There is a huge social cost attached to the UK fast fashion industry’s linear business model, says Member of Parliament, Mary Creagh, at the Drapers Sustainable Fashion conference last week. “We are chasing the cheap needle around the planet,” she adds, highlighting that when consumers are getting a bargain, someone else is paying the price.
As the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), it is Creagh’s responsibility to hold UK brands and retailers accountable for their actions in damaging the planet from both a sustainability and social standpoint. This means questioning companies that are promoting a pattern of overconsumption through cheaply made and sold clothing, which as a result encourages consumers to buy and wear their purchases only a handful of times. In the UK, consumers buy 27kg of fashion each year, more than any other country in Europe and second only to the US globally. But it is those at the garment factories, such as the workers who were victims of the Rhana Plaza disaster in 2013, who take the brunt.
Last year, Creagh led the launch of an inquiry investigating the environmental and social impact of the UK fast fashion industry in the hopes to open up the conversation and make room for improvement. The industry can easily turn a blind eye to issues sometimes happening just outside their front door, she says. For example, modern slave labour is happening not only in the far East, but at major cities across the country – from Leicester to Manchester and London. Brands then need to perform due diligence across their chain before adding a “Made in the UK” label to their garments, particularly amidst the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
The government also needs to step up their game and increase legislation and accountability. Her committee is currently working with the HM Revenue and Customs body (HMRC) to track down garment factories within the UK for non-payment of minimum wages, for example. Meanwhile there are currently only ten major retailers signed up to the government’s Sustainable Clothing Action plan, whereas Creagh believes participation should be mandatory, and part of a brand’s licence to operate in the country.
“The Government must act to end the era of throwaway fashion by incentivising companies that offer sustainable designs and repair services,” said Creagh earlier this year. “Children should be taught the joy of making and mending clothes in school as an antidote to anxiety and the mental health crisis in teenagers. Consumers must play their part by buying less, mending, renting and sharing more.”
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