Fast Fashion, the environment, labour rights, and the law

What is fast fashion, and what is the problem?

If there is one trend that is symptomatic of generation Z, it is fast fashion. It began in the mid-1970s where trends were taken from catwalks and rapidly produced, making fashion more accessible to all. Consumer buy-in is maximised through this practice, particularly since globalisation has made it increasingly easy to outsource operations: the clothes are cheap, of poor quality, and go out of fashion quickly. This creates a throwaway fashion psychology: ‘out with the old, in with the new’, whilst simultaneously creating revenue for the industry. Whilst it is disputed whether the fashion industry really is the 2nd most pollutive industry in the world it is not disputed that it has a detrimental impact on the environment. 1 billion garments are manufactured annually by the fast fashion industry, and 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide are emitted each year – 5% of global emissions, which is more than air travel and international shipping contribute to emissions. Not only does the industry pollute through manufacturing, but the unsold clothing sent to landfill or for incineration contributes too.

It is predicted that by 2050 global clothing sales could more than triple. That means an increase in emissions, landfill, and waste generated. However, there are numerous consequences that accompany fast fashion.

What are the consequences?

There are two types of consequences: social and environmental. Both affect human rights. Firstly, the UK has the potential to realise the right to a clean environment in its legislation through the Environmental Bill 2020 (although it is questionable whether this legislation would go far enough). This right is affected through the effects of fast fashion as mentioned above. Then there is the evidence that fibres have been found in the food chain. As well as the social impacts: labour rights and mistreatment of workers in the supply chain and manufacturing cycle.

Why is it so hard to clean up the fast fashion industry?

With an increasingly globalised world, the ability to control and regulate the supply chain is impaired. The result is an unclear, non-transparent industry that leaves each company to decide its own rules, and consumers unsure. Even experts disagree on how to regulate the industry or which path is the best to take. “When the experts can’t agree on the big issues for fashion, it’s that much easier for the consumer to turn a blind eye and buy that new shirt.”

For labour rights the former MP Mary Creagh has previously commented that the issue lies with the system, not just enforcement. When factories are shut, they can often reopen in a different building under a different name. This prevents enforcement from having long-lasting effects.

What are the laws governing the industry, and what has the government done so far?

The UK has made commitments to hitting environmental targets, through the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals (adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit), and the Aarhus Convention, to name a few. Currently, the Environmental Agency (EA) is the main enforcer for environmental regulations in the UK, and the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) develops and drafts policies and legislation. There are situations in which enforcement by the EA is mandatory, however, the EA does not have the resources to pursue every breach of environmental regulations. It has a policy to help it decide when to exercise its authority. (https://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/6-503-1654?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&firstPage=true)

The UK has a 25-Year Environment Plan which aims to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. However, ensuring these commitments lead to tangible change is a harder task. The UK government has acknowledged that there are gaps, and the Environment Bill 2020 is part of the plan to counter that.

The Environment Bill 2020 aims in part to deliver on the targets of the 25-Year Environment Plan. Through its provisions, it intends to create long-term, legally binding environmental targets to help the UK preserve and improve the natural environment. It hopes to do this through the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which would act as an independent watchdog, ensuring environmental legislation and regulations are adhered to, and holding the government to account. The Bill includes provisions on improving air quality, biodiversity, and water and resource efficiency. However, not much of it is tailored to the fashion industry, despite its known impact on the environment.

The potential of the UK legislative framework & pitfalls of the Environment Bill 2020

The Environment Bill 2020 also has the potential to improve the environmental impact across the spectrum in the UK. It will likely be amended before it comes into force, but it has encountered criticism, key aspects of which will be discussed below.

Some key criticisms of the Bill have come from Greener UK. For example, there are concerns that the proposed watchdog the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has not been given the powers or independence necessary to effectively carry out its function since it is not able to issue fines, and the team would be appointed by the Secretary of State, which could impact its independence to scrutinise the government. Another concern is that there is no guarantee of non-regression, meaning that any regulations the OEP creates are not permanent and can be reversed.

