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UK Brands Face Questioning by Lawmakers Over Impact of Fast Fashion

U.K. lawmakers have written to 10 of Britain’s top retailers—including Marks & Spencer, Primark, Next and Arcadia Group, which owns Topshop—to suss out the steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the clothes and shoes they sell.

Part of an ongoing inquiry by the House of Commons into the pressures “fast fashion” places on people and the planet, the request for evidence will inform the Environmental Audit Committee’s investigation into the United Kingdom’s 28 billion-pound ($37 billion) industry, according to Mary Creagh, a minister of the British Parliament and chairwoman of the committee.

“The way we design, produce and discard our clothes has a huge impact on our planet,” Creagh said in a statement Friday. “Fashion and footwear retailers have a responsibility to minimize their environmental footprint and make sure the workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage. We want to hear what they are doing to make their industry more sustainable.”

Among the queries fashion bosses are invited to respond to is whether they pay a living wage to garment workers and how they ensure child labor is not used in their supply chains. Others touch on whether the companies employ recycled materials, how they encourage recycling and whether they incinerate unsold or returned stock.

Looming large in the committee’s mind is the burgeoning issue of microplastic pollution, which occurs when minuscule fragments of plastic slough off polyester and other synthetic fabrics during laundry. “Is your company taking action to reduce the risk of microplastics being washed into the ocean?” one question in the letter asks. “If so, what actions have you taken?”

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The deadline for retailers to reply is Oct. 12, after which the committee may choose to invite select participants into Parliament for further questioning. Hearings for the inquiry are scheduled to occur in November.

The Environmental Audit Committee also published a selection of submissions of written evidence it has received from experts, campaigners and sustainable fashion innovators thus far.

Revelations include the fact that consumption of new clothing is higher in the United Kingdom than any other European country—26.7 kilograms (58.9 pounds) per capita versus 16.7 kg (36.8 pounds) in Germany, 16.0 kg (35.2 pounds) in Denmark, 14.5 kg (31.9 pounds) in Italy, 14.0 kg (30.8 pounds)  in the Netherlands and 12.6 kg (27.7 pounds) in Sweden, according to the Textiles Recycling Association.

Clothing production in Britain has roughly doubled in the past 15 years, per the charity organization Traid. Studies also suggest that the number of garments purchased by a single consumer has surged more than twofold in the past decade. Traid further noted that the water footprint of clothing in use in the U.K. in 2016 was around 8 billion cubic meters, with each cubic meter equalling 1,000 liters.

Demand for clothing drives the production of almost three times more emissions outside the United Kingdom than it does domestically, noted the Soil Association. And, as far as waste goes, Britain has plenty of scope for improvement: Hundreds of thousands of metric tons of clothing end up as household residual waste each year, with roughly 80 percent going to landfills and 20 percent to incinerators.

“Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth,” Creagh said in June, when the committee’s initiative was first announced. “Our inquiry will look at how the fashion industry can remodel itself to be both thriving and sustainable.”