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Commercial Question

Fast fashion and the law

updated on 25 August 2020


What are the challenges to reducing the environmental impact of the fashion industry?


In a report published by the cross-party House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) earlier this year, the garment industry is described as being the world's third-largest manufacturing industry. In the UK alone, over 800,000 individuals are employed in the retail, manufacturing, brands, and fashion design sectors, while UK consumers purchase more items of clothing per person than any other European country. But how much does the average consumer understand about the environmental and social impact of the clothing they buy? How much of an impact does our shopping have on the environment? An individual might choose to buy cotton clothing assuming that, because it is a natural fibre, it might have a less negative environmental impact. However, cotton production is reliant upon the use of chemical pesticides and requires significant amounts of fresh water to process.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than $500 billion of value is lost annually as a result of clothing underutilisation. ‘Fast fashion’, the term used to describe the retail business model that encourages a quick and cheap turnaround of new collections, has been praised for democratising clothing as a commodity while at the same time being criticised for encouraging what is seen as wasteful over-consumption. Conventional methods of producing and disposing of garments are suspected of having a higher impact on climate change than both shipping and aviation combined. Vast amounts of fresh water are required during production and the industry’s output includes chemical and plastic pollution.

Last year, news broke of a high-end British fashion label electing to destroy its unsold products by burning goods worth almost £29 million in order to protect its brand. It is estimated that approximately 300,000 tonnes of textile waste end up being incinerated or sent to landfill sites annually. Synthetic fibres created for use in clothing have been found deep in the oceans and trapped within the Arctic sea ice. Their presence in seafood shows that they have entered the food chain, as the EAC’s report shows.

The industry itself is hugely labour-intensive, with a vast proportion of the workforce being employed from Asian countries. Poverty pay, human trafficking and unacceptable working conditions are just some of the charges levied against the industry.

One challenge that exists in relation to implementing environmentally friendly practices within the retail sector is that words such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ are not objectively defined terms within the UK legal system. Efforts to implement best practice regulation are therefore left open to subjective interpretation. The situation is further complicated by the complex and multi-jurisdictional supply chains used to progress textiles from manufacturer to consumer.

Interestingly, it is in the field of contractual law that consumers can hope to exert influence over commercial environmental practice. In the retail market, as with most markets, cash is king. Nowadays, it is a common feature of supply and purchase agreements to include clauses by which the supplier guarantees that the goods sold have not been produced using either slave or child labour. If a supplier were found to have used such labour in breach of the contract, then the purchasing store could terminate the contract.

This demonstrates how the threat of fiscal penalties can encourage ethical practice in the production process. If consumers are able to apply similar pressure to retailers by using their cash to signal approval or disapproval of a company's ethical practices, it is possible that this pressure might begin to affect sustainable practices in retail. This year one of the high street's largest fashion chains announced that all of its collections will be produced from 100% sustainable fabrics before 2025, responding to consumer criticism of unsustainable practices.

In its report earlier this year, the EAC made 18 recommendations to the government including tax reforms to reward fashion houses that take steps to reduce their carbon footprint and to penalise those who fail to do so. The EAC also suggested a ban on the incineration and landfilling of unsold clothing and made recommendations in relation to fibres utilised in the industry (eg, a move from virgin polyester to recycled PET in order to minimise shedding and to therefore prevent the spread of harmful plastic micro particles into the environment).

On 4 June 2019, the government's response was published in 18th Special Report of Session 2017-2019, in which it broadly refused to action the committee's recommendations. EAC chair Mary Creagh was highly critical of the response and accused the government of being "out of step" with wider public opinion. A report published by Drapers in June 2019 found that, of the 370 brands, retailers and suppliers surveyed, 85% believe that the government is failing to sufficiently aid the fashion industry to be more environmentally sustainable. 

Following the high-profile nature of movements such as Extinction Rebellion and campaigners such as Greta Thunberg, there is a notable increase in public awareness surrounding the issue of our environmental impact. Increasingly, millennials and members of Generation Z are pinpointing sustainability as a consideration when they shop.

It seems that this sentiment may have found a voice in the Queen's latest speech to both Houses of Parliament this October, in which she announced the proposed Environmental Bill. The bill would commit ministers to protect and take positive steps to improve our environment for future generations and, for the first time, environmental principles will be enshrined in law. The bill included a proposal to introduce new legislation designed to create legally-binding targets for environmental improvement. The new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) created under the bill is cited as having the power to scrutinise environmental policy and law, and to hold the government to account through the judiciary on its environmental track record. 

This being said, we should also highlight government initiatives that are working in taking positive steps to protect the environment. The government's introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge saw an incredible 90% reduction in the UK's use of carrier bags, and the government has indicated its intention to introduce further taxes on virgin plastics, cited as coming into force in 2022. It has been highlighted how this new legislation has the potential to include textiles made of less than 50% recycled PET within its scope, a move that could encourage the growth of the recycled fibres market within the UK.

Eve Matthews is a trainee solicitor at RPC.