“The consumer has the power to fire every single one of you: From the CEO to the staff on the shop floor”
Megan Higgins, PWC Luxury Analytics Specialist (2019)
We live in a society where there has long been a disconnect between deeds and words: and I’m not just referring to politicians or governments. In a democracy, it is the ‘demos’ (the people) who must hold their representatives to account. If there is a failure in policy (whether it be in composition or implementation) it is up to us, to maintain both pressure and scrutiny in holding agents to account. Their failure, is our failure. So what are we going to do about it?
In their response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report and findings, “ministers prefer voluntary schemes rather than taxes and bans” – the BBC reported after the government concluded that it is already dealing with the impacts of fast fashion. To say this was disappointing was an understatement. Few will disagree that this whole struggle has been about getting brands, retailers, consumers and the government to assume accountability for the actions of the UK’s textile industry. We all have a part to play.
I was brought up in a household where I was taught that citizenship was a performance. I was required to ‘do’ something. Perhaps the government’s response is simply party political manoeuvring. Perhaps it’s simply an inability to cope with any topic other than Brexit. Perhaps… despite declaring an Environmental Crisis last month… they don’t actually care enough to get involved, sanction and ban some of the instigators of modern slavery and industrial pollution within UK fashion.
Today, while en-route to another sustainable fashion conference in London (there’s been a few) I was informed of the government’s stance to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Fixing Fashion Report, I must admit I began to feel a little tired. Tired of debate. Tired of panels. Tired of rhetoric. Tired of circles. Yes. Because talking about the circular economy while refusing to take measures to enshrine it in legislation, is in and of itself circular as we’re left going round and round without resolution.
I type this with a measure of disbelief that despite the overwhelming evidence of slavery here in the UK, incineration of excess stock and unethical business practices, that this could be the government’s response. I type this with a measure of incredulity that I could be so naive to think – evidence was all that was needed in order to incentivise the government to enforce existing legislation (Modern Slavery Act 2015) and to draft new laws to combat these environmental and societal challenges.
So What’s Next?
In the aftermath of the bitter disappointment that the government had rejected the recommendations for reform laid out by the EAC, I asked Mary Creagh MP (chair of the Environmental Audit Committee) a simple question: ‘what do we do now?… What happens next?’ Her response was as follows:
“I think you’re going to see brands responding to consumers. And what you’ll also see is people rejecting fashion and consumption altogether and that is dangerous to the industry. Because if you can’t tell me how sustainable my clothes or shoes are then I won’t trust you and I won’t buy from you. And three of the committee staff who worked on our report are having a year off fashion. They’ve just rejected fashion all together because they don’t feel confident in what they’re buying. So they’re having a year off. And you’ll see more of that with the Extinction Rebellion, people are waking up to this stuff.
In case you missed the stats, the fashion industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy (faster than banking and tech). Employing just under as million within its value chain, and generating over £36 billion in GDP – this industry needs more regulation and closer scrutiny from the government, as its growth and its accumulated wealth is built on a toxic combination of modern slavery, unsustainable manufacturing methods and is a bigger generator of pollution than the aviation or shipping industries.
“300,000 tonnes are going to landfill or incineration (yearly). That’s £140 million worth ending up in the bin every year. So we’re basically wearing the fresh water supply of the Indian subcontinent, then shipping it around the world” – (Mary Creagh MP)
The UK consumes more clothes than any other country in Europe, with 73% of all purchases going straight to landfill (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). The fashion industry recycles just 1% of its material waste. Second only to construction, according to the Global Slavery Index 2018, ‘Fashion is identified as one of five key industries implicated in modern day slavery’. The challenges are not linear, but oscillate between apathy in the boardroom, to a lack of transparency in information and consumer awareness.
What Do We Want? TRANSPARENCY When Do We Want It? NOW!
“How is it that I am able to trace what the pigs in my M&S sausages have eaten, but they can’t tell me who made my clothes?” Mary asked in her opening address to the Decoded Future forum in Westminster two weeks ago. Ironically that event later featured a presentation from the Head of Insights for Marks & Spencer, celebrating the brand’s agility in responding to the upsurge in veganism with their new Plant Kitchen range. When I asked, whether in light of the EAC’s findings, we – the consumer would see a similar rapid response to their supply chains within textiles manufacturing, “we’re working on it” was the only reply I received. The room fell silent as the audience tried to piece together the mismatched brand message of transparency, sustainability and health with the food range, but a complete lack of transparency when it comes to fashion… hmmm.
Drapers (in response to the EAC’s report) went away and interrogated over 370 SMEs and firms with over £500 million in turnover to establish whether these corporations had begun to feel the pressure to move towards sustainability from the consumer directly. 92.2% said that their customers were showing a growing interest in sustainability. Meanwhile 80.5% acknowledged that sustainability was important to the senior leadership team in the business. This is encouraging, for several reasons.
These recent figures shows that businesses are drawing the correlation between sustainability and their bottom line. Sustainability is good for business. It means less waste in production, increased efficiency, and to borrow a term used by Orsola De Castro in my interview with her for the FT, it also gives them a ‘value added product’. As the public are increasing their knowledge base, already they are beginning to use their economic power to bend the retailers to their will – if only to get them to listen in the first instance.
“Until we get Brexit out of the way (or a second referendum which is what I’m hoping for and working for) we won’t be able to get onto the politics of what people want because the best minds in the civil service are busy planning for ‘will we have the chemicals needed in our drinking water supply?’ In a way the government needs the headspace to get on with this.
We need to get through this period. (Mary Creagh MP)
YJH: You found a way succinctly to collect all the evidence and make it easy for people to understand – showing how unsustainable the industry is, I want to know in your opinion, what you plan to do next in terms of getting people to actually implement some change?
Mary Creagh: That’s a great question and Sarah O’Connor’s article (FT Weekend) on the dark factories of Leicester – gave absolutely amazing evidence to our enquiry and it was really quite chilling when she described what she found when she went in.
I think the voice of the consumer is going to be what’s next. I think we have a great ecosystem of start ups and sustainable companies here in London and right across the UK. I’m from a textile area in Wakefield the heavy woollen area – where we still make carpets and mattresses. There’s a lot of innovation going on here. I think what we have to do is make it impossible for the government not to listen. They will be reporting on their waste consultation probably early September now what we do have now is a library of action plans. We need to move faster on plastics, we need to move faster on fashion Our next area that we’re going to look at hasn’t been announced yet (I think you’ll like it in terms of sustainable consumption). We’ve found this way of talking to consumers about their consumption habits and waking people up to that and I suppose the key is keeping the laser focus on government as the wheels turn on an the caravan moves on…
But how do we get over the Instagram generation? I’m very interested in the fashion quarters – you know talking about slow fashion, talking about treasuring what you’ve got in the wardrobe and trying to get that out – when your advertisers are saying actually we want to sell you more things this season… there used to be four seasons now there’s like 25! I think balancing off the newspapers and websites to sell content with what advertisers are asking is going to be another set of difficult business conversations. I think things will evolve in that aspect – that’s all I can say.” [End]
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