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Fast Fashion Investigation Gains Traction in the UK

The largest audience in Select Committee history arrived for a hearing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last week to discuss the future of fast fashion in the U.K.

The hearing, called by the U.K. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and committee chair MP, Mary Creagh, was the second such oral evidence session conducted by the EAC. The first session, held on Oct. 30, provided lawmakers with enough evidence to call Amazon, Boohoo and Missguided out over allegations that certain garments sold by the retailers were being priced as low as 5 pounds ($6.49) on the high street.

In the past, EAC committees have been successful in creating the momentum needed for widespread environmental change, as in the case of banning microbeads in the country in January 2018.

While waiting to hear from Amazon, Boohoo and Missguided regarding the allegations, the committee held another oral evidence session, this time homing in on the environmental impacts of an apparel industry operating on quick and constant consumption.Beyond the low prices of fast fashion, the questions among MP’s, was whether it’s possible to compete in the current retail environment sustainably.

Among the biggest problems is the waste the industry is creating.

Phoebe English, founder of the eponymous designer brand, said the waste from cut fabric that has frequently plagued the fashion industry remains a major issue for sustainable brands.

“Where is that waste going?” English posed. “That waste used to be a resource. They used to sell those offcuts to the rag and bone man.”

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One of the primary concerns the EAC carried over from a previous hearing on fast fashion’s impact was that brands aren’t designing sustainability into their products from the outset in order to minimize some of the waste. Instead, witnesses said, fast fashion brands have entered into a race to the bottom when it comes to price and quality.

“The growth logic of being able to have efficiency in a garment but still producing more and more of them and looking at growth is not going to be the right way to approach this idea of fashion as sustainability,” Dilys Williams, director and professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability, said. “Do we want to sustain the fashion industry as it currently is or do we want to live within planetary boundaries and honor human equality? If we do, we do need to take a more ecocentric perspective.”

Even brands that do approach their business models with sustainability in mind have faced challenges working in a world that can be difficult to navigate sustainably. For English, a brand’s best intentions can only go as far as the industry will allow.

“I currently have not been able to find anywhere that will recycle my textile that I feel is a reliable source,” continued English. “Having to design that in is a big barrier, and it is also really hard to persuade manufacturers to return your waste. It incurs extra time and extra storage space for them, and from talking to manufacturers in London who have been going for three decades, that is not a problem they used to have.”

Jenny Holdcroft, assistant general secretary of the IndustriALL supply chain trade union, added that many companies don’t even have the level of organization required to tackle new sustainability issues.

“When we first started having these conversations with the brands that are trying to do the most in this area, it was amazing to hear that the sustainability people had never had conversations with the buying people. It is completely separate arms of the company,” Holdcroft said. “On one hand you are trying to do good things; on the other hand, you are undermining yourself by the business model that you are purchasing.”

Even for sustainable brands like Stella McCartney, Bergkamp said, the ability to have high levels of certainty regarding the sustainability of a product over its lifetime, including the waste it produces along the way, is something that takes time and a great deal of effort.

“We are really dedicated to having transparency and traceability back to raw materials, back to the farm level. It is something we have been working on the whole time I have been at Stella and we have not achieved it for every fiber. I do not think anyone in the world probably has, who is using a range of fibers and materials that are far spread in the world,” Bergkamp admitted. “We did set up a supply chain where we have full traceability back to the forest and we know every step of that. Those are the types of supply chains we want to have for any natural fiber we are using. However, that does take time and money.”

But one thing made clear at the hearing, was that it isn’t feasible to construct a sustainable business model by selling garments for 5 pounds at retail.

“Their business models are just not sustainable, and they are certainly not sustainable with the generations of children who are growing up and inheriting the planet as we are leaving it at the moment,” English said, referring to fast fashion purveyors. “They know that those kids will not be shopping in the same way that we are now. They will not be going into Primark and coming out with five bags of clothes where garments have cost them five or six quid to purchase and buying multiple clothes—the same clothes in different colors. It is just not how people will be shopping in the future and they know their time is coming up.”

The committee will be calling on more online and high street retailers to submit oral and written evidence, including Amazon, Boohoo and Missguided, before meeting with government ministers before the December holidays. Once all evidence is collected, the committee expects to release its report and recommendation regarding fast fashion’s impacts in January.