Fashion and politics. Does it mix? It needs to, with sustainability at the heart.
Last month, the Prime Minister highlighted the fashion industry’s £21 billion contribution to the UK economy and 900,000 people it employs, but when it comes to highlighting the fashion industry’s damage to the environment, the Prime Minister is more silent and so are the majority of politicians. A quick search on Hansard - the official report of all parliamentary debates - revealed that in the last year, only three politicians have mentioned fast fashion or textiles in relation to its environmental impact, and the Government is doing no better. Last month, Defra Secretary of State, Therese Coffey, confirmed that the Government currently has no plans to introduce an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme, a key “polluter pays” policy, for textiles in 2023, despite the Government’s 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy stating it would consider it.
Sustainable fashion needs vocal champions in Parliament and Government if policy change is to happen. The opportunity for parliamentarians to step forward and lead on this agenda is huge, necessary and extremely timely.
The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It contributes between 8-10% of global carbon emissions and produces vast waste, with 85% of all textiles being dumped annually. The fashion industry is producing clothing at an exponential rate. While there are many consumer benefits to a greater choice of cheap garments made and sold fast, the industry is producing far more than we can buy, let alone wear and far more than charity shops and second hand stores, let alone the planet, can sustainably cope with.
Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014 leading to us buying 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000. As a people to garment ratio, there are 8 billion people on the planet and yet the fashion industry produces over 100 billion garments every year. If clothing is not sitting in our wardrobes (much of it unworn), it becomes waste. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation reported in 2022 that a truckload of clothing gets dumped in landfills or burnt every single second. Less than 1% of clothing is recycled and countries such as Ghana have become the world’s fast fashion dumping grounds.
Leading fast fashion brand Shein proudly tweeted last year, “1000+ new items launch every day” and achieved a quadrupling of sales between 2019-2021, surpassing Amazon as the world’s most downloaded App. Fast fashion companies such as Shein rely heavily on cheap labour (an investigation found that Shein paid workers on 18-hour shifts as little as 4 cents per garment) to produce and shift vast quantities of stock in increasingly shorter periods of time. As the widely reported investigation into Boohoo’s appalling working conditions in Leicester revealed, fast fashion is as much of a human rights issue as an environmental one.
In the Prime Minister’s recent celebration of the fashion industry’s contribution to the economy, he did highlight efforts certain brands were making to become more sustainable. However, research has shown that greenwashing is on the rise and meaningful change is too slow or in many cases, non-existent. For change to happen, we need legislation and for this to happen, we need policy champions to push for it.
Promising policy ideas exist. Earlier this year, UK waste and resources charity WRAP published its Textiles Policy Options report, which set out a shortlist of viable policy options related to the textiles industry. It placed EPR as a leading policy option and pointed to other countries such as France and Sweden where EPR has been or is about to be introduced. Promisingly, the Government is in the process of introducing EPR for packaging materials and so the policy window for applying it to textiles is wide open.
There have been a number of parliamentarians who have previously led on this agenda. The Environmental Audit Committee’s 2019 Fixing Fashion report paved the way, with CEN MPs such as Philip Dunne calling for EPR for textiles. There are also many parliamentarians keen to get involved in my annual Second Hand September photoshoot to celebrate sustainable fashion and call for change. However, getting policies such as EPR on textiles through requires relentless advocacy that a single photoshoot cannot achieve.
With the Government attempting to backpedal on its textiles EPR commitment, we now need committed, vocal and influential policy champions in Parliament to come forward and make sustainable fashion policy trendy in Westminster. Who will measure up?
Views expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of the Conservative Environment Network. If you are a CEN supporter, councillor, or parliamentarian and would like to write for the CEN blog, please email your idea to email@example.com.