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Retailers admit ‘more to do’ on sustainability

UK and Irish retailers have said they are committed to tackling sustainability in fashion and admitted there is “more to do” following criticism by MPs.

The environmental audit committee published its final report on the sustainability of the fashion industry today and said the government must “end the era of throwaway fashion” by introducing a 1p tax on each item of clothing produced to pay for better clothing collection and recycling.

It said the charge, which would form part of a new extended producer responsibility scheme, could raise £35m for investment in better clothing collection and recycling in the UK.

The committee said taxation should be reformed to reward companies that offer clothing repairs and reduce the environmental footprint of their products. It also advocated a penalty for companies that fail to comply with and report on the Modern Slavery Act.

Mary Creagh, chair of the committee, told Drapers: “Bad practice thrives in the dark. Fashion has been marking its own homework for too long. Retailers need to make sure they are environmentally and socially sustainable, not just abroad but at home as well. A change in law is required.”

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Retailers and trade bodies welcomed the report and restated their commitment to acting on the recommendations.

“We embrace the principles behind the environmental audit committee’s recommendations,” said a Primark spokesman. “We recognise that there is more to be done – that is why we have already committed to launching a customer-recycling scheme in our stores this year.”

A spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer said: “At M&S we believe great clothes shouldn’t cost the earth, and addressing the impact of making and selling clothes is at the heart of how we do business.

“We’ve had a commitment to zero waste to landfill since 2012 and we’ve made it easier for our customers to recycle via our Shwopping partnership with Oxfam, through which more than 30 million garments have been donated in the past 10 years. We know there is more to do and we remain committed to working closely with government, industry and our customers.”

A Tesco spokesman said: “We’re pleased the environmental audit committee has recognised the progress we are making on social and environmental issues across our clothing business. We want to ensure that the clothes customers buy from us are truly sustainable as well as great quality and value. By the end of this year, all our 100% cotton products will be made from Better Cotton Initiative cotton, we’re making strong progress on eliminating the discharge of hazardous chemicals, and we’re finding new ways of using recycled material in our products. It was also great to get recognition for the work of our 40-strong team of in-house human rights experts who work closely with all our non-food factories across Asia to ensure decent standards. We will continue to work in partnership with our suppliers, other retailers and brands to address the big challenges our industry faces.”

Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said retailers have taken steps to improve the environmental impact of their products: “Many of the clothes now on sale from leading retailers have lower environmental impacts. We know much more needs to be done, and through our Better Retail Better World initiative, retailers are taking collective action. UK retailers are committed to being global leaders in fashion sustainability and businesses who embrace sustainability now will be the ones who succeed in the future.”

Adam Mansell, CEO of UK Fashion and Textiles Association, also welcomed the report but warned against insinuating there are simple solutions to tackling sustainability: “Rather than say the voluntary approach to sustainability has failed, I’d argue that the report highlights how some of these issues are much bigger than any one brand, retailer or even country can tackle in isolation. It is time for collective action, but it is important that we stop trying to make out there are simplistic solutions.”

He added that although collaboration in the industry is required, consumer behaviour also needs to change: “We certainly agree that the fashion industry should come together to tackle these issues, but it is also worth noting that consumer behaviour will also play a significant part in a change.

”We actively encourage consumers to think very carefully about the volume and frequency of the clothing they buy, how they are made and what happens when they are no longer wanted. The consumer will need to accept that buying new clothes every few weeks or each season has an impact – in whatever conditions the goods are made.”

The government has 60 days to respond to the report.

  • Find out how you can improve your sustainability credentials by attending Drapers Sustainable Fashion conference here 

The committee’s key recommendations

• Mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover above £36m.

• A new extended producer responsibility scheme to reduce textile waste with a 1p charge per garment on producers.

• The scheme should reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and penalise those that do not.

• The report calls on the government to use the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of re-use, repair and recycling to support responsible fashion companies.

• The government should follow Sweden’s lead and reduce VAT on repair services.

• Lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes should be in the school curriculum.

• The government should publish a publicly accessible list of retailers required to release a modern slavery statement. This should be supported by an appropriate penalty for those companies who fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

• The fashion industry must come together to set out their blueprint for a net zero-emissions world, reducing their carbon consumption back to 1990 levels.

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