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Three key findings from the Environmental Audit Committee

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On November 13th and 27th, members of parliament and figures in the UK fashion industry came together as part of the Environmental Audit Committee to investigate “the social and environmental impact of disposable ‘fast fashion’ and the wider clothing industry.

The inquiry examines the carbon, resource use and water footprint of clothing throughout its lifecycle. It will look at how clothes can be recycled, and waste and pollution reduced”, according to Parliament

Image credit: Pixabay

Across the two dates, representatives from huge high-street labels, designers at smaller independent brands, and others heavily engaged in sustainable fashion - from journalists to professors - all answered questions from a panel of MPs and shared their own experiences of the challenges faced by different types of fashion brands when addressing the sustainability of their business models.

As is to be expected given the sheer scope of the inquiry, many issues were discussed along with some potential starting points for solutions. If you wish to watch both discussions in their entirety you can do so here and here, but if not we’ve summarised three key lessons for you:

1. The current system is very new; we can still remember a time when it was different

Image credit:Pixabay

 

Perhaps the most important fact to recall from the inquiry is one of the simplest: whilst the industry is currently at a critical point in which many are beginning to realise quite how broken and unsustainable its system is, we are not so deep into it that we cannot recall and draw on the fashion systems of times gone by. 

When asked about her vision for the fashion industry, Claire Bergkamp - Sustainability & Innovation Director at Stella McCartney Ltd - said:

“The vision that I have for the industry at this point is one where we really can learn from what we have done in the past… we know how we got here at this point. We are aware that the industry’s impact is outsized. It is unnecessarily large and it does not need to be this way. We can actually remember a time before this. It is not that it has been going on for so long at this speed and at this rate of consumption and disposal. My vision is that we just take a step back and figure out a system where we do not work this way.”

In the same vein, MP for Swansea West and chair of the All-Party Group on Air Pollution Geraint Davies rightly identified that “the situation is that now microfibres go through the sewage system. They are caught, they are put in slurry, they are put on the land. They then dry, they blow and we inhale them, and this is on top of the stuff we are all inhaling in our houses every day when we put our clothing on.” 

Whilst that is a hugely worrying concept that must be addressed, Jane Grice, founder of Facebook group Waste Not, Want Not, highlighted that she “remember[s] a time before microplastics”.

What is clear, then, is that the main issues our fashion industry is currently facing are very new ones that have emerged in the quick but nonetheless strong development of fast fashion. Therefore, now is the best time to act because we can still remember the structures of the past that could give vital insight into provoking change in the current day.

2. There is currently no standardised framework regarding sustainable practices

 Image credit: Pixabay

When it comes to using more sustainable organic cotton or recycled fibres, for example, legal framework and government incentives are lacking. With regards to their environmental footprints, all steps taken by the brands partaking in the inquiry were completely voluntary; Marks and Spencer has a voluntary target of 25% of their clothing having 25% recycled content by 2025. Boohoo has a voluntary goal of 100% organic cotton by 2022.  ASOS was the only member of the panel to have signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan initiative, and currently uses 80% sustainable cotton with a 100% target in sight. Again, all voluntarily. 

This means, then, that the only ramification for the companies not achieving these well-meaning targets are for the planet, not the businesses themselves. 

3. Supply chains can be very difficult to track.  

 

 Graphic: Charlotte Torode; Information: Etica News

 

Simply put, issues including sub-contracting mean that for large companies which use multiple foreign factories, keeping track of the origin of their materials can be tricky.

Marks and Spencer’s Director of Sustainable Business, Mike Barry, asked whether “any business say there is a zero kilogram of Turkmenistan cotton in their business having banned it?" He answered that "No, they cannot, but what you can do is rigorously enforce that back down the supply chain”.  

For Marks and Spencer, “100% traceability” on the cotton they sell “is the next big horizon” - but Barry highlights the proactivity needed to ensure this: “it is not just sending a standard down a supply chain from London and hoping for the best. It is about working with farmers to make a real difference out there”. 

Even the auditing process for supply chains - in other words, how companies keep tabs on their manufacturing processes - varies hugely between companies. Marks and Spencer works through tier 2, tier 3, and back to the cotton field; ASOS audits to tier 3 and is currently mapping tier 4; Boohoo currently audits tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers; Missguided audits just tier 1. 

Transparency in the supply chain is key for improving the sustainability and ethics of our fashion industry, but right now the extent to which manufacturers and brands are being held accountable for their working conditions and environmental footprint is completely their own prerogative. 

As is to be expected of such an extensive inquiry, a huge amount more was discussed beyond the environmental ramifications of the fashion industry and ventured into its commitments to human rights. While we cannot include all of the proceedings in our summary, we definitely recommend that you look it up to see what's being discussed and how it might affect you or the brands you frequently buy from.

Read about how European consumers are increasingly choosing ethical fashion here.

Want to shop more ethically? These eight student-friendly brands are doing it right 




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