UK fashion sustainability inquiry: What this means for our industry

On Friday 22nd June, it was announced via the BBC that the UK government are launching an official national inquiry into the environmental impact of fast fashion and the wider clothing and textiles industry. The investigation plans to examine the carbon footprint, resource and water use of clothing throughout its life cycle and supply chain. It will look at how clothes can be more effectively recycled, and how waste and pollution can be reduced.

But what does this investigation mean for the future of fashion? What does it say about our industry that parliament interjection is needed to solve our multitude of problems? Will this be enough to turn a corner for sustainability? And can the UK lead the way in the ethical fashion fight?

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First, lets explore what the comittee undertaking this investigation is hoping to acheive and the questions it wants to get answered.

"”Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. But the way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact. Producing clothes requires toxic chemicals and produces climate-changing emissions. Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibres wash down the drain and into the oceans. We don’t know where or how to recycle end of life clothing. Our inquiry will look at how the fashion industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable." – Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

Environmental impact of the fashion industry

  • Have UK clothing purchasing habits changed in recent years?
  • What is the environmental impact of the fashion supply chain? How has this changed over time?
  • What incentives have led to the rise of “fast fashion” in the UK and what incentives could be put in place to make fashion more sustainable?
  • Is “fast fashion” unsustainable?
  • What industry initiatives exist to minimise the environmental impact of the fashion industry?
  • How could the carbon emissions and water demand from the fashion industry be reduced?

Waste from fashion

  • What typically happens to unwanted and unwearable clothing in the UK? How can this clothing be managed in a more environmentally friendly way?
  • How much unwanted clothing is landfilled or incinerated in the UK each year?
  • Does labelling inform consumers about how to donate or recycle clothing to minimise environmental impact, including what to do with damaged clothing?
  • What actions have been taken by the fashion industry, the Government and local authorities to increase reuse and recycling of clothing?
  • How could consumers be encouraged to buy fewer clothes, reuse clothes and think about how best to dispose of clothes when they are no longer wanted?

Sustainable Garment Manufacturing in the UK

  • How has the domestic clothing manufacturing industry changed over time? How is it set to develop in the future?
  • How are Government and trade envoys ensuring they meet their commitments under SDG (UN sustainable development goal) number 8 to protect workers’ rights and ensure safe working environments within the garment manufacturing industry? What more could they do?
  • Are there any industry standards or certifications in place to guarantee sustainable manufacturing of clothing to consumers?

So, what does this all mean for the industry?

Firstly, it is about time that the issues of ethics and sustainability in the UK’s fashion industry were addressed, because it’s size, impact and contribution cannot be brushed aside. According to the British Fashion Council’s report on the value of the UK fashion industry, there are over 1.3 million jobs directly and indirectly linked to fashion, and the industry contiributes over £37 billion to the UK economy.

We also cannot simply pass the burden to larger producers and consumers in countries like China and the USA, because the impacts of fast fashion can be seen in clear daylight on our small island too. In 2016 alone, over 300,000 tonnes of textile waste from UK households was sent to landfill, and the water and carbon use for clothing production and care is off the charts, according to WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme). There will be plenty more up to date and detailed statistics coming soon, which will be one huge benefit of this inquiry. After all, we need to know where we stand so we know where we are going next.

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Overall, it could be argued that this iniative is too little, too late. Where was this inquiry in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory disaster? Or when the Aral Sea basin all but completely dried up 2014, from irresponsible cotton irrigation? Indeed, some irreversable damage has already been done to the environments and consumer shopping behaviour has become very much an ingrained habit. But its a start, and hopefully, it could be the start of some larger, industry wide and world wide systematic changes by bringing fashion- a pursuit largely ignored by the government and even arts bodies- into the forefront of the national conversation about sustainability. Fashion has long been part of the problem, but now its time for us to be part of the solution, with the UK leading the way.

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The government comittee is conducting this enquiry through their own reseach and by inviting submissions on some or all of the above points with a deadline of 5pm on Monday, 3 September 2018. Click here to submit your thoughts.

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