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"Fashion retailers must take responsibility for their products": Mary Creagh MP is taking on the fashion industry

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The government's Environmental Audit Committee called the British fashion industry 'unsustainable' in 2018. We meet the head of that committee Mary Creagh MP and hear about how she's pushing for systematic change at the highest levels.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 26 February 2019

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Earlier this month, the Government's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) produced a long awaited report into the state of British fashion. It was pronounced unsurprisingly, unsustainable. We buy the most fast fashion in Europe, we wear it less and dump it more. All the while holding up the British fashion industry as a world leader with global influence. 

The MP in charge of that report is Mary Creagh, a passionate campaigner for environmental change. A Labour MP since 2005, she has been both Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. She now heads up the Environmental Audit Committee and has set her sights on tackling the issue of fast fashion.

After she spoke at fashion industry conference, Pure London, in February, I knew we had to find out more about what the EAC planned to recommend as a plan of action. In amongst the ongoing Brexit black hole, the Environmental Action Committee recommended that online and high street retailers are charged 1p per garment, which goes back into developing textile recycling and R&D into how to move fashion from the second most polluting industries to one that is carbon neutral.

I spoke to Mary Creagh last week to get her thoughts on where the British fashion industry is and what we, as consumers, media, individuals, companies and government, need to do to see urgent, systematic change.

Fast Fashion Report Mary Creagh 3

Recently, a 1p charge on fast fashion production was suggested as a way to combat how much clothing we send to landfill. Can you explain how would that work? How likely is this to come into effect? 

Mary Creagh: In the UK we throw away over a million tonnes of clothing every year with 300,000 tonnes going to landfill or incineration. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life. This needs to change. What we have recommended in our report is the introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme where fashion retailers have a 1 penny charge added to every garment they produce. This would raise £35 million every year to invest in improved collection and sorting of clothes, so that we can increase our reuse and recycling of clothes. A similar scheme has been in place in France since 2007, leading to a more than tripling of textile collection points, significantly increasing reuse and recycling rates and generating 1,400 new full-time green jobs. The Government has committed to review and consult on how to deal with textile waste in its Resources and Waste Strategy published in 2018. This shows that there is appetite for change but putting this off to 2025 is too little too late. We need action before the end of this Parliament (2022).

What has to happen for it and the other recycling measures to come into law?

MC: It would be for the Government to assess and establish the details of how an EPR would work after consultation with stakeholders and revision of the plans laid out in its Our Resources, Our Waste strategy published in December last year.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the way the Environmental Action Committee works – how important is it that the EAC had a ruling on sustainable fashion last year and what does it mean for the wider fashion industry? How impactful can a EAC ruling be?

MC: The Environmental Audit Committee is a cross party group of MPs who conduct inquiries into Government policies and assess whether they maintain environmental protection and promote sustainable development. We are able to put a spotlight on important issues and call for action from the Government.

This was the first parliamentary inquiry anywhere in the world on fashion sustainability. In the process the inquiry has generated a huge amount of interest, with widespread media coverage and the largest public evidence session ever in parliament select committee history held at the V&A last year.

We have increased public and parliamentary understanding of the issue, held powerful fashion companies to account and influenced the Government to include textiles in its Our Resources, Our Waste strategy, published in December last year. We now expect a response from the Government directly to the report’s recommendations and will continue to push for action from the Government to support fixing fashion.  

"Advertising to promote a wardrobe change every month, selling clothes at a loss, burning unsold stock and turning a blind-eye to labour injustices in textile factories are all practices that must change"

How did you pick the brands that presented to the committee?

MC: We wanted to capture as broad a possible perspective from fashion retailers operating in the UK in this inquiry. We took evidence from some of the biggest high-street brands including Primark, Burberry and M&S as well as the emerging online giants Boohoo, ASOS and Missguided. We also spoke to bespoke and artisanal designers like Graeme Raeburn and Phoebe English.

The retailers included in the interim report included the top ten fashion retailers in the UK by market share, four online retailers and two luxury brands.

Our inquiries are also open to all to contribute evidence. We received and published written evidence from almost 100 organisations and individuals including almost all of the major retailers and well known high-street brands in the UK, individual designers, trade associations, NGOs and academics. 

At pebble, we like to say to consumers there’s political power in your pocket over what you spend and where. How much responsibility do you think multinational brands have to combat overconsumption and over-production of cheap fashion?

MC: Consumers do have the ability to vote with their pocket when it comes to clothes. Buying less, supporting sustainable businesses, wearing longer and mending more are all actions that individuals can take. But there are limits to what consumers can do.

