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UK Has a Roadmap for Building ‘Cleaner, Fairer’ Fashion Industry

As the British government endeavors to “build back better” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it must do so with a cleaner, fairer fashion industry in mind, a new report says.

The past year and a half has only seen an escalation of concerns and issues endemic to the garment supply chain, such as the non-payment of Bangladeshi workers, allegations of forced labor of Turkic Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and, “closer to home,” reports of illegally low wages and unsafe working conditions in the English city of Leicester, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion said last week.

Drawing input from a host of manufacturers, brands, nonprofits and academics, “Cleaning Up Fashion” examines how the government and other stakeholders can help “amplify sustainability in action” by creating “joined-up approaches” to decarbonize the economy, eliminate waste, end worker exploitation and bolster U.K. manufacturing and skills development.

Collective action, for instance, is necessary to create the systemic change necessary to achieve net-zero emissions, though this might require a “civil service shakeup.” Instead of the hodgepodge of departments that the sector must currently engage with, a single contact across government for the fashion industry could provide “coherence in understanding the complexities and generating solutions to meet the government’s leveling-up agenda,” the report said.

Tackling the problem of waste could benefit from a similar rethink. There is a need to focus on significantly reducing fashion waste at the source, rather than at the end of life, where much of the existing attention and funding is centered, it noted. This includes the issue of overconsumption. The United Kingdom purchases more clothes per capita than any other country in Europe, or an estimated 1.1 million metric tons in 2016 alone, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme. Compounding the problem is the fact that recycling is “much to be desired,” with an estimated 140 million pounds ($193.6 million) worth of clothing entering British landfills every year.

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“There is a clear need to make extending the life of clothes more economically viable,” the report said. “This could be stimulated through changes in taxation policy incentives for U.K. brands demonstrating sustainability through resourceful design, manufacture and service models. Through identifying these businesses around the U.K., a leveling up could be achieved alongside environmental sustainability.”

When it comes to safeguarding workers and the planet, the government should expedite proposed changes to the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, including a “failure to prevent” law that imposes legal liability on businesses that fail to prohibit human rights and environmental exploitation from occurring throughout their supply chains. An opportunity also exists to appoint a U.K.-wide garment trade adjudicator, which would ensure a “robust response” to calls for transparency and accountability in the sector, especially in the wake of the Leicester scandal, which has proven that voluntary codes of conduct fall woefully short.

“This could restore confidence in the U.K. garment manufacturing sector,” the report added. “A trusted U.K. fashion system is required for the country to be a destination for fashion product design, manufacturing, services and sales, and is an opportunity to grow U.K. ethical manufacturing and production.”

Similarly, with the economic fallout from the pandemic creating unprecedented challenges for suppliers and their workers, the government should explore binding legislation and other mechanisms that can encourage brands to pay those within their supply chains a living wage, conduct a greater level of due diligence and increase transparency and accountability around their operations.

“The state of economic precarity that abusive purchasing practices, work insecurity, a focus on individual corporate social responsibility, rather than union representation for its workforce, combined with a runaway train, ever speeding ‘fast fashion’ economic model, creates a broken system, where those who make our clothes are all too often exploited, undervalued and poorly paid,” the report said. “Should garment workers be offered a living wage, and brands take greater responsibility for those who rely on them for basic workers’ rights, the impacts of the pandemic would have been far less severe.”

With the government looking to “level up,” the need for good jobs and the skills required in a decarbonized, post-Covid-19 economy is critical. Revising educational curriculums to promote STEAM rather than STEM education is one route it can take. Promoting research and development to support skills development for vocational students is another.

“There is a real opportunity for sustainable, well paid and meaningful work within the sector across the U.K.’s four nations, if a coherent policy approach is coordinated, where education is aligned with business needs and regional development,” the report added.

Doing so could also boost the onshoring of fashion manufacturing, although as the Leicester imbroglio showed, transparency is necessary to prevent modern slavery from flourishing in the shadows. The rewards of growing the “made in the U.K.” label would be innumerable, however, the report said. Such a stamp offers prestige and reputation to both heritage and newly launched brands while supporting local jobs and communities. Funding similar to that received by film and television production that is partly or wholly made in the United Kingdom, should be made available to domestic fashion production that “demonstrates transparency and accountability, providing localized jobs and supporting domicile talent into sustainable and fulfilling work,” the report said.

Finally, transitioning to a “wellbeing economy” involves introducing “holistic” measures of business success beyond those solely based on economic indicators, the All-Parliamentary Group said.

“In order to recognize the benefits of a wellbeing economy, there is a need to diversify support: offering incentives that favor companies with a focus on reuse, repair and extended responsibility, recognition of businesses who support their workers joining trade unions, as well as those who show how green jobs can be created, while also meeting high standards of working conditions,” the report said.

While these recommendations will require enforcement, increased resources and innovative policies, along with a “rigorous overhaul” of fashion business models and operations, they provide an “exciting opportunity” for the United Kingdom to be a world leader in aligning sustainability and ethical commitments, it added.

“While it is unlikely that we will see U.K. manufacturing numbers ever return to those of the 1980s, with 1 million in the fashion production workforce, there is no reason to imagine that without the right R&D investment and nationwide commitment, the government could not seize the consumer’s increasing desire to buy more sustainably and brands’ growing ambitions to source more locally,” the report said.

“This is an opportunity for businesses to really thrive once again within the U.K. market and among our global partners and competitors,” it added.