The Price of Fashion: our exclusive Q&A with the Chair Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh MP

The Price of Fashion: our exclusive Q&A with the Chair Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh MP

For the past months the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee (EAC) has taken evidence from companies and individuals across the fashion industry (including Fashion Roundtable) for their Sustainability of the Fashion Industry Inquiry, led by Mary Creagh MP. The Committee finalised its inquiry on February 19th, with the release of Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability, outlining eighteen conclusions and recommendations on how policy can help a broken industry. Previous successes of the EAC include the ban on microbeads, and leaves us hopeful of change following the Committee’s conclusions.

Although the inquiry is a step in the right direction, finally calling to account an industry that has bypassed the scrutiny faced by the food and transport industry, the report is simply a set of recommendations that can or cannot be adopted by government, which is expected to respond by mid April. Granted that the problems (and therefore solutions) that emerged from the inquiry require more complex solutions than a ban, but the recommendations such as a 1p tax on garments and a ban on incineration and landfills as means of garment disposal, are effective and straight-forward to implement, and also allow for innovative solutions to be developed.

From labour exploitation in Leicester to over production and unchecked use of resources, the evidence received by the Committee made for shocking reading. Perhaps more shocking than the evidence in itself, was the fact that the industry has been allowed to mark their own homework for far too long: schemes such as SCAP, the Ethical Trading Initiative, Commitment to Climate Change Risk Reporting initiative and Action, Collaboration, Transformation (ACT) are all on a voluntary basis and up to very recently, have not had an impact in the desirability of the brand in the eyes of the consumer. In 2015, a report found that 66 percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable goods, compared to a statement by Forbes in 2011 that “consumers and markets are unwilling to pay more for sustainability, but more than willing to punish when it is lacking.” With ‘sustainability’ trending on the global agenda, and the amount of attention given to this inquiry, it will be interesting to see whether the public will put pressure on the government and scrutinise their response. If anything, the inquiry was successful in motivating a revision of the models, practices and values at the core of the millennial fashion and retail industry.

Fashion Roundtable’s Rafaella de Freitas had the exclusive opportunity to ask Mary Creagh MP what her thoughts were about the inquiry and its conclusions:

Q1: In your opinion, what would be the most effective tool for government to implement restrictions and obligations?

A: The Government has multiple policy tools it could use to improve the sustainability of the fashion industry. It can use legislation to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act and the Companies Act to address the many labour market issues we heard during our inquiry. It could also use the tax system to incentivise more sustainable and responsible business practices.

In our report we recommended that the Government introduce an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme and ensure WRAP’s Sustainable Action Clothing Plan is adequately funded to promote sustainability and address the end of life of products.  

Q2: Do you see SMEs being at an advantage or disadvantage in comparison to larger retailers in attempting to adopt more sustainable practices?

A: Bigger firms with more resources really have no excuse not to be taking sustainability seriously now, but we found that only a few of them are taking meaningful action. Excitingly, the UK does have a growing eco-system of innovative sustainable fashion businesses and many of the new economic models for fashion we heard about during our inquiry are, or began as, SMEs. These included clothing libraries, baby clothes subscription services, upcycling and repair cafes, and clothes sharing and sales apps.  

Even though these companies are sometimes at a competitive disadvantage, they are demonstrating to larger retailers how they can adopt more sustainable practices like recovering and reselling items, hiring or renting clothing and developing subscription models for clothing.  

Q3: What are the three points that you would like Defra to pick up on?

A: It is essential for Defra, and the Government as a whole, to understand that the way we make, use and throwaway our clothes is unsustainable. Our excessive fashion consumption is causing a waste problem both in the UK and overseas.

Defra should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the textile waste they create by introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste. The Government’s recent pledge to review and consult on how to deal with textile waste by 2025 is too little too late. We need action before the end of this parliament (2022).  

We would also like to see the Department consider whether it could apply its promised tax on virgin plastics to synthetic garments that don’t contain recycled plastic.  

Defra should also bring together fashion retailers, water companies and washing machine manufacturers to work together to solve the problem of microfibre pollution. We need changes in the law to end the era of throwaway fashion.  

Q4: Why do you think UK consumers are purchasing more compared to other countries in the EU?

A: UK consumers are presented with a huge amount of choice from traditional and online retailers. Fast fashion has made it affordable for everyone to experience the pleasure of style, design and the latest trends, but it has also encouraged a culture of excessive consumption where some people wear garments only a few times before they are binned. As consumers we have to understand that the most sustainable garment is the one we already own and that repairing, rewearing, reusing and renting are preferable to recycling or discarding clothes.   

Q5: What are your thoughts on a traffic light labelling system for garments (similar to what is used in the food industry)? 

A: A traffic light labelling system for garments may have merits, however, we shouldn’t be putting the onus on consumers to weigh up all the information. Sustainable fashion shouldn’t be some sort of lifestyle choice. We need to be legislating to make sure all companies reduce the environmental impact of their products. Introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme to encourage greater clothing recycling has to be the first step.  

Q6: What are your thoughts on real fur and fake fur?