Fashion retailers must take responsibility for their products. Advertising to promote a wardrobe change every month, selling clothes at a loss, burning unsold stock and turning a blind-eye to labour injustices in textile factories are all practices that must change.

That is why we have called on all large retailers to comply with ambitious targets to cut their carbon emissions, water use and waste. The UK’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) is an initiative that can deliver this, but it remains voluntary with just 11 retailers signed up to targets. A retailers’ commitment to reduce the environmental impacts of their product should be seen as a ‘licence to practice’. 

Fast Fashion Report Mary Creagh 2

Mary Creagh MP has been very vocal in what needs to change in terms of high street fashion brands

As media and politicians how do we convey the urgent need for systemic change in the global fashion industry to those in charge?

MC: Persistence, perseverance and inspiration. 

Many of these issues require collaborative and sustained efforts to realise positive change. That means that as politicians or media or civil society we need to take responsibility for what we can do, use our platforms to promote what others can do and work together to amplify our message.

We need to work together so that people, politicians and businesses can understand that the status quo is not working, that there is a better, more sustainable, more just way to operate and that the time for action is now.

I was inspired by the school children marching for climate action outside Parliament earlier this month. We should take inspiration from the next generation who are already much more aware about the importance of the health of the environment and the legacy that they are being left. 

How can the government help those smaller brands and individual designers who are going above and beyond to create zero waste and carbon neutral clothing? Could there be tax breaks to incentivise positive fashion brands?

MC: The UK has an exciting ecosystem of sustainable fashion businesses who are already forging a new vision for fashion. The ethical fashion market grew almost 20% in 2018 and the Government can support this burgeoning sector. 

In the report we recommend that the Government should explore using the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies. Following Sweden’s lead, where the government have cut VAT rates on repair services would be a start. 

Fast Fashion Report Mary Creagh 1
“The Government should explore using the tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible companies”

The EU is introducing a ban on microplastics – is this something there is the desire to follow within the UK government?

MC: The EU has been a leader on environmental action and plans to introduce a ban on microplastics as well as a proposed directive banning straws and cotton buds as well as requiring plastic bottle deposit return schemes prove this.

If we are to leave the EU this raises serious concerns over our environmental legislation. EU law protects Britain’s countryside, farming and wildlife. Leaving could start a race to the bottom and threaten the UK’s wildlife and environment.

There are efforts to increase domestic efforts with the Friends of the Earth and National Federation of Women’s Institutes leading campaigns for legislation to significantly cut plastic waste. 

How do we encourage more of a make and mend mindset amongst adults who aren’t overly engaged in the quality of their clothes?

MC: The skills needed to design, make and mend clothes are disappearing. As a young girl I was taught how to cross-stich and backstitch, skills I have kept and now pass on to my daughter. Items you adapt or mend can begin to have stories, like my mum’s wedding dress which she used to make my communion dress. I have since used this to dress my own daughter for her communion, a piece of fabric with 52 years family history now means so much more than a shop bought dress.

That is why we recommended that these skills become a part of the school curriculum again, teaching lessons on designing, creating and mending clothes at Key stage 2 and 3. This can reduce the need for constantly updating a wardrobe and develop life skills. The creative satisfaction of designing and repairing clothes can offer an antidote to the growing anxiety and mental health issues amongst teenagers.

Click here for 5 ways to make your clothes last longer.

Fast Fashion Report Mary Creagh

The Environmental Action Committee has recommended retailers pay 1p per garment

We are running a campaign called #everydayactivism which celebrates the small wins you can make every day – whether that’s using a KeepCup or shopping secondhand – what are you trying to do this year in your own life to live more sustainably?

MC: Ever since our inquiry last year into the environmental impact of disposable plastic bottles and coffee cups I have tried to make sure I always carry with me my B-B-C: bag, bottle and cup.

The word of the year last year was ‘single-use’ and by having my B-B-C on me I can avoid so many single-use plastics and disposable plastics that are littering our environment and harming our marine wildlife.

I have also been inspired in the course of this inquiry to think about the story behind clothes. A £5 dress obviously has appeal but the hidden costs, of environmental damage and social injustice, are so often overlooked. Understanding that, and the joy that can come from mending more, wearing more often and buying secondhand are all steps that I am taking into my everyday life.

Find Mary Creagh MP on Twitter here.

Want to learn more about ethical fashion and shop from independent, sustainable brands in London? pebblefest is our first eco-friendly festival, held as part of Fashion Revolution Week on Saturday 27 April at Flat Iron Square. For full line up and tickets click here.


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