UK: Environmental Audit Committee investigates sustainability of fashion industry

In June 2018, the UK's Environmental Audit Committee launched an investigation into the social and environmental impact of disposable ‘fast fashion’ and the wider clothing industry. 

At an oral hearing in November, the Committee questioned Marks & Spencer, Primark, Arcadia Group, Burberry, Boohoo, ASOS and Missguided about their practices. The Committee also wrote to 16 UK fashion retailers to ask what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the garments they sell, and asked four online retailers to answer similar questions following evidence at its first hearing about illegally low wages for garment workers and the disposability of some 'fast fashion' garments. In addition, the Committee wrote to Burberry and Kurt Geiger, following reports of stock burning by brands.

In February 2019, the Committee released a report on it's findings, highlighting key issues in the fashion industry, including environmental costs and human rights violations in supply chains. The report concludes that a new economic model for fashion is required and makes several recommendations to the Government, including a recommendation to change the law to require companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains.

In June 2019, the UK Government responded to the Committee's report, but did not accept any of the recommendations.

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24 June 2019

UK: Concerns raised over labour violations in factories supplying to online fast fashion retailers

Author: Sandra Laville, The Guardian

"The story of a £4 Boohoo dress: cheap clothes at a high cost", 22 June 2019

... Made in the UK, at factories in Leicester and Manchester, the £5 dress epitomises a fast fashion industry that pumps hundreds of new collections on to the market in short time at pocket money prices, with social media celebrity endorsement to boost high consumer demand. On average, such dresses and other products are discarded by consumers after five weeks...

Missguided, an online rival to Boohoo, which also sources products from Leicester, took the low pricing even further this week by promoting a £1 bikini...

But behind the price tag there is an environmental and social cost... “The hidden price tag is the cost people in the supply chain and the environment itself pays,” said Sass Brown, a lecturer at the Manchester Fashion Institute....

There is no evidence that factories in the Boohoo and Missguided supply chains pay illegal wages. However... Prof Nikolaus Hammer... carried out research into the fashion industry in Leicester, where he found employees working in appalling conditions, with no employment contracts, earning on average £3 an hour. It was the brands, he said, who held all the power over manufacturers to keep cutting their prices. “They will go to the manufacturer and say that person down the road can do it for 1p less, and they get the job,”...

Carol Kane, the co-founder of Boohoo, told MPs the £5 dress was a “loss leader” drawing people to the website. She said the company employed three people in Manchester, three in Leicester, and 10 in China to carry out audits at their producer factories each month to ensure proper working practices...

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19 June 2019

UK: Govt. responds to EAC report on sustainability of fashion industry

Author: House of Commons

"Fixing fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability: Government Response to the Committee's Sixteenth Report", 18 June 2019

...The Government thanks the Environmental Audit Committee for its report, Fixing Fashion, following its Inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry last year. The government notes the remit of the committee but nevertheless has been content to provide evidence and a response on the issues of modern slavery, health and safety and the minimum wage. In our response we explain the action already being taken in respect of clothing and outline our plans for the future in line with a number of high level documents including the Industrial Strategy, the 25 Year Environment Plan and our Resources and Waste Strategy - Our Waste, Our Resources: a Strategy for England...

The response sets out how we will ensure workers, including those employed in the fashion industry, have access to the rights and protections they deserve including the. National Minimum Wage, and consideration of the recommendations made as part of the review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015...

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17 May 2019

UK: Fast fashion retailer Boohoo accused of refusing union recognition despite assurances; Incl. co. comments

Author: Sandra Laville, The Guardian

"Boohoo refuses to let union talk to workers about representation", 16 May 2019

The booming online fashion retailer Boohoo is refusing to allow trade union officials to discuss recognition for employees months after its founder told MPs she was open to union representation...

[T]he founder of Boohoo Carol Kane told MPs she would allow union recognition at her distribution offices in Burnley if workers wanted it.

But the Usdaw union said Boohoo had rebuffed six months of repeated attempts to start recognition discussions.

Last month Boohoo again declined a request from Mike Aylward, north-west divisional officer for Usdaw, to meet employee representatives to discuss union representation...

The Boohoo distribution centre in Burnley employs up to 3,000 workers at peak times, and is one of the biggest employers in the town. Aylward said the company was continuing to refuse to allow the union to engage with employee representatives to discuss union recognition... “They are certainly don’t seem to be taking the recommendations of the committee [of MPs] seriously,” he said...

In a statement, Boohoo said: “Listening to the views and opinions of our team has always been a core part of our philosophy, which is why we have our employee engagement forum, Your Voice, which has been running for five years. As we have previously stated to Usdaw, we are consulting with our team with regards to their interest in meeting with a union and these conversations are ongoing.”

The company said it had submitted an application to join the Ethical Trading Initiative...

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19 February 2019

UK: MPs' report says fashion industry is unsustainable; Calls for govt. to introduce mandatory due diligence legislation

Author: Environmental Audit Committee

"Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability", 19 February 2019

The way we make, use and throwaway our clothes is unsustainable...

Our biggest retailers have ‘chased the cheap needle around the planet’, commissioning production in countries with low pay, little trade union representation and weak environmental protection. In many countries, poverty pay and conditions are standard for garment workers, most of whom are women.

