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The Environmental Audit Committee seeks to make the British Fashion industry more sustainable in latest session

On the 1st May, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in the UK scrutinised fashion retailers H&M and Boohoo. The EAC session came at an opportune time as the UK currently has the fourth highest carbon footprint from fashion out of the G20 countries according to think tank, the Hot or Cool Institute. This article seeks to do a deep dive into the motives behind the EAC session and whether or not it will result in the UK government adopting any of its measures on improving sustainability.

 

The meeting, which took place on 1st May, is a follow-up evidence session by the EAC. The Fixing Fashion report, published in 2019 by the EAC which urged the government to “end the era of throwaway fashion” is the subject of the follow-up session. The report included a proposal for an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme aimed at holding fashion brands accountable for their waste.

 

The context behind this year’s session

The EAC made a range of policy recommendations in its Fixing Fashion report to the UK government in order to make the British fashion industry more sustainable. Examples of the recommendations include: reforming taxation to shift the balance of incentives in favour of reusing, repairing, and recycling materials; banning incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that could be reused or recycled; and accelerating research into the environmental performance of different materials. Having received the recommendations from the EAC, the UK government decided to reject nearly all of its proposals. This led the EAC to make a statement on the government’s lack of support as “not good enough” and “out of step with the public.” The only recommendation that was recognised by the UK government was the suggestion that the Modern Slavery Act should be strengthened to ensure that child labour is not present within any supply chains.

 

Just before the publication of the Fixing Fashion report, the EAC questioned 16 fashion retailers, including Primark, Debenhams, M&S, Next, Missguided, ASOS, and Boohoo. The 16 fashion retailers were questioned by a group of MPs and fashion experts about the measures that they were taking to become more sustainable due to the growing concerns over the fast-fashion business model.

 

In the follow-up session taking place on 1st May, only Boohoo and H&M are in attendance as the other fashion retailers that have been invited have all declined to attend the session in person. Phillip Dunne, the MP for the Ludlow constituency and chair of the EAC announced his “disappointment” in the non-attendance of the majority of fashion retailers that were invited. Dunne claimed that TK Maxx, Asos, Shein, M&S, New Look, Next, Asda, Sainsbury, and Tesco, who all rejected their invitations, were not “prepared to stand up to their own corporate responsibilities.”

 

Leading up to the follow-up session on the 1st May, it is hard to inspire any confidence in the EAC in achieving their goals due to the lack of commitment that has been displayed by the UK government and the fashion retailers that have been invited to the session. The UK government rejected the majority of the proposals from the Fixing Fashion report as well as the majority of the fashion retailers refusing to be held accountable puts the EAC in a very tough position when it comes to tracking the progress made since 2019.

 

Progress since 2019: Boohoo and H&M

The MPs and experts that make up the EAC have the chance to question Marcus Hartmann, who is head of public affairs at H&M, and Andrew Reaney, Boohoo’s group product and wholesale director. The questions the EAC asked revolved around what progress has been made towards sustainability and the reduction of their environmental impacts. The topics that were prevalent in the meeting were overproduction, textile waste, and the use of sustainable materials.

 

Reaney identified that Boohoo’s biggest change since 2019 has been purchasing products with sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester in order to cut emissions. However, Reaney was unable to provide evidence as to how these changes have emerged and developed in the 5 year period since the Fixing Fashion report. Despite highlighting Boohoo’s goal of no waste landfills by 2025, Reaney admitted that the waste produced by the UK manufacture facilities in addition to “irrecoverable” clothes are incinerated.

 

Hartmann highlighted H&M’s progress in using sustainable materials, stating that 85% of the materials used by H&M are either recycled or sustainably sourced. That being said, 8% of all H&M garments are still being incinerated which diminishes the progress it has been making on becoming more sustainable. Furthermore, H&M was found by non-profit Earthsight to be using cotton which is linked to illegal deforestation, land grabbing, and violence against local communities. Using materials which are not obtained in a sustainable way has reversed even more of the sustainable work that Hartmann was highlighting.

 

While the EAC is yet to publish its findings on the progress of H&M and Boohoo in following the recommendations it made in 2019, it is evident that Hartmann and Reaney’s attempts to defend their companies have not been watertight. The follow-up meeting has emphasised the need for the UK government to step up in regulating fashion retailers in order for them to become more sustainable in the future.

 

Possible outcomes of the session

Whilst it is still too soon to tell what policies the EAC will recommend, it is possible to look back at the previous recommendations from the EAC in 2019 to predict which areas of sustainability will be prioritised after this year’s meeting.

 

Similar to the Fixing Fashion report, the EAC is likely to suggest imposing a producer responsibility charge that financially targets fashion retailers who do not use sustainable materials or fails to reuse and recycle their stock. Additionally, the EAC is likely to recommend a ban on incinerating materials and the use of landfills in an attempt to eliminate surplus stock from being wasted by fashion retailers. Lastly, there is a possibility that the EAC would promote regulating the use of unsustainable materials by fashion retailers.

 

The big question is whether the government will entertain the policy recommendations of the EAC this time around. The EAC chair from 2019, Mary Creagh, can be quoted saying “The government has rejected our call, demonstrating that it is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment and exploit workers despite having just committed to net zero emission targets” in response to the UK government’s reaction to the EAC proposals.

 

Politically, sustainability does not seem to be a priority across both major political parties. The environment did not feature in any of the Prime Minister’s 5 priorities and the Conservative Party have confirmed that they will continue to use every last drop of North Sea oil as it is the “right thing to do”. Similarly, Labour Party leader Kier Starmer has stated that the Labour green investments will be cut by half to less than £15 billion if the Labour Party win the upcoming general election. With neither major UK political party taking sustainability seriously, there is not much hope that they will follow the EAC recommendations that will be published subsequent to the May 1st meeting.

 

Conclusion

Although the EAC continue to make the UK fashion industry a more sustainable place, the UK government has prevented them from achieving their goal. As shown throughout this article, it looks like lightning will strike twice with the UK government once again ignoring the recommendations of the EAC. That being said, the recommendations have not yet been published so there is still hope that this may not be the case.

 

 

Sources Used:

UK Parliament, Is Fast Fashion Still “Costing the Earth”? MPs Revisit Landmark Enquiry, 2024.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, UK: H&M and Boohoo to be Questioned by Environmental Audit Committee Over Steps to be Taken to Reduce Environmental Impacts, 2024.

Tracy Rohan, “UK Launches Probe into H&M and Boohoo Over Fast Fashion Climate Impact”, in Net Zero News, 2024.

UK Parliament, Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability, 2024.

Isatou Ndure, “H&M, Boohoo to Face UK Probe Over Fast Fashion Footprint”, in JustStyle, 2024.

Isatou Ndure, “Explainer: Why UK put Boohoo, H&M in Environmental Hotseat”, in JustStyle, 2024.

Fashionating World, Fast Fashion Under Fire: H&M and Boohoo Face UK Probe on Sustainability, 2024.

Shaun Spiers, “Voters Support Climate Action, But Will Our Political Leaders Take it in 2024?”, in Green Alliance, 2024.

Rebecca McCurdy, “Sunak: Using Every Drop of North Sea Oil is “Absolutely Right Thing to do”, in Independent, 2024.

Kiran Stacey and Fiona Harvey, “Labour Cuts £28bn Green Investment Pledge By Half”, in The Guardian, 2024.


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