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Mary Creagh: on a parliamentary mission to clean up fashion

The environmental audit committee, led by Mary Creagh, is halfway through investigating the social and environmental impact of disposable fast fashion and the wider UK industry.

Mary Creagh MP

Mary Creagh MP

The environmental audit committee is one of parliament’s select committees. It was set up in 1997 to monitor the government’s performance in progressing sustainable development and to look at wider policy areas. There are 16 of us and it is a cross-party committee.

We launch thematic inquires, such as looking into microplastics and microbeads. As a result of that work the government has now banned the production, manufacture and sale of microbeads in the UK.

Now we are looking at the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry. Fashion is a £32bn industry, so it’s very important for “UK plc”, but if its foundations aren’t stable, then it’s a house built on sand.

Everything that we wear comes from nature, but in a way we are kind of divorced from that – we have a kind of “me-centred” approach to clothing. Clothes just arrive on a shelf – there is no connection with the people that made them, the countries that grew the raw materials, or the animals they came from.

Big polluter

And there are many issues.

The carbon footprint of the fashion industry is bigger than international shipping and aviation put together.

Fashion is also a huge employer: more than 300 million people are employed in the global supply chain, including more than 60 million garment workers. But injustices such as child labour, slave labour and forced labour are endemic at every stage of the production process – even to some extent here in the UK’s manufacturing hub in Leicester.

The question we have is: if the food industry can tell you where a melon comes from and the name of the farm, why can’t the fashion industry do similar? What are the institutional barriers to transparency in the supply chain and what are the economic costs and consequences of chasing the cheap needle round the planet?

We asked 10 leading fashion businesses [Marks & Spencer, Primark, Next, Arcadia, Asda, TK Maxx and HomeSense, Tesco, JD Sports, Debenhams and Sports Direct] to submit evidence, and have heard from all but one so far.

We’re also about to write to the likes of Boohoo, Missguided, Pretty Little Thing, Amazon and some of the other key online players.

If the food industry can tell you where a melon comes from and the name of the farm, why can’t the fashion industry do similar?

At our first evidence hearing at the end of last month we learnt that we are consuming almost twice as much [clothing] as Italy every year per capita. We consume 27kg of clothes a year each, compared with 14kg in Italy. We’re buying more than we need.

The absolute cost of clothing has also fallen over the last 20 years, and as the cost has come down, consumption has increased. Fashion has become disposable.

As a result, if you’re buying something at pocket money prices, £5 a dress, that’s not much more than a cup of coffee. And what do you do with a £3 coffee? You toss it. So now what do you do with the £5 dress? You just chuck it.

And there’s no reflection on why that dress cost £5. Who is paying the price for that? You might be getting it at a great price, but someone else somewhere else is paying for it.

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Also, what was interesting is that you can get “fast luxury”, but your extra £5 doesn’t guarantee the worker got paid properly. The workers will be stitching for luxury brands and volume brands in the same factory.

It is extraordinary in the digital age that the fashion supply chain has not yet got a grip. And it is extraordinary, especially given the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act, where you have to report on the risks of modern slavery in your supply chain, that the fashion industry is wide open to this risk as far as I can see.

Rubbish record

Another big challenge is that we get rid of 1.1 million tonnes of clothes a year. There are about 350,000 tonnes that are going in the bin – 80% of that goes to landfill and 20% is being burnt. When you think of the natural resources that went into making cotton, wool, cashmere, that’s a real national scandal.

So we are looking at other countries that have an extended producer responsibly scheme, whereby if you put clothing on the market, you have to take clothing back at the end of its life. France has introduced one.

We cannot get to a stage in 20 years’ time where the fashion industry accounts for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Our consumption patterns and habits need to change in a radical way. I think the time has come to clean up fashion’s dirty little secret.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s second hearing will take place at London’s V&A Museum on 13 November. It will then publish the results of its findings and recommendations to the industry and to government in early 2019.


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