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Anger, Disappointment as UK Rejects Call to Clean Up Fashion

Anger. Disappointment. Sadness. Those are just a few of the reactions that rippled across the United Kingdom Tuesday after ministers rebuffed all recommendations from a cross-political committee to improve the fashion industry’s social and ecological impact, including a proposed one-penny charge per garment that would fund a national clothing-recycling scheme.

The rejection was a direct response to “Fixing Fashion,” a report that the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of the House of Commons published in February following an eight-month investigation into the damaging effects of throwaway clothing and exploitative working conditions, including illegally low pay.

“Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth, but the way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact,” Mary Creagh, a minister of the British Parliament and chairwoman of the committee, said last June. “Our inquiry will look at how the fashion industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable.”

British consumers buy more new clothes annually than any other European country and send roughly 300,000 tons of clothes a year to incineration or landfills, the committee found. It also warned that textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined.

Other suggestions in the report included a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock, a virgin-plastic tax on textile products containing less than 50 percent recycled PET, mandatory environmental targets for apparel companies with a turnover above 36 million pounds ($45 million) and “clear economic incentives” for businesses that offer repair services for clothes.

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Levying a one-penny charge per clothing item, the committee added, would make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create while raising 35 million pounds ($44.4 million) to promote efficient clothing collection and sorting.

“Fashion producers should be forced to clear up the mountains of waste they create,” Creagh said in response to the government’s dismissal of the EAC’s recommendations. “The government has rejected our call, demonstrating that it is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment, having just committed to net-zero emission targets. Urgent action must be taken to change the fast-fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the Earth.”

Speaking to the Guardian, a spokesperson said officials recognize “how crucial it is for the environmental and social impacts to be well managed, particularly in this era of fast fashion.” Ministers cited as a sufficient strategy the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, a voluntary agreement helmed by the nonprofit Waste & Resources Action Programme that has committed 85 of the U.K.’s apparel retailers, charity shops, and clothing recyclers to clip back their carbon, water and waste-to-landfill footprints by 15 percent and waste across the product life cycle by 3.5 percent by 2020.

Labour Behind the Label, a worker-rights group that submitted evidence to the EAC during its inquiry, hit back at what it described as the government’s “short-sighted, knee-jerk response.”

“There is an urgent need for the government to step in, clearly laid out by the Environmental Audit Committee, but ministers can’t see beyond the end of their own leadership contest,” said Anna Bryher, the organization’s advocacy director. “In order to build a country fit for the future, politicians need to be courageous and uncompromising on both the environment and human rights. The fashion industry is key in the war on plastic, and brands and government need to act jointly to address waste.”

It is not enough to carry on with “business as usual,” she added. The country “urgently” needs legislation that will create some minimum guidance for companies to follow.

“We are particularly unhappy that recommendations on addressing illegal wages in Leicester were so summarily dismissed when repeated and damning evidence has been shown that a systematic problem exists,” Bryher said “It is not enough to carry on with business as usual—a new response is needed from regulators.“

Livia Firth, creative director of the environmental consultancy Eco-Age and a leading sustainable-fashion advocate, also expressed her dismay.

“I would like to say that I am surprised by the government’s decision to totally reject the findings of the Environmental Audit Committee to improve the fashion industry’s environmental impact,” she told British Glamour. “Sadly this only confirms my belief in a government which has no intention to take this country forward into a sustainable future. I am deeply grateful to the Environmental Audit Committee for the work they have carried so far and which we will all keep doing with or without the government’s support.”

British designer Stella McCartney, who champions a more sustainable fashion industry, told the New York Times that the “conversation regarding our environment and protection of the planet is so pressing.”

“With this sector ready and much in need of change, I am deeply saddened with the news of the government ignoring the recommendations, and ask our representatives in a position of power to hear calls for action and set some policies in place,” she said.

The news stands in contrast to action from the French government, which earlier this month unveiled preliminary plans to prevent brands from destroying returned and unsold consumer goods, including clothing and beauty products, by 2023.