That $5 blouse may seem like a steal, but how much is it costing the planet? U.K. lawmakers, for one, would like to know.
The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons announced Friday that it is launching an inquiry into the ecological impact of disposable “fast fashion” in the United Kingdom. It’ll be assessing the carbon, resource and water footprints of clothing throughout its life cycle, it said, along with issues pertaining to waste, pollution and recycling,
“Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth, but the way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge environmental impact,” said Mary Creagh, a minister of the British Parliament and chairwoman of the committee. “Our inquiry will look at how the fashion industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable.”
Critics of fast fashion, which is characterized by trendy knockoffs, cheap materials and even cheaper labor, have long blamed the business model for a raft of social and environmental ills, from the overexploitation of human and natural resources to the glut of clothing entering the landfills after only a few wears.
It’s not for nothing, after all, that United Nations officials recently declared the fashion industry an “environmental emergency.” Besides requiring no small amounts of land, water and fossil fuels, clothing production spews copious amounts of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change. Indeed, a 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report found that if the global fashion industry persists on its current growth path, it could end up using more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.
A garment’s impact doesn’t end once it’s in a consumer’s hands, either.
“Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibers wash down the drain and into the oceans,” she said, referring to the burgeoning problem of microplastic pollution, which occurs when tiny fragments of plastic slough off polyester and other synthetic fabrics during laundry. Those pernicious bits have been discovered in the gastrointestinal tracts of marine animals, in drinking water, even the furthest reaches of the Antarctic.
Another of the inquiry’s aims is how to better manage clothes at the end of their useful lives, a subject that appears to still stump consumers despite the growing ubiquity of take-back programs from brands and retailers like H&M and Marks & Spencer. “We don’t know where or how to recycle clothing,” Creagh said.
Roughly 300,000 tons of clothing ends up in U.K. landfills every year, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme, a local nonprofit. Dealing with textiles in this manner isn’t just a waste of potential raw materials for cleaning cloths, upholstery stuffing and building insulation—or even future clothes—it’s also expensive. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that landfilling clothing and textiles costs the U.K. economy 82 million pounds ($108 million) a year.
Worse, clothes that degrade in landfills can generate methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, Creagh added.
The committee says it will frame the sustainability of clothing production against the U.K.’s social and environmental commitments under the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This includes a commitment to ensuring “decent work and economic growth” by protecting labor rights and promoting safe and secure working environments.
Even “made in Britain” isn’t immune to worker abuse, the committee noted. Because of the lightning turnarounds that fast fashion demands, U.K. garment factories can face deteriorating working conditions as well. A Financial Times exposé last month, for instance, featured garment workers in parts of Leicester who were paid less than four pounds ($5) an hour.
The deadline for written submissions and comments for the inquiry, it added, is Sept. 3.