Indeed, the government’s rejection of all the recommendations made in the EAC 18th report specifically to do with fixing fashion may not instil confidence:

  1. When recommended to ban incineration and landfilling items, similar to the French law, polluter pays clause (‘Projet de loi relative a la lutte contre le gaspillage et à l’économie circulaire’), the government responded that positive approaches are better and that they are developing policy measures to support reuse and closed loop recycling instead. The government does have a Resource and Waste Strategy though, which includes consideration of textile waste in its plans for five new waste streams by 2025, although the EAC believes 2025 is too late.
  2. On a potential scheme to reward and penalise positive and negative actions by companies, the government responded that they are targeting single use plastic packaging rather than clothing. A virgin plastics tax has the potential to be introduced in 2022, however, the goal with this is to target plastic packaging rather than the fashion industry. This doesn’t mean there isn’t scope in the future to turn to textiles, but it is not currently on the government’s agenda.
  3. The government placed emphasis on voluntary schemes, such as the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) and the progress made by those initiatives rather than accept the recommendation of mandatory environmental targets for clothing companies. However, it failed to address WRAP evidence that burning excess products outweighs the good of water and carbon savings made as a result of those initiatives.

Failures regarding modern slavery and labour rights

The Environmental Audit Committee recommended that the Companies Act 2006 include more accountability, and that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 be strengthened regarding its Transparency in Supply Chains clause.

The 2006 Act only requires consideration of human rights issues “to the extent necessary for an understanding of the development, performance or position of the company’s business”. This means the 2006 Act does not mandate consideration and discussion of supply chains or modern slavery when writing its strategic report every financial year. However, in the government’s response, there is no direct mention of creating accountability within the 2006 Act, instead it responded jointly to both recommendations, focusing on the 2015 Act.

The government responded that the transparency provision in the 2015 Act has led to thousands of businesses publishing statements. However, as the Environmental Audit Committee commented, this is insufficient since the transparency provision merely requires publication of a modern slavery statement stating the steps taken (or that no steps have been taken) to ensure slavery and trafficking is not taking place. It does not require action to be taken. Even if statements were a sufficient response, a small percentage of businesses actually publish statements. In 2017, out of the estimated 9,000-11,000 businesses the legislation applies to, the Modern Slavery Registration held only 3,000 statements released by businesses.

To its credit though, the government is now considering recommendations made by independent reviewers of the Modern Slavery Act which includes recommendations to widen the scope of the Act, improve compliance with the Transparency provision, and cover the gap in reporting requirements left by the Companies Act 2006.

The government has also recently released its own Modern Slavery Statement in Public Procurement. Whilst this has little relevance to the fast fashion industry, it is potentially leading by example.

Regarding a more proactive enforcement of the HMRC national minimum wage, the government responded that enforcement agencies are already taking a proactive approach. It welcomes campaigns for using market power to demand higher environmental and labour standards, but it does not appear to put any forward itself.

The recent BOOHOO scandal is just one example of the failures of the industry in ensuring the fair treatment of workers. Perhaps this demonstrates the merit of Mary Creagh’s comments that the system itself is the issue.

Potential actions that could be taken

The main issues are informing systemic change, as well as creating more tangible and binding sources of authority over the industry. Potentially multiple actions are required to bring about change.

Consumer habits drive the industry. Simultaneously promoting a change in retailers’ and consumers’ attitudes and behaviours could be a way forward. If there is no demand for fast fashion, and a new culture of slow fashion surfaces, companies will follow. Initiatives like the Times Square clock, which counts down the time before climate change is irreversible, are important to raise awareness among consumers. Incentives for the consumer are also an option: offering a small sum for clothing returned to stores, where they could be sent through a responsible textile waste stream.

As mentioned above, companies’ need to take positive steps to eradicate trafficking and modern slavery in their supply chains, as well as include discussion of it in their annual reports. Legislation needs to mandate businesses taking action. Consumers’ habits also need to change. This can be done, again, by raising awareness. Consumers want comparable clothing to their fast fashion brands. If two brands have comparable clothing, one has released a modern slavery statement and one has not, and this is information that has been thoroughly advertised in the public eye, consumers are likely to opt for one that sits well with their conscience.

There seems to be a general reliance on companies entering and complying with voluntary schemes by the government. However, voluntary schemes do not guarantee a change in retailers’ attitude towards the environment and labour rights. A better approach would be to create mandatory regulations (protected by non-regression clauses) to oblige all companies to comply with environmental targets, and to support and reward sustainable companies, and create penalties for those who prove lacking.

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