused to accept MPs' recommendations to require fashion retailers to better address environmental and social challenges across their operations.
Earlier this year, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) called on the government to introduce moves to force 'fast fashion' retailers to do more to tackle forced labour, environmental destruction, and excessive waste in the industry by reforming tax laws and requiring firms to contribute more towards the clean-up costs for waste garments.
But in a formal response to the report, the government today refused to explicitly accept any of the Committee's recommendations.
The proposals included plans for a one penny levy on every fashion item sold, which could have raised £35m for a new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme that would improve textile collection and recycling services across the country.
The government has previously said it is keen to extend EPR schemes to ensure businesses that create waste pay more towards its recycling and re-use, arguing it provides firms with a financial incentive to embrace more resource efficient production and circular economy business models. But in response to the EAC proposals, Defra said it would stick to its original timetable for consulting on a potential EPR for five new waste streams, including textiles, by 2025 - a promise it first made in 2018.
It also insisted voluntary programmes like the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) were delivering environmental progress on issues such as carbon emissions on a voluntary basis, pointing out that signatories to SCAP have reduced their water and carbon footprints by 17.7 per cent and 11.9 per cent respectively between 2012 and 2017.
But following an in-depth investigation into the fast fashion sector, the EAC concluded this year that a voluntary approach has "failed". Textile production creates an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Meanwhile, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation put the annual cost to the UK economy of landfilling clothing and household textiles at about £82m.
The EAC called for SCAP membership to be a mandatory requirement for fashion firms with an annual turnover of more than £36m a year - a call the government rejected today in favour of its strategy to "encourage the wider industry" to take part in the scheme.
The government also rejected calls from the EAC to ban the incineration or landfilling of unsold stock that can be reused or recycled, explaining that it believes "positive approaches are required to find outlets for waste textiles rather than simply imposing a landfill ban". Proposals for reducing VAT on repair services - as Sweden has done - were also dismissed, with the government arguing there is "little evidence" the move has helped Sweden in boosting reuse and repair services.
EAC chair Mary Creagh today accused the government of being "content to tolerate practices that trash the environment and exploit workers despite having just committed to net zero emission targets".
"The government is out of step with the public who are shocked by the fact that we are sending 300,000 tonnes of clothes a year to incineration or landfill," she said. "Ministers have failed to recognise that urgent action must be taken to change the fast fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the earth."
A British consumer buys on average of 26.7kg of new clothes every year - far more than any other European country. But according to a survey of fashion retailers published this month by trade magazine Drapers, more than 91 per cent said their customers are showing more interest in environmentalism, and 85 per cent said the government was not doing enough to help the fashion industry become more sustainable.
Almost 69 per cent of respondents agreed with the idea of a one penny producer responsibility charge, and the EAC's other proposals all garnered the support of 90 per cent of respondents.
The British Retail Consortium, the trade body for the retail sector, represents some of the UK's largest fashion firms including Gap, John Lewis, ASOS, New Look, Primark, and Reiss. In a statement it said its members are already taking action to be more sustainable, although it admitted retailers also recognise "more needs to be done".
"Our members are increasing the use of sustainable materials, designing garments that are made to last, and encouraging customers to return unwanted clothes for reuse, so they can turn old t-shirts into new ones," pointed out Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium. "The industry will work with the government as part of the Resources & Waste Strategy to reduce waste and will continue to find ways to make fashion more sustainable."
With the government signalling it will not consider a more demanding producer responsibility scheme until 2025 at the earliest it looks like the industry has been given yet another chance to clean up its act. But with online fashion brand Missguided seeing criticism of its newly launched £1 bikini made from a plastic-based material going viral on social media this weekend, the industry should be under no illusions that calls for it to enhance its sustainability credentials will now in wane.
Moreover, any future government now has a ready made set of off-the-peg policy proposals for boosting clothes recycling rates and driving more circular models. The EAC is surely right to argue that wastefulness is no longer in fashion, regardless of the government's conclusions.
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