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UK Report Finds Fashion Industry Unsustainable and Suggests Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme

The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) recently presented a report on the sustainability of clothing, finding that the fashion industry’s current business model is unsustainable, with over-consumption and climate change driving widespread environmental damage. Taking into account growing populations and rising levels of consumption across the globe, the EAC calls for a change of ‘exploitative and linear’ business models in fashion. The EAC encourages various parts of the fashion industry to reduce their carbon consumption back to 1990 levels and to come together to set out their blueprint for a net zero emissions world. The EAC also calls for a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled, and the introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which could add to costs within the supply chain.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which is appointed by the UK’s House of Commons, considers the contributions of government policies and programmes to environmental protection and sustainable development. The EAC recognises, in its report, that each stage of the life cycle – from the manufacturing, to the use and the disposal of clothes – has an environmental impact and is structured around this full life cycle. Two of the report’s chapters examine the social and environmental impact of clothes manufacturing. Another chapter deals with the sheer amount of waste clothes. Lastly, the report dedicates a chapter to new economic models that could help improve the sustainability of the fashion industry.

With regard to the social costs of clothing, the EAC found that some workers in the UK making clothes for fast fashion retailers are not being paid the minimum wage. Additionally, the ECA noticed serious breaches of health and safety law in certain workplaces. The report states that such conditions are unacceptable and argues that the label ‘made in the UK’ should stand for workers being paid at least a minimum wage in safe working conditions.

The report examines what it calls the “environmental price tag” on fashion, i.e., the toll of fast fashion on the environment, and finds the price is too high. This applies to all stages of the life cycle.

Concerning production, the report’s conclusions show that the fashion industry destroys fragile ecosystems and heavily burdens the fresh water supply of central Asia. It recommends that consumers seek sustainable or organic cotton wherever possible.

The EAC was also astonished to find that many retailers did not ensure full traceability in their supply chains to prove decent livelihoods and sustainably sourced materials. The report suggests introducing a mandatory traceability obligation.

With regard to the use of clothing, the report recognises microfibre pollution through washing as a problem, as clothes shed fibres in the wash. It suggests that the Government take a lead on solving the issue, namely by facilitating collaboration between clothing retailers, water companies and washing machine manufacturers.

However, the EAC sees that ultimate responsibility for stopping this pollution lies with the manufacturing companies and recognises the need for further research into how to limit emissions of synthetic fibres and to immediately put the results into action. The EAC sees an urgent need for research into the occupational health risks of working with synthetic fibres.

The UK is, it is stated, committed so as “to ensure sustainable consumption and production” under the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In order to reduce the environmental footprint of the UK’s textile production and consumption, the EAC sees a need to reduce textile waste, improve resource efficiency and reduce the carbon emissions and water footprint.

Concerning the end of the life cycle, the report shows that every year, over a million tonnes of clothes are thrown away in the UK. The EAC calls for ending the era of throwaway fashion by several means.

First, the EAC calls for a ban on incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled. Although incineration of unsold stock can be used to recover energy from the discarded products, it increases the climate impact by generating additional emissions to those generated during the manufacturing process and by releasing air pollutants into the atmosphere which can harm human health.

Reuse and recycling come first in the waste hierarchy, which should be made into a priority for dealing with unsold stock, with incineration to be used only as a last resort. Moreover, the EAC recommends to ‘buy less, mend, rent and share more’. In support of this, the EAC interestingly suggests including school lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes.

Furthermore, the EAC calls for the introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles as well as for rewarding companies that take positive action towards waste reduction. According to the definition of the Textile Recycling Association, EPR is a policy approach where producers are assigned financial and/or physical responsibility for the treatment or disposal of products they put on the market.

Generally, EPR aims to provide incentives for waste prevention at the source, to promote ecodesign and to support better recycling and materials management. A levy on clothing sales as part of an EPR could be used to support UK waste collection, sorting and processing of clothing, and R&D into new recycling processes. However, such levy would also directly impact the price of clothing sold by Hong Kong and other suppliers.

The report suggests charging producers one penny per garment, which could raise tens of millions of pounds. Such amounts could be reinvested in better discarded clothing collection and sorting in the UK, thereby creating new ‘green’ jobs in the sorting sector, particularly in areas where textile recycling is already a specialist industry.

The report mentions a successful EPR scheme introduced in France in 2007, claiming that waste collection points have nearly trebled following the introduction of the scheme and that collection rates have increased by more than 50%.

Finally, the EAC calls for incorporating ecodesign principles into the Resources and Waste strategy and to offer incentives for recycling, disassembly and durability designs. Additionally, it suggests setting up a new investment fund to stimulate markets for recycled fibres.

The report “Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability” is available online.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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