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‘True Sustainability’ Will Take Three or More Years, Say UK Retailers

Sustainability may be rising to the top of the British retail agenda, but it’s still far from the status quo, a new survey by ITE Group, the trade-expo organizer behind Pure London and the Spring & Autumn Fair, has found.

While 73 percent of the 1,896 U.K. retailers polled said they have made changes to reduce their carbon, waste, water and energy footprints, a full two-thirds (66 percent) said it will take at least three years to attain “true sustainability.”

Respondents cited cost as one of the leading roadblocks; greening their assortments could require price hikes of roughly 19 percent, or more than twice what their customers may be willing to pay. Sourcing isn’t always smooth sailing, either, with a fifth (20 percent) of retailers claiming suppliers who operate sustainably or transparently are “in short supply.”

Challenges aside, 80 percent of those surveyed checked off the “future of the planet” as the No. 1 reason to promote sustainable behavior, while 74 percent said they viewed sustainability as an opportunity for their businesses.

“Our study confirms that the U.K. retail industry is passionate about taking action on sustainability,” Julie Driscoll, U.K. regional director for ITE Group, said in a statement. “However…to achieve true sustainability takes significant resource, time and investment.”

Driscoll described sustainability as “arguably a continuous process for improvement” rather than a destination.

“Retailers aren’t shying away from that responsibility, but they are being realistic when it comes to how quickly the change can happen,” she added.

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Mary Creagh, a minister of the British Parliament and chairwoman of the Environmental Audit Committee, said this week that the U.K. government needs to play a bigger part in “fixing” the problems of the fashion industry, which is rife with labor abuses and environmental degradation.

“We kickstarted a huge debate around fashion when we decided to look at the true cost of clothes,” Creagh wrote in an op-ed, referring to a recently concluded cross-political inquiry into the effects of fast fashion. “With a climate emergency upon us, people want to know how to shop responsibly and which brands to trust.”

Marks & Spencer, Burberry, Asos and Primark are at the forefront of the sustainable movement, she noted. Amazon, TK Maxx, Boohoo and Missguided are “laggards,” and Next, Debenhams and Arcadia are “somewhere in the middle.”

“The government isn’t listening and appears increasingly out of step with the public mood,” Creagh said. “Even retailers can see the way the tide is turning as more companies seek the green pound with newly launched ranges under ‘sustainable’ and ‘recycled’ banners.”

The EAC had called for a one-penny charge per garment that would fund a national clothing-recycling scheme, 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, only to be rebuffed by Parliament in June.

“We know how to fix our broken fashion system,” Creagh said. “The government says it wants to get to net zero carbon by 2050 but carries on with business as usual.”