Five Years After ‘Fixing Fashion,’ UK Lawmakers Talk Trash

The problem with the U.K. fashion industry is that there isn’t a competitive advantage to being more responsible, fashion professor Dilys Wiliams told British lawmakers during the first half of an evidence session on clothing consumption on Wednesday.

Williams said that while British fashion designers, product developers and merchandise buyers may be thinking about more sustainable modes of clothing production and consumption, they don’t have the incentive to behave that way. Not only that, she said, they lack the infrastructure to do any better.

Another sticking point? Fast fashion, which has further compressed into, in Williams’s words, “instant fashion.”

“We’re seeing amazing new models of resale and repair and rental,” said Williams, who helms the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the University of the Arts London. “But at the moment…they’re completely outsized by this increase in the volume of things that are almost wasted as they come in. So all of the good initiatives are completely outweighed by the fact that there’s a race to the bottom. And those businesses are now in competition with these instant fashion companies.”

Five years after the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee launched its seminal “Fixing Fashion” inquiry, which culminated in 18 recommendations that would tackle—and indeed fix—the fashion industry’s exploitative working conditions and throwaway business model, very little has changed, not least because the British government itself nixed suggestions such as banning the destruction of unsold stock, a virgin plastic tax on textiles, greater incentives for reuse, repair and recycling and a one-penny charge per garment that would fund better clothing collection and sortation.

Mary Creagh, the Labour Member of Parliament who headed the committee until 2020, when she was succeeded by Philip Dunne, was less than impressed with the powers that be’s decision.

“Fashion producers should be forced to clear up the mountains of waste they create,” Creagh said at the time. “The government has rejected our call, demonstrating that it is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment, having just committed to net-zero emission targets. Urgent action must be taken to change the fast-fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the Earth.”

Williams said that nibbling around the edges of the problem with “little pilot projects” that look at waste isn’t enough when the market is “overstimulated” by the likes of Shein and Temu. According to research by the Hot or Cool Institute, the United Kingdom holds the G20’s fourth-highest carbon footprint from fashion, behind Australia, Japan and the United States. Britain needs to examine the idea that “we’re actually importing waste, not just exporting it through waste colonialism to places like Ghana” and undermining a domestic fashion system that’s dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises, she said.

“There’s this myth that low-priced fashion is for people with low incomes,” Williams said. “If you look at the footprint of fashion across the different income sectors, it’s actually the middle to high-income earners. We’ve also seen a massive increase in the volume of fashion. If you’re talking about fashion footprint, it relates directly to volume.”

Femke den Hartog, public affairs officer on corporate social responsibility at INretail, the Netherlands’ largest fashion and furniture trade association, said that there are different kinds of consumers.

“There’s a group of consumers who’s very responsible and very demanding in terms of transparency,” she said. “But there’s also a really large group who likes to buy on price.”

Consumption is something the industry needs to rein in if it plans to hit its environmental targets, said Keith James, head of policy and insights at Waste and Resources Action Programme, the nonprofit better known by its acronym WRAP. When WRAP concluded its eight-year Sustainable Clothing Action Plan in 2020, its 90 participants, including Boohoo Group, Primark and Marks & Spencer, collectively reduced the amount of textile waste going to landfills by only 4 percent, far short of the 15 percent goal they were working toward. Waste is no longer a benchmark for the 130 businesses that have signed up for its Textiles 2030 initiative. Even then, the carbon emissions of its signatories’ new textile products have only decreased by 2 percent against a 2019 baseline. (The goal is to cut it by 50 percent.) Water use, which seeks a 30 percent reduction, has risen by 8 percent.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about Europe’s challenges with managing its textile waste. Britain’s own Textile Recycling Association recently warned that its sector is facing “imminent collapse” due to disruptions from the Red Sea crisis, increasing taxation from African and Asian markets and the inundation of the secondhand market with low-quality fast fashion. A textile extended producer responsibility or EPR scheme is essential, James said, but it’ll only succeed if it’s underpinned by other policies to “make sure the system does change.” This includes investment in infrastructure that a 10-pence fee per garment could sufficiently provide.

“In the U.K., we can’t cope with the amount of textile waste we have,” he said. “So investment in collection sorting and reprocessing infrastructure, that can be alongside or part of an EPR scheme.”

Williams said that she’s heard of businesses that are already putting aside money—essentially EPR taxing themselves—“just to be able to carry on doing what they’re doing.” The idea of EPR, she said, is to change behavior. Other types of legislation in the vein of France’s repair subsidies are necessary, too, Williams noted. The government could help promote sewing and repair education in schools and local communities, which would take the United Kingdom “beyond” what the European Union is doing in terms of its strategy for sustainable and circular textiles. She cited France’s fast fashion tax bill as another one to follow.

“If we’re talking about eco-design, there should be some form of fiscal incentive,” Williams said. “We need also to have some a cap on volumes in some way or tax on volumes. And we also need to think about appropriate use or appropriate stimulation because this overstimulation culture is driving [the problem.] Everything else has gone up in price over the last 15 years and fashion has gone down.”

Compared with Asia and Europe, the United Kingdom is “behind” on the issue of textile recycling, James said. Most existing operations are on a smaller scale and involve mechanical recycling, whereas what’s needed is a “step change” for chemical recycling that can make a higher-quality product. Without intervention, however, most of the viable options are still three to six years away from commercialization.

“To make that viable, they have to produce the amount of product that buyers want to buy: so from day one, your plant needs to produce 50,000 tonnes a year as a minimum because it’s got to match what the market wants to buy,” James said. “There’s a lot of support that’s required to make sure the businesses can start but start at quite a high level.”

Den Hartog pointed out that the EU’s EPR directive promotes not only recycling but reuse as well. The ultimate aim, she said, is to shore up a circular economy.

Williams agreed, adding that with the complexity of mostly mixed fibers, the “last thing we should be doing is breaking [them] down.”

“If we can find ways to be able to keep [a garment’s] first life, then we’ve got far greater opportunities to extend the value,” she said. “It’s about keeping up the hierarchies. It’s about social durability. It’s about social currency.”

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