Environmental Audit Committee Report

The Environmental Audit Committee Report is well worth a read. Below is a summary and you can read the full report here.

The environmental cost of our clothes

The way we make, use and throwaway our clothes is unsustainable. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution. Synthetic fibres are being found in the deep sea, in Arctic sea ice, in fish and shellfish.

Image 1: Satellite image of the Aral sea then and now

Satellite images of the Aral sea in Central Asia show how much it has shrunk by since rivers flowing into the lake were dammed to irrigate cotton fields in the 1960s. This image was taken in 2018 and the yellow lines show the extent of the lake in 1960. Source: NASA's Earth Observatory.

The social cost of our clothes

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Our biggest retailers have ‘chased the cheap needle around the planet’, commissioning production in countries with low pay, little trade union representation and weak environmental protection. In many countries, poverty pay and conditions are standard for garment workers, most of whom are women.

We are also concerned about the use of child labour, prison labour, forced labour and bonded labour in factories and the garment supply chain. Fast fashions’ overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is based on the globalisation of indifference towards these manual workers.

What is fast fashion?

‘Fast fashion’ is a term used to describe a new accelerated fashion business model that has evolved since the 1980s. It involves increased numbers of new fashion collections every year, quick turnarounds and often lower prices. Reacting rapidly to offer new products to meet consumer demand is crucial to this business model.

Forced labour is used to pick cotton in two of the world’s biggest cotton producing countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Labour exploitation is also taking place in the UK. ‘Made in the UK’ should mean workers are paid at least the minimum wage. But we were told it is an open secret that some garment factories in places like Leicester are not paying the minimum wage.

This must stop. But if the risk of being caught is low, then the incentive to cut corners is high. The same fast fashion retailers sourcing from Leicester are also selling clothes so cheaply that they are being treated as single use items.

Textile waste and collection

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We buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe. A glut of second hand clothing swamping the market is depressing prices for used textiles. What can’t be sold is torn up and turned into insulation and mattress stuffing.

Image 2: Textile sorting centre

Textiles are sorted at a recycling centre. Source: TRAID, photographer Rita Platt.

Worse still, around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in household black bins every year, sent to landfill or incinerators. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life.

Meanwhile, retailers are burning new unsold stock merely to preserve their brand.

Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. But the fashion industry has marked its own homework for too long. Voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives have failed significantly to improve pay and working conditions or reduce waste. The scientific warnings are stark on sustainability. Overconsumption and climate change are driving mass extinction.

New economic models for the fashion industry

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We need a new economic model for fashion. Business as usual no longer works. The Government should change the law to require companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains.

UK designers are already taking a lead on sustainable fashion. We heard from a range of exciting, innovative and sustainable fashion businesses and designers in the UK who are forging a new vision for fashion.

These innovators are faced with competition from businesses who are focused on reducing costs and maximising profits regardless of the environmental or social costs. Government needs to provide clear economic incentives for retailers to do the right thing.

We recommend that the Government reforms taxation to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not. Moving from conventional to organic cotton and from virgin polyester to recycled PET (in garments designed to minimise shedding) would help to reduce the negative impact of the clothing industry.

Image 3: Model wearing a piece from Raeburn's 2019 collection

A piece from the Raeburn label's 2019 collection. All of the brand's products embody their 'remade, reduced, recycled' ethos. Source: Raeburn.

The Government should investigate whether its proposed tax on virgin plastics, which comes into force in 2022, should be applied to textile products that contain less than 50% recycled PET to stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK.

Conclusions and recommendations

We recognise that fast fashion has made it affordable for everyone to experience the pleasure of style, design and the latest trends. We were told however 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.

The Government must change the system to end the throwaway society. Often it is more expensive to repair an item than buy a new one. Many of us also lack the skills to perform more than basic clothing repairs.

The Government should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste. A charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise £35 million to invest in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK.

The Government's recent pledge to review and consult on extended producer responsibility for the textile industry by 2025 is too slow.

We need action before the end of this Parliament.

The Committee is recommending:

  • the Government should publish a publicly accessible list of all those retailers required to release a modern slavery statement. This should be supported by an appropriate penalty for those companies who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

  • that the Companies Act 2006 be updated to include explicit reference to ‘modern slavery’ and ‘supply chains’. Statements on a business’ approach to human rights in its supply chain should be mandatory as part of the Annual Report. The Financial Reporting Council’s (FRC) Corporate Governance Code and UK Stewardship Code, and the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) listing rules should likewise be amended to require modern slavery disclosures on a comply or explain basis by 2022. If this is not possible then a Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law, as in France, should be considered.

  • that the Government strengthen the Modern Slavery Act to require large companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains to ensure their materials and products are being produced without forced or child labour. We also recommend that Government procurement should be covered by the Modern Slavery Act.

  • that the Government works with industry to trace the source of raw material in garments to tackle social and environmental abuses in their supply chains.

  • the Government should facilitate collaboration between fashion retailers, water companies and washing machine manufacturers and take a lead on solving the problem of microfibre pollution.

  • the Government should ask the Health and Safety Executive to review the evidence and take action accordingly.

  • manufacturers must be mindful of potential risks now and should seek to reduce the exposure of garment workers to airborne synthetic fibres.

  • post 2020 SCAP should include new targets following the Ecodesign Directive, including reducing microplastic shedding.

  • that the Government reforms taxation to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not.

  • the Government should investigate whether its proposed tax on virgin plastics, which comes into force in 2022, should be applied to textile products that contain less than 50% recycled PET to stimulate the market for recycled fibres in the UK.

  • as part of the new EPR scheme, Government and industry should accelerate research into the relative environmental performance of different materials, particularly with respect to measures to reduce microfibre pollution.

  • the Government should ban incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled.

  • that lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes be included in schools at Key stage 2 and 3.

  • the Government must end the era of throwaway fashion. It should make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create by introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles and reward companies that take positive action to reduce waste.

  • the Resources and Waste strategy should incorporate eco-design principles and offer incentives for design for recycling, design for disassembly and design for durability. It should also set up a new investment fund to stimulate markets for recycled fibres.

  • that the Chancellor should use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies. The Government should follow Sweden's lead and reduce VAT on repair services.