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UK Parliament Denounces Fast Fashion As “Unsustainable” and “Exploitative”

After launching an investigation into fast fashion in the fall of 2018, the U.K. Parliament’s Environment Audit Select Committee (EAC) has released the first of its findings, detailing the winners and losers of the nation’s fashion industry in terms of sustainability and environmental impact.

The committee began its investigation by sending written requests to 16 of the U.K.’s most impactful fashion retailers, as determined by market share, along with four online-only retailers after reports surfaced of “illegally low wages” in fast fashion supply chains. In Leicester, northwest of London, wages for garment workers can run as low as 3.50 pounds ($4.57) per hour, according to the committee’s findings.

“The current exploitative and environmentally damaging model for fashion must change,” the EAC wrote in its report. “We believe retailers have an obligation to engage with these issues and recommend that they show leadership through engagement with industry initiatives.”

All but one of the retailers that were contacted responded to the EAC, the lone holdout being high-end footwear retailer Kurt Geiger. However, in the eyes of the committee, the responses were all but equal. To illustrate, the EAC’s report separated each retailer into three categories: “less engaged,” “moderately engaged” and “engaged.”

Amazon U.K., Boohoo, Missguided, TJX and both JD Sports and Sports Direct received the lowest marks of all surveyed, with the committee relegating to the “less engaged” tier. Notably, Amazon’s U.K. operation was called out for its tepid response to the program despite the company’s increasingly large role in the local fashion industry.

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“The lack of engagement from Amazon was particularly notable,” the committee stated in its report. “We received a two-page response which did not engage substantively with the questions posed. While we understand that Amazon is a logistics provider and a seller on behalf of other businesses, Amazon U.K. is a growing member of the U.K. fashion industry, with own label brands and as a patron of the British Fashion Council. Its size, online reach and potential for growth as a fashion retailer means it will have to engage more seriously with its sustainability responsibilities in future.”

The other retailers in the committee’s bottom tier were more notable for their sloppy or seemingly insincere efforts to join programs like SCAP—a U.K. organization dedicated to reducing fashion’s environmental footprint—and the committee recommended that these organizations begin to prioritize their efforts to do so.

The next tier, the “moderately engaged,” consisted of the Acadia Group, Debenhams, Next Plc and Asda Stores Ltd. These retailers were shown to have taken meaningful steps, with Debenhams’ recycled fiber collection program garnering praise in the report, but the committee still believes the retailers had the “potential to go further.” The EAC praised this tier’s commitment to wage fairness but admitted that the proper framework for sustainability was not present within each organization.

The highest-graded subjects of the committee’s investigation included Asos, Burberry, Marks and Spencer Group PLC, Tesco PLC and Primark Stores Ltd. The EAC pointed to these retailers as excellent examples of the fashion industry working to make itself more sustainable. Every retailer in the top tier is a current member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which works to create better working conditions in supply chains, and the committee acknowledged that each is working toward “ambitious sustainability targets, by industry standards.”

Burberry’s inclusion on the list was particularly surprising, considering it was the subject of a recent scandal due to the luxury brand’s practice of burning tons of unsold clothing in an effort to maintain exclusivity without resorting to discounting. The EAC said Burberry had now pledged to help end stock burning throughout the industry and that the company is “engaged with a range of other sustainability initiatives to reduce its environmental impact.”

Still, the committee lamented the lack of a coordinated effort throughout the industry that would help to enforce higher industry standards. Overall, it said the industry was exploitative, unsustainable and encouraged excess waste due to a culture of advertisement that pushes consumers to “change their wardrobe on a regular, trend driven, basis” through cheap and quickly produced clothing.

“The fashion industry’s current business model is clearly unsustainable, especially with a growing middle-class population and rising levels of consumption across the globe,” the committee concluded. “We are disappointed that few high street and online fashion retailers are taking significant steps to improve their environmental sustainability.”