'Fast fashion' has been providing inexpensive, up to date styles to the mass market for decades, keeping the consumer both on trend, and in the black. However, as society becomes increasingly aware of the environmental and social impact of the retail sector, Parliament has thrown a spotlight upon the sustainability of 'fast fashion' and the modern retailing practices which underpin it.
In February 2019, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee ('PEAC') released its latest report entitled 'Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability', containing its recommendations towards creating a 'new economic model for fashion', while putting an end to a 'throwaway society' which discards over a million tonnes of clothes a year.
The report is based upon PEAC's recent inquiry into the environmental sustainability of the UK's retail sector, at which leading representatives and advisers of Britain's largest high street and online retailers were asked to provide evidence as to the sustainability of the industry (including RPC's Retail Group).
In its report, PEAC recommend the Government focus on providing 'clear economic incentives for retailers to do the right thing', including reforming taxation to reward those retailers that design environmentally sustainable products, and penalising those who do not.
In this vein, PEAC asks the Government to investigate whether its proposed 'plastic tax' (due to come into force in 2022) should be levied similarly in respect of clothing, penalising retailers where textile products contain less than 50% recycled PET (also known as polyester). PEAC also suggests following Sweden's lead in reducing VAT on repair services, in an effort to incentivise companies to encourage consumers to ditch overconsumption in favour of re-use and repair.
PEAC also advocates creation of an Extended Producer Responsibility ('EPR') scheme, to ensure companies 'take responsibility for the waste they create' by considering, and paying for, the end of life process of their products. For example, PEAC notes charging retailers 1p per garment produced as part of any EPR scheme could raise £35 million for investment in clothing collection and recycling.
Finally, PEAC warns Government a voluntary approach to retail sustainability has failed, and encourages legislators to introduce mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a global annual turnover above £36 million (specifically targeting the sector's biggest players).
PEAC's report also considers the social cost of fast fashion, accusing Britain's most successful retailers of 'chasing the cheap needle around the planet', by commissioning production in countries with low pay and little trade union protection.
In line with these concerns, PEAC recommends the Government strengthens the Modern Slavery Act to require large companies to perform due diligence checks to ensure forced labour is not in their supply chains, and to update company law to require companies to make modern slavery disclosures, on a 'comply or explain' basis, from 2022 onwards.
These recommendations are timely, given the Government's existing plans to review the Modern Slavery Act 2015 in its current form.
For the time being, the recommendations made by PEAC are advisory only and have not been enshrined in legislation.
However, those recommendations certainly signal a move towards sustainable fashion as a priority on any future legislative agenda.