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UK Escalates Inquiry Into Fast Fashion’s Impact With Hearings Before Parliament

Fast Fashion is on the run in the United Kingdom.

After launching an inquiry in June into the impact fast fashion is having on the environment in terms of sustainability and ethical production, Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee on Oct. 30 spoke with fashion sustainability and sourcing experts in its first official oral evidence session on the subject.

“Our recent evidence hearing raised alarm bells about the fast-growing online-only retail sector,” committee chair MP Mary Creagh said. “Low quality 5 pound ($6.49) dresses aimed at young people are said to be made by workers on illegally low wages and are discarded almost instantly, causing mountains of non-recycled waste to pile up.”

On Friday, the committee announced it would be expanding the inquiry to include Amazon UK, Asos, Boohoo and Missguided, after analyzing the information from the initial session. Parliament expects the retailers to defend allegations of non-compliance with regard to sustainability and employment laws.

Meanwhile, as part of the probe, executives and designers from Stella McCartney, Howies and Hiut Denim, along with experts in textile recycling, are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the future of fast fashion in the U.K.

Ahead of the upcoming sessions, we’ve summarized the main points made during the initial discussions leading to the committee’s decision to escalate the matter.

Stella Claxton, senior lecturer for the Clothing Sustainability Research Group at Nottingham Trent University, on the current challenges facing fast fashion:

“I think in its current form it is not that environmentally sustainable…while some retailers have made a lot of effort to address some of the impacts of the actual products themselves, the rising volumes mean that there is a magnification of the issues. Coupled with that, we have a situation where chasing low prices has led to global supply chains looking for cheaper manufacturing, which is normally in developing countries. This makes supply chains very fragmented and complicated, which means that quite often the problems are not known about, not necessarily actively hidden but just very difficult to trace and be transparent.”

Alan Wheeler, director of the Textiles Recycling Association, on the progress fast fashion brands have made in the U.K.:

“When you look at the measures by which the SCAP (Sustainable Clothing Action Plan) signatories are judged, they are making good progress. They are making significant progress towards their carbon, water and waste targets. What impact that is having on reuse and recycling market, which is the area that I am particularly interested in, is still a very problematic area. I have seen figures that suggest that it has risen three times in the 21st century and five times as much since the 1980s when I was a teenager and I was certainly buying enough clothing then, so I don’t know what they are doing with clothing now. The reality is that is now coming through to us in the reuse and recycling markets.”

Once opening arguments were made, a local professor of marine biology raised a key point: What if it’s not just about the clothes we throw away? Here, he describes how fibers escape a garment during washing and end up in the environment.

Professor Richard C. Thompson, Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth, on the impact synthetic fibers are having on marine ecosystems:

“We are finding synthetic materials, plastics—but particularly fibers—in the deep sea, in Arctic sea ice, in fish and shellfish. It is certainly there in considerable quantities. In terms of priority, I think it is important to look at how easy is it to fix. If I take some of the work that we have done in our own labs with a range of products that I have bought in a local high street supermarket and I wash them, I find that some are shedding fibers four or five times more quickly than others and these are identical looking fleece-like garments. It is saying to me that there are things that probably we have not needed to think about historically at the design stage about life in service and fibers that are shed.”

Thompson went on to say there is not enough research being done in textile design to prevent the leaching of fibers into the water supply. Then, the conversation moved toward possibly unsustainable business models for retailers.

Claxton: “If you look at where the growth in the retail market in the U.K. is coming from, it is very much from the low-value end, particularly the success of online retailers—such as ASOS and Boohoo—who are competing on low prices and fast turnaround. I saw a dress on Boohoo that retailed at full price for 5 pounds at the weekend, so we have a market where these garments are mainly aimed at young women who are engaging in the kind of behavior…which is to gain pleasure from what they wear and expressing their identity through their clothing, but the actual value of the item is very low in real terms, in quality terms and in emotional terms to them. The incentive for them to then recycle or want to pass that on in some way, or even for charity shops to want that kind of product in their shops, is very low. The opportunity for that end of the market to have a second-hand opportunity is quite limited.”

The arguments then turned toward what the government could do about the problem. Professor Thompson held the opinion that a regulation wouldn’t be enough. Rather, he said, let the people decide.

Professor Thompson: “I don’t think we can fix everything with a regulation. It has to start with the appropriate evidence. Consumers are quite hungry at the moment to make informed choices but some of this is about the social science to communicate to the consumer why the design of a lovely soft jumper, for example, has changed slightly. It could be regulation but it might be a more subtle nudge. We have to understand the evidence behind the problem and the direction of travel before we know how best to move in that direction.”

Alan Wheeler preferred an industry-focused approach.

Wheeler: “I would like to see producers and retailers in some way being made to take more responsibility for the clothing that they are putting on the market, and offering incentives for design for recycling, design for disassembly, design for durability, and perhaps looking at incentives to stimulate markets for recycled fibers, which at the moment when we talk about recycling, as opposed to reuse, we are talking about mechanical recycling, so that the fibers are shredded or the garments are cut. That shortens the fiber length. You cannot separate blends or anything like that, so the markets are limited to things like wiping cloths, insulation, shoddy, which is a wool/yarn substitute. What I would like is if we got chemical recycling processes that enable fiber-to-fiber recycling to happen in the future, give those retailers and producers a tax break or something like that to incentivize them to say, ‘Our clothing has so much recycled content in it,’ something like that.”

It is clear the U.K. has some work to do when it comes to sustainability.

UK citizens are the most prolific purchasers of fast fashion in Europe and are responsible for 58.9 pounds per capita of new clothing annually, according to the Textiles Recycling Association. It remains to be seen whether the committee will recommend action, but the recent addition of Amazon and Asos to the docket signals Parliament’s growing interest in fast fashion.

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