The Environmental Audit Committee is launching an inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry.
The Committee will investigate the social and environmental impact of disposable ‘fast fashion’ and the wider clothing industry. The inquiry will examine 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.
Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said:
“Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth. But the way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact. Producing clothes requires toxic chemicals and produces climate-changing emissions. Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibres wash down the drain and into the oceans. We don’t know where or how to recycle end of life clothing.
“Our inquiry will look at how the fashion industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable.”
The growth of the fashion industry
According to a 2015 report from the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed £28.1 billion to national GDP, compared with £21 billion in 2009. The globalised market for fashion manufacturing has facilitated a “fast fashion” phenomenon; cheap clothing, with quick turnover that encourages repurchasing.
Environmental impact of clothing production
Clothing production consumes resources and contributes to climate change. The raw materials used to manufacture clothes require land and water, or extraction of fossil fuels. Clothing production involves processes which require water and energy and use chemical dyes, finishes and coatings – some of which are toxic. Carbon dioxide is emitted throughout the clothing supply chain. In 2017 a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on ‘redesigning fashion’s future’ found that if the global fashion industry continues on its current growth path, it could use more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.
Environmental impact of purchase, use and disposal
Synthetic fibres used in some clothing can result in ocean pollution. Research has found that plastic microfibres in clothing are released when they are washed, and enter rivers, the ocean and the food chain.
Sustainability issues also arise when clothing is no longer wanted. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that the growth of clothes production is linked to a decline in the number of times a garment is worn. Clothes disposed of in household recycling and sent to landfill instead of charity shops have an environmental impact, such as contributing to methane emissions. Charities have complained that second hand clothes can be exported and dumped on overseas markets. The UK Government has a commitment to ‘Sustainable Production and Consumption’ under UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.
Manufacturing in the UK
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in clothing that has been made in Britain. However there are concerns that the need for quick turn-around in the supply chain to facilitate the demand for “fast fashion” has led to poor working conditions in UK garment factories.
The Committee will also examine the sustainability of garment production in relation to the UK’s social and environmental commitments under the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The UK Government has a commitment to ensuring ‘Decent work and economic growth’ by protecting labour rights and promoting safe and secure working environments for all workers under UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.
Terms of Reference
The Committee invites submissions on some or all of the following points by 5 pm on Monday, 3rd September 2018.
Environmental impact of the fashion industry
Waste from fashion
Sustainable Garment Manufacturing in the UK
Deadline for submissions
Written evidence should be submitted through the inquiry page by 5 pm on Monday, 3rd September 2018. The word limit is 3,000 words. Later submissions will be accepted, but may be too late to inform the first oral evidence hearing. Please send written submissions using the form on the inquiry page.
The Committee values diversity and seek to ensure this where possible. We encourage members of underrepresented groups to submit written evidence. We aim to have diverse panels of Select Committee witnesses and ask organisations to bear this in mind if asked to appear.
Membership of the Committee:
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Houses of Parliament and Garment Factory in Bangladesh by Carry Somers
Ocean by Ross Miller
Just before the onset of New York Fashion Week, Burberry announced a radical shift in how their collections will be shown and sold: no longer following the usual fashion schedule of two menswear and two womenswear seasonal shows, but instead amalgamating them into two gargantuan annual shows and, crucially, making the collections available to buy immediately, eliminating the concept of ‘previewing’ to buyers before the clothes are made available to the customer.
Within a few days, Tom Ford and Michael Kors quickly followed with similar announcements.
Why did it take big brands no time at all to adapt to such a revolutionary and seemingly innovative change? How could it be that a tried and tested system can so suddenly be switched to accommodate immediate retailing instead of operating on wholesale orders?
It is partly a symptom of a fashion industry looking for a new identity, influenced as it is by social networks and the public’s increasing interest at being included in the conversation, but it also underlines that fact that, for such big fashion houses, switching from wholesale to retail is actually quite easy, and it won’t change much in terms of their overall operations.
The truth is that their supply chain is ready for it; their structure can manage any speed at this point. Their gigantic, well-oiled but profoundly inefficient machine is already geared to speed – time to market is getting faster and faster and reaching consumers directly is now seen as the way forward.
On one level, it fits with the trend for seasonless collections as it reiterates the point that we have too many seasons in the fashion calendar (couture, ready to wear, men’s, women’s, autumn/winter, spring/summer, pre-collections, resort…), and as such it was quickly labelled as triumphantly ‘innovative’, ‘game-changing’, even ‘genius’.
The reality is a bit more sinister, and what it actually means, or implies, is supremacy of the big over the small. Because for a small brand, for an emerging designer, or anyone who isn’t supported by an enormous, invisible supply chain, this change will be almost impossible to follow.
There is no way that a small brand or unknown young designer can predict the amount of orders they will receive, or what will be the best seller of the season; a small brand relies on their buyers viewing the collection and giving potentially useful feedback. A buyer will take time to consider what will and won’t work in their boutique, thus influencing a flux of minimal changes that can still occur between orders being placed and production, becoming part of a conversation that leads to better understanding and further development.
I have seen young designers’ collections being finished only minutes before the show: a final adjustment to the length of a sleeve, adding an embellishment, re-introducing a piece that is more experimental and somewhat unfinished and wasn’t part of the original merchandising but looks good in the final line-up.
And after a collection is exhibited (and the young designer will often travel around several fashion weeks to showcase it) comes another process, that of producing it according to how many orders have been received.
