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‘Cultural change’ needed to address fashion sustainability

Reducing the environmental impact of fast fashion relies on the “emotional longevity” of garments to consumers, the first evidence hearing of the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry inquiry has found.

“One of the challenges is emotional longevity which determines whether a garment is fast fashion or not”, Dr Mark Sumner, lecturer in sustainability, retail and fashion from the University of Leeds, told MPs at the environment audit committee on 30 October.

Sumner was joined by Stella Claxton, senior lecturer in clothing sustainability research at Nottingham Trent University, professor Richard Thompson of marine biology at the University of Plymouth and Alan Wheeler, director of the Textiles Recycling Association, to discuss the problems and solutions for environmental sustainability in the fashion industry.

Claxton agreed with Sumner on the incentive for consumers to recycle: “With Boohoo and Missguided, aimed at young women, the actual value of the item is very low [in terms of quality and emotional connection] so the incentive for them to recycle and want to pass that on is very low. The opportunity for that end of the market to have a second-hand opportunity is quite limited.”

Professor Thompson pushed for funding to allow material and social scientists to collaborate and provide evidence that could then be used to create sustainable products at the design stage.

He said: “We need to make sure we’ve got reliable evidence in the round. In certain aspects we’re

missing key pieces of the puzzle. It’s about bringing together academics across the disciplines to help us understand exactly what we’re missing and to really inform change.”

Thompson also stressed the need to not expect instant results. “What worries me is that some of the funding schemes are requiring very fast turnarounds that don’t align themselves with the systemic change that we should be looking for.”

The panel discussed the limits of possible improvements to the UK’s textile recycling and reuse uptake. Wheeler explained that an increase in recycled or reused garments from the UK could cause issues for the global recycling market.

He said: “We need to look at ways in which we can get more clothing out of the waste stream, but there are markets of limited capacity. We could improve our collections a bit, but the global issue is if our European partners started collecting as much as we do there would be a real problem.”

Instead, he said he would like to see government incentives for companies to produce garments with a high recycled content.

Financial Times investigative reporter Sarah O’Connor said government enforcement was also the way forward in supply chain transparency.

“Plenty of companies have been named and shamed, but it does no harm to their sales. Relying on that alone will not be enough. We shouldn’t put too much on the consumers shoulders, it has to be government enforcement and the industry that changes this.”

Joined by Kate Elsaved-Ali, international advocacy manager at Anti-Slavery International and Sarah Ditty, policy director at Fashion Revolution, the three agreed that more should be required of companies as part of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Elsaved-Ali said: “We need to look beyond compliance, we are calling for mandatory supply chain

transparency and due diligence. We should also address some gaps and bringing public authorities into the legislation as they are massive consumers of uniforms.”

Ditty agreed that a stricter Modern Slavery Act would give consumers more power to make informed decisions.

She said: “At least then consumers have access to what the companies are doing to address human rights and remedy them, then at least you can have a better gauge in terms of what you’re buying.”

The second hearing will take place at London’s V&A Museum on 13 November. 


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