We are also concerned about the use of child labour, prison labour, forced labour and bonded labour in factories and the garment supply chain. Fast fashions’ overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is based on the globalisation of indifference towards these manual workers...

Forced labour is used to pick cotton in two of the world’s biggest cotton producing countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Labour exploitation is also taking place in the UK... we were told it is an open secret that some garment factories in places like Leicester are not paying the minimum wage...

We need a new economic model for fashion... The Government should change the law to require companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains...

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31 January 2019

UK: Environmental Audit Committee releases interim report on sustainability of fashion industry

Author: Environmental Audit Committee

"Interim Report on the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry", 31 January 2019

1. As part of our inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry, we heard evidence outlining the urgent need for the fashion industry to address its labour market and environmental sustainability issues. In autumn 2018 we wrote to sixteen leading UK fashion retailers to ask what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes and shoes they sell... We also asked four leading online retailers to answer similar questions... In addition, we wrote to two leading luxury UK fashion brands, Burberry and Kurt Geiger, following reports of stock burning...

2. We were impressed with the level of engagement by some retailers. Others expressed openness to engaging on these issues and have taken some small steps. A few retailers, unfortunately, do not seem to consider social and environmental responsibility as a priority. One, Kurt Geiger, did not reply at all...

3. We believe that there is scope for retailers to do much more to tackle labour market and environmental sustainability issues. We are disappointed that so few retailers are showing leadership through engagement with industry initiatives.

4. This is an interim report on the sustainability of the fashion industry...

The full report is available here.

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31 January 2019

UK: MPs say fashion brands are "failing to commit" to reducing environmental & social impact

Author: BBC

"MPs say fast fashion brands inaction on ethics is shocking", 31 January 2019

Fashion retailers JD Sports, Sports Direct and Boohoo, are "failing to commit" to reducing their environmental and social impact, MPs say. Amazon, TK Maxx and Missguided were also described by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) as being among the "least engaged" in sustainable fashion and labour market initiatives...

The findings are part of the EAC's inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry... 

The "most engaged" were named as Asos, Marks & Spencer Tesco, Primark and Burberry... The "moderately engaged" retailers were Next, Debenhams, Arcadia Group and Asda... 

Kurt Geiger was also approached but did not respond to requests for written evidence, the EAC said...

In a statement, Boohoo said..."This initial report does not fully reflect the policies and procedures and independent initiatives that we have in place, or the extent of our ongoing commitment in the area of sustainability."

JD Sports said "As a business, we participate in a number of ethical initiatives which fall outside the narrow list referred to in the Committee's report."...

EAC chair Mary Creagh said: "It's shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers...

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19 December 2018

Ministers accused of insufficient action against UK garment sector abuses by parliament inquiry

Author: Sonia Elks, Thomson Reuters Foundation

"Labor abuses a 'risk worth taking' for fashion firms, UK lawmakers say", 18 December 2018

Fashion workers in Britain are being cheated of fair wages as lack of tough action make abuses “a risk worth taking” for factory owners, lawmakers said...

Ministers were accused of failing to act following reports of some workers being paid as little as 3.50 pounds... per hour, less than half the minimum wage.

“It’s clear that modern slavery is happening in plain sight and potentially in garment factories in the UK,” said Mary Creagh, chair of the U.K. parliament’s environmental audit committee, after a hearing about sustainability in fashion. “...There is an incentive not to pay minimum wage because the chances of getting caught are infinitesimally small"...

Committee members said insufficient action was being taken against those committing labor abuses in Britain. There have been just 14 prosecutions for non-payment of the minimum wage since 1999, the hearing heard... checks on factories were rare and fines for those underpaying workers were often only a few hundred pounds.

The government is acting on claims of abuse, said... the minister for small business... Lack of clarity over supply chains, even within Britain, can make prosecutions difficult, the hearing was told...

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29 November 2018

UK retailers defend practices in parliament sustainability inquiry

Author: Don-Alvin Adegeest, FashionUnited

"UK retailers defend selling cheap clothes in sustainability enquiry", 29 November 2018

... [H&M and Primark] along with most of the UK high street chains including Topshop, Asos and Boohoo, defended their models of selling cheap fashion in parliament this week when questioned as part of the Environmental Audit Committee’s ongoing inquiry into sustainability of the fashion industry.

The enquiry was chaired by Mary Creagh MP who asked outright how Primark could justify selling its T-shirts for as little as two pounds... Primark, said: “Primark has never done any significant advertising at all, and that can save us in any year 100m to 150m pounds... That keeps our pricing low. It’s our business model that takes us to a 2 pound T-shirt.”

...Retailers were also asked about their supply chains and factory workers, and how they comply with safety and fair wages. Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at Marks and Spencer stated their is a known risk when producing in countries where the minimum working age is 15. "The more you have people on the ground, the more you hear, the more you can respond to that."

...The Chair also asked the UK’s leading online retailers to give evidence... about illegally low wages for garment workers and disposability of some fast fashion garments. Furthermore companies were asked to respond to concerns about the excessive waste, plastic pollution and carbon footprint being generated by the fast fashion business model...

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