The fashion industry needs a “new economic model,” and the government should change the law to require clothing manufacturers and others in the industry to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains, says a new report from the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee. The textile industry uses inordinate amounts of water and energy, and clothes are being disposed of at a higher rate than ever.
Consumers in the UK buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, and the worth of the fashion industry increased 5.4% between 2016 and 2017 – a growth rate 1.6% higher than the rest of the economy. Driving growth is the rise in “fast fashion,” which involves quick turnarounds in fashion collections, and lower prices, due to customer demand. This leads to overconsumption and a “monstrous disposable industry,” as described by fashion designer Phoebe English.
Some in the industry, like the British Retail Consortium, suggest that fast fashion results in less waste at store and warehouse levels because smaller quantities are sourced and are quickly sold. On the other hand, a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that the fast-fashion industry encourages clothing to be worn only for a short time, after which the materials are generally sent to landfill or burned. It went on to calculate that more than $500 billion of value is lost in this way.
In the report, the Environmental Audit Committee recommends specific actions for both government and industry.
—The textile industry as a whole should focus on increasing recycling rates, lengthening garment lifetimes, and education efforts. Extending garment life by 50%, for example, could cut carbon emissions per metric ton of clothing by 3% and water use by 4%, according to WRAP, a not-for-profit organization in the UK that works with governments, businesses and citizens to create a circular fashion economy.
Some circular fashion business models could include recovering and reselling items customers no longer want, renting clothing to customers so they can be used by multiple people, and developing subscription models which would enable customers to swap clothes.
Many brands are already embracing reselling. Allison Sommer, director of marketing at TheRealReal, recently told Environmental Leader that some of the “most exciting conversations” the company is having are with luxury brands and retailers about how resale fits into the market. “Only a few short years ago, there was a lot of confusion about how resale could be seen as anything but a competitor. Now there is this shift…. [Retailers and brands] understand that there is a luxury-easy solution for customers to clean their closets and feel good about items that have more life left in them.”
Brands are seeing this is fuel for their business, she said.
—Government should consider mandating sourcing transparency. “We recommend that the government works with industry to trace the source of raw material in garments to tackle social and environmental abuses in their supply chains,” the report urges.
The report also recommends that the government strengthen the Modern Slavery Act to require large companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains to ensure materials and products are being produced without forced or child labor. Procurement should be covered by the Modern Slavery Act, the report adds.