CO's 3 Recommendations To Address Fast Fashion Challenges

This week, the UK government's Environmental Audit Committee published the interim results of its inquiry looking at the impact of the fashion industry on the environment.

Of the sixteen retailers written to last autumn, JD Sports, Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Amazon, Boohoo, and Missguided were the least engaged in their commitment to sustainability and market initiatives, with none signed up to SCAP targets to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint, and none using organic or sustainable cotton in their garments. 

“It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers."  Mary Creagh MP, Environmental Audit Committee Chair

The sixteen retailers were asked about a range of actions and initiatives, from whether they were limiting the discharge of hazardous chemicals, to the re-use or recycling of unsold stock. These retailers were then put into three groups which reflected their answers and commitments. 

As well as the least engaged already mentioned, four were classed as moderately engaged (Next, Debenhams, Arcadia Group and ASDA Stores) and five as most engaged (ASOS, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Primark and Burberry). 

Read the interim report here.

At CO, we welcomed this inquiry as an opportunity to explore how best to address the environmental and social issues created by the sector. In this executive summary from our original submission, we highlighted what issues the industry must address, with three key recommendations for the committee - and the industry - to consider.

The growing fashion and fast fashion industry

Fashion is a huge, multi-trillion dollar global industry - with apparel, footwear and jewellery sales adding up to over USD $2 trillion annually. 

Fashion has the potential to have an enormous positive impact on the world.

Its supply chains span continents, employ millions of workers, consume resources and produce goods – all on a massive scale. With so great a reach, we believe that fashion has the potential to have an enormous positive impact on the world. 

The EAC inquiry into the impacts of fast fashion comes at a crucial time as the growing consumer interest in sustainable fashion is met with increasing evidence of the impacts of fashion across the entire value chain from fibre production through the end of life of our clothes. For the UK, the currently unknown full impact of Brexit on the industry also presents a challenge for the local manufacturing sector. 

Our submission mainly addressed the core issues regarding the social and environmental impacts and waste in fashion. We drew from our Mapping the Industry report and drilled down into this research to address some of the key issues raised by the inquiry’s questions.

CO recommendations to the UK Environmental Audit Committee inquiry:

1. Volume of clothing

At Common Objective, we engage with many fashion industry initiatives and regulatory groups. It is easy for these to focus exclusively on “quality” related concerns (improving the sustainability of materials and processes and recycling) rather than quantity considerations (reducing overall volume of products consumed and discarded). If quantity considerations are not effectively addressed, they will render improvements in quality negligible. 

If quantity considerations are not effectively addressed, they will render improvements in quality negligible. 

Our first recommendation is to place volume considerations firmly on the agenda. Creative solutions exist which would have the consequence of furthering the success of UK industry and thriving fashion sector, and this inquiry has the potential to support and catalyse these if they are openly addressed.

2. Supporting collaboration

Over the 12 years of operation of the Ethical Fashion Forum, which was founded as the industry body for sustainable fashion in 2006 and was the pre-cursor to Common Objective, we saw many new and impactful initiatives emerge in the UK. These are each contributing to better practices however they are not operating in a joined-up way. 

Collaboration towards common objectives is key

By supporting collaboration between these initiatives to work towards a common objective of a more sustainable industry, the government can multiply the impact of what is already being done and catalyse change.

3. Regulation and incentives

The UK and London is already a global leader with respect to sustainability innovation, with a vast and growing network of entrepreneurs, creatives and business leaders proving the business case for more sustainable practices. 

This has already created a USP for UK fashion businesses, professionals and graduates in a global market, and will increase the contribution of the fashion industry to national GDP. 

The government can incentivise and support this sector in many ways, from tax incentives for more sustainable practices to well-designed regulation that builds upon the landmark Modern Slavery Act.

Please download the PDF on the right to read our full submission. You can find out information on the proceedings of the inquiry and see other submissions at the EAC website.