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Primark, Boohoo, Missguided in the Hot Seat Over Fast Fashion

The U.K. Parliament’s inquiry into fast fashion continued this week, as the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) questioned executives from Primark, Boohoo, Missguided, the Arcadia Group, Marks and Spencer and Burberry in an attempt to get to the bottom of the fast fashion industry’s specious relationship with sustainability.

The previous session between U.K. lawmakers and fast fashion leaders boasted the largest attendance ever for a meeting of a parliamentary special committee in the U.K.

This meeting, the third of four oral evidence sessions to be held by the EAC, started with chairman Mary Creagh MP stating that throughout the inquiry, evidence has suggested the fashion industry is “chasing the cheap needle” around the world to the detriment of society and the environment.

Marks and Spencer faced Creagh’s first question regarding its decision not to IndustriALL’s Initiative for Better Standards. According to M&S director of sustainable business, Mike Barry, it would not be possible to sign every initiative that came across his desk. However, Barry did point to Sedex, a global industry group that promotes labor and safety rights, along with other supply chain organizations that the company has worked with.

For M&S’ part, Barry said, “We’re not naïve. We know that people can be intimidated and problems can be covered up, we go looking for them.” That said, he was not able to tell the committee how many of the company’s factories or employees were unionized when confronted with the statistic that only around 10 percent of garment workers, worldwide, belong to trade unions.

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The answer, however, seemed insufficient for Creagh, who continued to press Barry on M&S’ relationship with suppliers and its unwillingness to allow its U.K. employees to unionize.

Among the committee’s primary goals throughout the fast fashion inquiry has been to understand what’s at the heart of a common complaint that certain factories in the U.K. were skirting labor laws and underpaying garment workers.

Burberry also came under fire for admitting to burning old stock in order to maintain an air of exclusivity, as opposed to selling the products at a discount. Reports by the BBC placed the value of the destroyed products at around 30 million pounds ($38.23 million).

Leanne Wood, chief people, strategy and corporate affairs officer at Burberry, said the organization was “committed” to stopping the practice, though she noted the move as standard throughout the luxury fashion industry despite most companies failing to report it.

The Arcadia Group, owners of Topshop and Topman, also came under intense pressure when it became clear that the organization was “essentially, not doing anything” with regard to scrap fabric and recycled fibers. When pressed on the effectiveness of a touted fabric takeback program, Jamie Beck, head of supplier management and Arcadia Group witness conceded that there was only a pilot program at the Group’s head office, but none at any of its nearly 2,500 shops in the U.K.

A notable vacancy during the e-commerce portion of the session led to one of the more unexpected revelations of the inquiry. Missguided CEO Nitin Passi declined to attend after being asked directly by the committee, along with chief executives from Boohoo and Asos. The Missguided CEO was the only one of the three to refuse to appear before the committee.

Instead, Passi sent along written evidence that claimed, among other things, that Missguided’s inspectors were actually chased out of factories when performing audits on its supply chain, highlighting the struggles retailers go through when trying to refine their supply chain standards. Creagh later called the report, “shocking” and openly questioned what factory conditions must have been like to warrant such a response.

Finally, the conversation turned again to the concept of the 2 pounds ($2.55) shirt and how fast fashion companies can hope to be sustainable with such practices.

Primark, named as one of the prime offenders of this trend during previous sessions, responded.

“Primark has never done any significant advertising at all, and that can save us in any year 100 million to 150 million pounds, compared to some of our larger rivals,” said Paul Lister, head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability at Primark. “That goes straight into price. It’s our business model that takes us to a £2 T-shirt. Every item that we make, we’re looking at durability…we are proud of the quality and durability of our garments, they’re not built to throw away.”

Other witnesses, like Boohoo’s co-CEO Carol Kane, said the company often sells products at a loss in order to drive traffic to its website.

But Creagh remained unimpressed by the host of offered answers.

“Evidence we heard today justifies our concerns that the current system allows fashion retailers to mark their own homework when it comes to workers’ rights, fair pay, and sustainability,” the MP said after the evidence session had ended.

There will be a fourth and final session to be announced at a later date.