Boohoo Group, Asos and Missguided were pushed on the transparency of their supply chain models in the second evidence hearing on the sustainability of the fashion industry at the houses of parliament this week.
The environmental audit committee chair, Mary Creagh, held the hearing today (27 November). Nick Beighton, chief executive of Asos; Carol Kane, joint chief executive of the Boohoo Group, who represented both Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing; and Paul Smith, head of product quality and supply at Missguided, attended. Missguided CEO Nitin Passi declined the invitation.
The committee pushed the three companies on their manufacturing presence in Leicester after it heard evidence on 30 October about illegal wages and unethical conditions for garment workers in the area.
In the UK, Missguided sources from Leicester only but Smith said it had reduced its presence because of an inability to satisfactorily audit the factories it was using: “We started this year working with 35 suppliers representing around 80 manufacturing sites in Leicester. We have rationalised that down because it was too unwieldy and we couldn’t get around to them all enough to be confident in their practices.”
It now uses 12 suppliers based in 20 factories in Leicester.
Beighton said he is happy with the standards in the factories Asos uses: “I’ve got an aspiration of tripling our sourcing in the UK, and Leicester is an area where I want to do more.
“I’m working with the Leicester council and local agencies to get greater assistance in checking standards, and we’ve pulled out of 23 factories in Leicester because standards weren’t adhered to.”
Kane defended allegations from the previous hearing that Boohoo’s £5 dresses were responsible for underpaid workers and promoting unsustainable and non-environmental consumer buying patterns.
“We have 80 dresses from over 60,000 styles that are £5. They are loss leaders and we don’t make any money on them, but it’s a marketing technique to drive people to our website.”
Beighton maintained that Asos does not have a fast fashion business model: “We don’t promote single use or design our products for that. I am commercially incentivised to get this right, because unless we demonstrate responsible behaviour, our customers will buy less from us.”
The retailers detailed plans to use their extensive social media platforms to educate consumers on the importance of re-use and recycling.
Kane said: “We have a brand responsibility and have been doing ‘how to wear’ videos that encourage multiple use of items, but the government can play a part for consumers to be more sustainable.”
Beighton cited Germany, where local authorities offer curb-side collections for textiles, as a good example of re-use: “There are great opportunities for businesses and authorities to make recycling easier for consumers, but we should also start talking more responsibly to our customers.”
The committee also heard from high street retailers.
A separate panel consisted of Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at Marks and Spencer; Paul Lister, head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability team at Primark; Jamie Beck, head of supplier management at Arcadia Group; and Leanne Wood, chief people, strategy and corporate affairs officer at Burberry.
Wood expressed the need for government support to “stimulate investment in innovation for recycling technology”.
She added: “There are certain fibres that are very difficult to find recycling solutions for and the UK could lead the way.”
When asked how they would advise the government to move forward in combating sustainability across the industry, the retailers called for further access to company transparency statements.
Barry called for better access to the Modern Slavery Act and asked the government to launch a similar initiative for fibre transparency: “The government should be asking us to declare where it’s from. Giving people access to databases drives change without you having to micromanage every area of the market place.”
Lister agreed that being able to compare the Modern Slavery Statements properly would “shed light on the next step” for the industry.
The high street retailers all noted an effort to implement take-back schemes, where customers can drop off unwanted clothes to be reused or recycled properly.
Primark will launch a new take back scheme in 2019 after trialling it three years ago. All money will be donated to local charities depending on the countries in which it operates.
All of the high street and online retailers admitted that there was much to still be done to tackle ethical trading and sustainability in the industry.
Wood said: “This is a responsibility for all of us to inform customers and find a role for government here as well.”
Creagh said: “Evidence we heard today justifies our concerns that the current system allows fashion retailers to mark their own homework when it comes to workers’ rights, fair pay and sustainability.”