If the sight of racks and racks of cheap, sparkly dresses failed to put you in the party mood this festive season, you’re not alone.
Britons buy more new clothes than any country in Europe, and the amount is rising. UK shoppers spent about £3.5bn on clothing for the 2018 party season, some on garments costing less than a G&T. Millions of these are already in landfill. Of the 1M tonnes of clothing we throw away annually, 700,000 tonnes is collected for reuse or recycling. But less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing globally will be recycled into new clothing, and just 12% is used in applications like insulation or mattress stuffing. Sending textiles to landfill or for incineration costs us about £82m a year. While UK fashion’s carbon footprint fell by 8% per manufactured tonne between 2012 and 2016, the total rose by 9% due to growing consumption.
The world’s textile industry produces 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent according to a 2015 report by the industry-led Circular Fibres Initiative; more than airlines and shipping combined. A 2017 report by the Ellen McArthur Foundation predicts it could use up 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Online brand Boohoo was criticised last year for perpetuating a throwaway culture by offering dresses for less than £5. While bargain retailers like Primark deny their clothes are intended to be discarded after use, the sustainability spotlight is finally moving from plastic straws onto clothes cheap enough to be treated as single-use.
Labour MP Mary Creagh, chair of the commons environmental audit select committee, suggests: “Isn’t the real problem with the fast fashion industry that if you are selling stuff at £5 people aren’t going to treat it with any respect and at the end of its life it’s going to go in the bin?” She also points out the social cost of cheap clothing, with low-paid workers unable to provide for their families.
Boohoo, who told the committee’s current inquiry into fast fashion the £5 dresses were loss leaders, points to its use of social media to inspire customers to wear its garments again and again and a recycling partnership with reGAIN. But Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, which has collected more than 3 million items via its in-house take-back scheme, admits: “The challenge is not getting clothing back: it’s what to do with it.”
About half the clothing sold in the UK is cotton, a third synthetic and the rest viscose or animal products, with most fabrics a mix of fibres. There are no facilities able to separate and reprocess them at the scale needed. Modern dyes are difficult to remove. Clothes produced by current recycling techniques tend to be of noticeably poor quality. Mark Sumner, lecturer in sustainable fashion at Leeds University, feels we need more research into fabric reprocessing to create a genuine closed-loop industry: “If we can find a way of recycling, we can think about the UK being an exporter of those fabrics or rescuing our textile industry” he says.
In autumn the environmental audit committee wrote to sixteen leading UK fashion retailers asking what they are doing to reduce their impact. Questions covered a range of actions and initiatives, including using organic or sustainable cotton, limiting the discharge of hazardous chemicals, and re-using or recycling unsold stock. They were asked if they had signed up to SCAP (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan) to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint, the ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) labour rights and living-wage agreement in the UK, or to the global ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative). An interim report published in January 2019 grouped the responses into three categories.
The four ‘engaged’ businesses – ASOS, M&S, Tesco, Primark and Burberry – all use organic or sustainable cotton and recycled materials in their products, run take-back schemes and have joined the ETI. Burberry, criticised last year for incinerating unsold stock, was commended for its response and seen to be engaged with a range of initiatives to reduce its environmental impact. All but Burberry were signed up to SCAP, and all but Burberry and M&S to ACT. ASOS was praised as the first online retailer to sign a Global Framework Agreement with IndustriALL, committing to the highest possible standards on workers’ rights, health and safety.
Debenhams, Next, Asda and Arcadia Group (owners of Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Wallis and Dorothy Perkins) were judged ‘moderately engaged’. Each had taken some steps to address environmental issues. Arcadia and Next are signed up to SCAP. All but Next have ‘take-back’ schemes. All but Asda use organic cotton and are members of ACT. Arcadia was the only one not signed-up to the ETI. Debenhams was highlighted for the range of programmes it’s involved with.
The biggest group, the ‘least engaged’ were JD Sports, Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Amazon, Boohoo and Missguided. None had signed up to SCAP or used organic or sustainable cotton. Only Boohoo and Sports Direct used recycled material in their products and only TK Maxx offered in-store take-back. None were signed up to ACT and only Missguided had joined the ETI. Missguided, criticised in May 2018 for its use of unsafe Leicester factories paying illegally-low wages, was acknowledged for its efforts to address this, but ministers expressed concern about Boohoo’s approach to union representation. Amazon UK was singled out for a ‘notable’ lack of engagement with the committee’s questions while Kurt Geiger, which failed to supply written evidence, has not been rated.
Creagh declared it “shocking” that these major retailers are failing to take action and “disappointing” that so few overall had joined ACT. The report concluded that the UK fashion industry’s current business model is unsustainable, and called for an end to exploitative practices, with retailers leading change through sustainability practices and signalling this by engaging with industry initiatives.
Barry sees this concern already becoming mainstream: “It’s going from being a business-to-business and risk-management issue behind the scenes to a consumer issue, in the same way as plastics and deforestation linked to palm oil have been in the last 12 months,” he says. Mintel research suggests shoppers may already be buying clothes less frequently, with the 37% buying clothes once a month in 2016 falling to 33% in 2018. 60% of under-24s, fast fashion’s biggest market, prefer to buy clothes from companies trying to reduce their environmental impact. The commons inquiry is still open.