In Britain, Politicians Shy Away From a Crackdown on Fast Fashion
LONDON — On June 5, France published preliminary plans to outlaw the destruction of unsold consumer goods, including clothes and beauty products, by 2023. Weeks later, across the English Channel, the British government took a very different approach to tackling fashion’s role in the global climate crisis, when ministers rejected recommendations made by a cross-political party committee to regulate the supply chain.
The rejection came in response to a report, titled “Fixing Fashion,” that was published in February by the Environmental Audit Committee. The report called on the British government to increase pressure on brands and retailers to take more responsibility for poor working conditions and the global epidemic of throwaway clothes. “Fixing Fashion” found that British consumers buy more new clothes annually then any other European country, and send approximately 300,000 tons of clothes a year to incineration or landfills.
Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for around 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations, and consumes more energy than the international aviation and shipping industries combined.
The 18 suggestions in the British report included charging fast fashion producers one penny for each garment, a ban on incinerating unsold stock, mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover of more than 36 million pounds ($45.1 million), and use of the British tax system to shift the balance of incentives in favor of reuse, repair and recycling to support responsible fashion companies.
But the government’s response, published Tuesday, failed to commit to any of the proposals. Instead, it stated that approaches like the one-penny levy — which would raise £35 million a year for better clothing collection and sorting — could not be considered until 2025. Instead, it cited the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, an agreement coordinated by the waste watchdog Wrap, which sets voluntary targets for companies to reduce carbon emissions, water and waste.
The response also mooted a move to find alternate outlets for waste textiles, rather than imposing a landfill ban, to the anger of the report’s authors, including Mary Creagh, the committee chairwoman and a Labour member of Parliament.
“Fashion producers should be forced to clear up the mountains of waste they create,” Ms. Creagh said. “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.”
Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May committed to cutting Britain’s net production of carbon emissions to zero by 2050, which would making Britain the first major economy to do so. However, the government is grappling with a Conservative party leadership election, and attempting to negotiate an uncertain economic outlook as a result of Britain’s protracted and disorderly departure from the European Union.
Outrage was not contained to members of the committee and environmentalists. A number of high-profile fashion designers condemned what they said was a failure to police a famously polluting industry that has not regulated itself in recent years — especially as production is increasing, despite more available data than ever before on the environmental and human toll of fashion.
The worldwide apparel and footwear market’s expected growth, pegged at roughly 5 percent through 2030 by Euromonitor analysts, would risk “exerting an unprecedented strain on planetary resources” by raising annual production of fashion to more than 100 million tons, a Euromonitor report said.
“The conversation regarding our environment and protection of the planet is so pressing,” said the designer Stella McCartney, a longtime advocate of improving industry sustainability. “With this sector ready and much in need of change, I am deeply saddened with the news of the government ignoring the recommendations, and ask our representatives in a position of power to hear calls for action and set some policies in place.”
A fellow British designer and activist, Katharine Hamnett, called the government response “tragic,” adding that, in her view, the report “hadn’t been hard hitting enough anyway.”
“The fact the government rebutted all of the recommendations shows that we are at absolute zero in dealing with these situations where workers are exploited, waste carries on unabated and the environment is damaged irreparably,” Ms. Hamnett said.
Richard Malone, an Irish designer who presented sustainably sourced and manufactured products at London Fashion Week in February, pointed out that the fashion sector was less regulated when it came to potential damage than the beauty industry.
“I would love it if there was some kind of cap on buying and production, or at least a way of ending this crazy hype culture that comes along with Instagram and self promotion, where too much is being produced too quickly to keep up with demand,” Mr. Malone said. “It leaves millions of products unwanted and void after something else is popularized.”
The decision by the British government came three weeks after Prime Minister Édouard Philippe of France said his country planned to outlaw the destruction of unsold consumer products, including clothes, a practice that in France currently involves the annual disposal of new goods worth 800 million euros, or $896.5 million. After 2023, anyone caught violating the law could be subject to financial penalties or prison time, a measure that Mr. Philippe called “the first of its kind.”
In May, President Emmanuel Macron of France appointed François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of the luxury group Kering, to lead a global fashion-industry sustainability drive, an effort to limit the social and environmental footprint of one of France’s most valuable industries.
What impact France’s planned ban might have on the country’s luxury companies is unclear, given the vast majority of their premium products are exported internationally.
Many luxury brands have long destroyed unsold goods rather than risk them being stolen or resold for a tiny fraction of their in-store prices. Last year, the British luxury brand Burberry said it would stop burning tens of millions of dollars worth of unsold clothes and cosmetics, a practice that it had long maintained to preserve what it called “brand value.” It declined to comment on the government’s response to the committee proposals this week.
Ms. Creagh, however, said: “Ministers have failed to recognize that urgent action must be taken to change the fast fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the earth.”