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Legislation and fast fashion

Legislation and fast fashion

Max Alexander-Jones


Reading time: four minutes

Fast fashion is on the rise, and brands are coming up with trends and new collections faster than ever.

These brands justify the need for more clothes at cheap prices, and an entirely new collection every season.

Fast fashion’s impact on the environment, and its violation of workers’ rights, have led to companies such as H&M and Zara facing increasing ESG criticism.

This raises two questions:

  • who pays the real price for cheap clothing and what happens to all the unsold clothes from last season?; and
  • can new legislation targeting fast fashion help address these issues?

Boohoo, a fast fashion company, allegedly pays its Leicester workers £3.50 an hour, well below the current national minimum wage of £8.72 (for 25 and over). Leicester is the apparel industry’s biggest hub for manufacturing.

The group ‘Labour Behind the Label’ has also reported that social distancing measures are not properly implemented within these factories, with some workers being forced to continue working after testing positive for coronavirus.

Brands such as ASOS and New Look have previously opted to reduce the number of factories they used in Leicester, because of the working conditions and non-compliance with regulations. 

The current legislation of Modern Slavery Act 2015 relies mostly on contract law. Suppliers guarantee that their goods have not been produced using slave or child labour, and this is stated in most supply and purchase agreements. However, human labour is a serious concern, and should not be left to individual contractors.

Should there hence be national legislation that recognises the vulnerability of workers behind low priced goods and provides them pay and working conditions protection? The lack of pay for Boohoo workers demonstrates that the national minimum wage needs stronger enforcement.

If industries such as apparel manufacturing are reported to be breaching regulations, specific legislation could address the working conditions in these industries, and compliance with regulations should be monitored. 

Other than labour, environmental issues have also been flagged up. According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the garment industry is the world’s third largest manufacturing industry.

There have been speculations that producing and disposing of garments have a higher impact on the climate than shipping and aviation combined. This is because during the production phase, huge amounts of fresh water are used, and the output from production and disposal results in significant chemical and plastic pollution.

For example, cotton production uses chemical pesticides and requires significant amounts of fresh water to process the materials. 

After mass production, unsold clothes from previous seasons and collections need to be disposed of. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that more than $500 billion of value is lost annually from the underutilisation of clothing.

Approximately 300,000 tonnes of textile waste is incinerated or sent to landfill sites every year, and an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report showed that synthetic fibres were found deep in the oceans as well as even in seafood. The disposal of clothes causes air, water, and land pollution.

This happens every season, as new collections of shiny clothes roll into stores. 

We are starting to see recognition of these issues and movements for change. In 2019, the EAC made recommendations to the government addressing the fashion industry. They suggested tax reforms that penalise apparel companies who fail to reduce their carbon footprint and a ban on the incineration and landfilling of unsold clothes.

They also recommended specific fibres to be used in the industry that prevent harmful particles from spreading into the environment.

The government, however, publicly rejected all EAC’s recommendations. EAC chair Mary Creagh labelled the government’s response as “out of step” with the public opinion, while the Drapers’ report in 2019 found that 85% of brands believe the government is failing to aid the industry to become more environmentally sustainable. 

Since the government has, so far, done very little to aid the industry, it is time to look to another institution of the state, namely, the legislature. To address these issues, the UK legal system could begin by attempting to provide concrete definitions for words such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’.

This will prevent clothing companies from simply sliding away and avoiding non-compliance by using their subjective interpretation of the words. It will enforce stronger compliance for those subject to the law, and force considerations of sustainable and ethical factors within supply chains.

The public is increasingly becoming aware of the issues behind fashion, but the government and legislation have done little about it. It is an industry highly in need of regulation, to protect the people working, and to protect our environment.

Introducing legislation will raise awareness of the detrimental impacts of fast fashion, and foster consumers’ sustainable thinking. The action of this kind will align with the government’s green initiatives and is an all-around important step towards a more sustainable future.