A: During our inquiry we heard evidence that companies are moving towards going fur free and there is a possibility for the UK to ban the sale of fur. We also heard from the International Fur Federation that fur should be considered a more sustainable fibre than fake fur, as it is biodegradable and does not contribute to microplastic pollution. This is an issue that needs to be investigated fully and our colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently recommended that the Government holds a public consultation to consider whether to ban fur altogether.

Q7: What can the government do to stop retailers buying from other countries where forced labour is common, and is there a danger that increasing regulations on domestic producers will encourage retailers to purchase from factories operating in countries with lower regulations?

A: Forced labour is not acceptable in supply chains and retailers have a duty to ensure it is stamped out. Our report made a number of recommendations to the Government to address concerns about labour abuses in supply chains. These included updating the Companies Act 2006 to include an explicit reference to ‘modern slavery’ and ‘supply chains’, making a statement on human rights mandatory in annual reports and strengthening the Modern Slavery Act to require large companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains. These changes would apply to companies irrespective of where they source their products.  

Q8: How soon can we expect Baroness Lola Young’s amendment to Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act to be implemented?

A: The Government has commissioned Frank Field MP, Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss to conduct a review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Section 54 on transparency in supply chains is one of four areas the review is focusing on. The Review is expected to produce a final report by the end of March 2019 which will make recommendations to the Government. It is for the Government to then proceed with the recommendations.

Q9: How can the government implement the 1p tax on producers (recommendation 15)? And in your opinion, would the tax be most effective if it were charged to manufacturers or to retailers?

A: The Government should examine how the French Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles was introduced and currently operates. They should then consult with stakeholders about how a similar scheme can be applied in the UK, ensuring that any money raised by the scheme is invested in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK.

In France, EPR applies to producers, distributers and importers. The contribution fee is paid by product, only once, by the brand that is responsible for the introduction of the said product on the French market. That means that if a retailer commissions the product for sale then it that company that pays the charge. This makes any company who places clothing on the French market provide for and manage the recycling of their products at their end of life. The Government should consider this approach in a consultation.

Q10: How can the government apply the virgin tax on textiles containing less than 50% recycled PET (recommendation 12)? Would this be applied on the purchase of the fabric or per garment produced?

A: The Government has recently launched its consultation on how the tax can be applied to plastic packaging products. They should extend this consultation to consider on how the tax could also be applied to synthetic textiles. This would stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK and assist the transition to a circular economy in the fashion industry.

Q10: Recommendation 12 encourages the government to reform the taxation system to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impact and penalize those that not. Would you support tax reliefs for companies that invest in sustainable practices?

A: The tax system can be used to incentivise reuse, repair and recycling and reward responsible and sustainable companies. Our report proposed doing this by reducing VAT on repair services and including textiles products in the Government’s proposed tax on virgin plastics. These are initial proposals and the Government should investigate other ways the tax system can be used to incentivise sustainable business practices.

Q11: Do you think it would be stronger to use policing systems to target serious offenders in fast fashion and fine them, rather than adding 1p to each garment as a tax, even to small and sustainable brands who pay the living wage and use safe factories?

A: The Extended Producer Responsibility scheme proposed is intended to make clothing producers responsible for the end of life of the products they produce and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste. A one penny producer responsibility charge on each item produced for sale in the UK could raise around £35 million for investment in clothing collection points, sorting and recycling. This is important to address the scale of the waste problem in the fashion industry. As part of the French EPR scheme every company that puts clothing for sale on the market must either set up its own internal collecting and recycling program or pay a contribution for the waste they create to be collected for them. That is a fair system that encourages companies to act more responsibility. I hope the Government will bring forward a consultation to look at how it could work in the UK.   

Q12: What do you think is the first step to be taken in addressing the issues in Leicester?

A: During our inquiry, we were shocked to hear about the labour abuses and illegal underpayment of textile workers in Leicester. As a first step, all companies with manufacturing operations in Leicester should engage with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and participate in its working group addressing the labour issues in Leicester. We would also like to see fast fashion firms like Boohoo start to recognise and engage with trade unions.  

Q13: Why do you think companies are not tracing their supply chains to lower Tiers and how can the government provide incentives for this?

A: Some retailers are working hard to trace their supply chains to lower tiers. This demonstrates that the technology and capability to trace to lower tiers is available. Retailers should take full responsibility for their supply chains to ensure social and environmental abuses are not present. They should invest in this technology as the earliest possible opportunity. The Government can strengthen the Companies Act and Modern Slavery Act to ensure companies perform due diligence checks across their supply chains.

Q14: Do you see the government introducing funding schemes for companies/ projects/ technologies that aim to solve some of the problems identified in the report, such as solving the microfiber pollution issue (recommendation 8) and improving traceability of materials (recommendation 6)? Do you think this would be effective?

A: We have called for the Government to set up a new investment fund to stimulate markets for recycled fibres. Ministers can also facilitate collaboration on issues such as microfibre pollution and traceability, however, the ultimate responsibility lies with companies who produce the products.

Research should not be used as an excuse for inaction. The technology exists to trace materials and products through their supply chains. Companies should invest in and adopt this technology. Companies can also come together and pool resources to solve industry issues such as microfibre pollution. They should be proactive and engage with research initiatives such as the Microfibre Consortium.  

 

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