The production process is an integral and vital aspect of learning, as it means working with other people. The pattern cutter will still be tweaking; the designer will visit the production studio, often meeting the seamstresses (or skyping with them if they are abroad). While waiting for fabrics to be delivered in full, they are in contact with the industry that supplies them – it’s when they know for sure that blue sold better than brown, or the tweed was more popular than the twill.
It is the moment when everybody across the supply chain holds hands. It’s a time of union, where triumphs and losses are shared. If the collection sold well, it’s an honour as well as guaranteed employment for the people who make the clothes, and they will be a part of the designer’s pride and success. It’s when one really understands what it is like to be a fashion designer – what the industry behind their collections looks like. It’s getting to know the people to whom they are linked by the thread that is clothes-making, and the techniques that make those makers unique.
It takes time.
Which is precisely what has now been almost eradicated from the fashion language, in one carefully orchestrated statement.
From fast to faster.
It is as if the concept of time in fashion can only be about narrative references to the past, like the ‘70s look, or the ‘90s throwback and no longer about the precious time it actually takes to make great clothes that are considerate and well made.
Interestingly, Raf Simons cited speed and lack of time for the creative process as one of his main reasons for leaving Dior, and Alber Elbaz echoed that sentiment when leaving Lanvin.
The only genius thing about the murder of time is in its irony: this is the high end imitating the high street, making Topshop and H&M look like the visionaries that they actually were.
Because, make no mistake, this move confirms that fast fashion and fast luxury have won the battle, at least temporarily.
But there is hope.
The fact is that the fashion industry as we know it now is relatively new, and it’s still finding its feet: which is why the movement to make it sustainable at its core is so important. If we act now to make it right while it’s in its infancy, we stand a real chance to grow it into a positive force, all things considered.
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I am sure that you have a closet overflowing with clothing. Chances are you might even have items that still have the swing tickets attached. Have you ever looked at the care label to see where your clothing was manufactured? Fast fashion isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact fast fashion was created for this simple reason: to get us buying more and more and without much thought into where these garments are made.
I am hoping that by the time you finish reading this piece, something would have shifted. For one you will take a look at the care labels of your clothing and find out who is responsible for it and that you will hopefully reevaluate your shopping habits. Fast fashion companies cut corners, they use cheaper fabrics and cheap labor. It is simply exploitation. There is the argument that fast fashion creates jobs but when people are exploited it simply isn’t right.
Cape Town was aflutter recently when H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) opened its first store in South Africa. More stores are planned including Johannesburg’s Sandton City as well as others in Southern, East and West Africa.
It is always great to have brands open stores in our country, least of all when you know that jobs will be created. It is reported that about 600 jobs were created leading up to the opening of the V&A Waterfront and Sandton City stores. Staffers, around 60, were sent to Sweden for training. H&M plans to have as many as 1 500 people employed within the next 12 months.
The buzz continues but there is one fundamental problem with brands like these and it seems very few people know what really happens behind closed doors. In this case, behind the doors of the factories that produce these garments. This lack of knowledge was evident from the social media images from fashion bloggers to local personalities applauding H&M on their opening.
It was not long ago, in fact only two years prior, in April 2013 when the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of clothing manufacturing took place. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, claiming the lives of 1 138 of its workers.
Two years after this tragedy, H&M is still behind on correcting the fire and safety hazards in its factories in Bangladesh according to the joint report released by the International Labor Rights Forum, Clean Clothes Campaign, Maquila Solidarity Network, and Workers Rights Consortium. These fire and safety hazards are the working conditions their workers are forced to work under making sure that fast fashion reaches our stores timeously. Repairs, which include installation of fireproof doors and the removal of locking or sliding doors from fire exits are some of the issues that have not been addressed.
These are repairs that affect the staff working in these factories. If not dealt with, it could have disastrous outcomes, like that of April 2013. It appears that more attention is placed on pushing out the orders as opposed to the people who make these garments. Will these factories get away with these hazardous conditions if they were in developed countries? No! Cheap labor is simply that; cheap. Bangladeshi workers who sew for H&M toil in extremely dangerous conditions. So can you really say that their fashion is cheap? Cheap in price definitely but costly on the scale of human lives. Par Darj, the country manager for H&M South Africa described H&M’s merchandise as “democratic fashion” high quality, easy and affordable for people who ordinarily might not be able to buy fashion. How democratic is this model if H&M chose to open their first store at the V&A Waterfront? The only people who benefit from the fast fashion system are the executives who are some of the richest people in the world.
The H&M store in Cape Town is 4700 square meters and is said to be one of their biggest stores in the world. Rumor has it that there might be a section carrying local designers in the near future. Could this be why they are exploring the feasibility of opening a local manufacturing facility? Par Darj said H&M already has a production factory in Ethiopia, opened in 2014. “We will see what is possible in South Africa”. One would hope that the working conditions in this factory are safer than the one in Bangladesh or the potential of a factory opening in South Africa will not cost anyone their life.
Are South African malls in the future only going to comprise of top international brands? The likes of Burberry, Forever 21, Top Shop, Zara etc. It could be, unless you reevaluate your shopping habits.
The True Cost film will make you rethink your fast fashion addiction. I can’t help but think of the interview with Shima Akter, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker who was beaten by her factory supervisors for organizing and leading a workers’ union in the hopes to get better working conditions ‘I don’t want anyone wearing anything which is produced by our blood.’
I encourage you to watch The True Cost to understand just where your clothing comes from and the price others are paying for it.
Who Makes Our Clothing? | Livia Firth | The True Cost