Governments have a major role in regulating the fashion industry – particularly so-called ‘fast fashion’ – to limit the known environmental and social harm it causes, particularly in emerging markets and developing economies. Kamya Choudhary outlines the consequences of over-production and waste from the fast fashion industry and how policymakers and consumers in the UK can help the industry move towards a more sustainable model.

The global fashion industry creates significant environmental harm. It produces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year – more than shipping and aviation combined. The manufacture of garments from cotton can lead to over-abstraction of scarce water supplies that are being further threatened by drought associated with climate change. The key cotton-producing countries exporting raw materials for fast fashion (the mass production of cheap garments designed to be bought and disposed of quickly in reaction to fast-changing trends), including China, India, the US, Pakistan and Turkey, are already experiencing high water stress, shortened cotton growing seasons and drought.

And then there’s the pollution and waste. Fashion and textile supply chains have been identified as the third most polluting industry, after food and construction. The processing of raw and waste materials creates chemical waste that is often left untreated and dumped in bodies of water. In addition, cheaper alternatives like synthetic materials are causing large-scale pollution from microplastics in the production and post-production stages, and include petrochemicals in their fibres.

Fashion is also a social justice issue. While company headquarters and profits are often disproportionately concentrated in developed countries, it is developing countries that are forced to manage the industrial-scale repercussions of mass manufacturing. This includes negative impacts like labour exploitation in the form of job precarity, low wages, labour disposability, unsafe working environments and even wage theft.

The challenge of waste and recycling

Poor countries also bear the brunt of pollution and waste from the industry, from the manufacturing process and also from dumping of garments by companies. Ghana, for example, receives 15 million tonnes of textile waste from beyond its borders every week.

Recycling is therefore an important part of making the fashion industry more sustainable. It reduces the pressure on waste-receiving countries and landfill facilities in consumers’ own countries, and reduces consumption of energy, water and raw materials while generating employment opportunities.

However, current levels of recycling are abysmally low due to a range of obstacles such as the poor quality of textile waste collected, the small scale of collection initiatives (through charities and peer-to-peer sales, for example), blended fabrics presenting technical difficulties, and designs that make recycling inefficient and labour-intensive. Change is happening slowly, though: the world’s first commercial-scale textile-to-textile chemical recycling mill opened in Sweden in 2023 and investments are being made to automate sorting and pre-processing textile waste in the UK, for example.

The absence of a uniform definition on what counts as a ‘textile’ is another barrier, with items like footwear or bedsheets, for example, being left out of the designated categories for clothing waste collection. Many countries, including the UK, also lack separate or sufficient textile collection bins and detailed local guidance on textile recycling for households. 

How is the UK addressing these problems – and why is this important? 

UK consumers currently dispose of a high quantity of clothing in household bins, from where it ends up in landfill or is incinerated. Furthermore, in 2021 the UK was the third largest exporter of used clothing in the world. And in 2020, the UK spent the third largest amount on clothing and footwear after the US and China, despite being ranked 21st in population size. Therefore, action taken by the UK to reduce consumerism and waste will be significant for the global impact of the fashion industry.

According to the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee in 2019, fashion companies appear to lack the economic incentive to minimise environmental and human harm in their operations. Better policy and legislation can encourage recycling and the creation of environmentally-friendly products and business models as an alternative to those popularised by fast fashion.

The principle of ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR) holds producers responsible for any detrimental environmental impacts that occur across the lifecycle of their products. Drawing on the polluter pays principle, under EPR, producers are also liable for the safe disposal of manufactured goods. It encourages manufacturers to design products that are more environmentally-friendly and durable so they can avoid having to pay for the harm they might otherwise case. It also incentivises companies to opt out of ‘grey supply chains’, i.e., cheaper but unofficial or outsourced manufacturing, distribution and disposal channels.

In the UK, following the Government’s pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Environment Act of 2021 provided an enhanced EPR framework that builds on pre-existing laws targeting waste in packaging, batteries and electronics. The inclusion of EPR in waste laws has already helped the UK improve its packaging waste disposal, with recycling increasing from 25% in 1997 to nearly 64% in 2017. However, textiles are not yet included in the scope of this Act.

Policy and finance levers can enhance these efforts and help recycling become the norm within the industry in the UK. These include EPR transition funding to assist with the recycling industry’s costs across the value chain (including sorting) and product ‘take-back’ through Producer Responsibility Organisations. Alternatively, environmental tax breaks, concessions or tax differentiation for EPR-compliant fashion companies can make it more cost-effective for producers to manufacture cleaner goods, and for consumers to buy them.

Aside from the EPR, the UK Government supports initiatives like Textiles 2030, which builds on the 2020 Sustainable Clothing Action Plan commitments and engages major UK fashion and textile organisations in collaborative climate action. The Government is also exploring the possibility of setting minimum standards for clothing in terms of durability, recycled content and improved labelling.

Setting minimum standards will also help counter the challenge of rampant greenwashing by fashion companies. In 2021, 40% of ‘green’ claims made online were found to be misleading, and in 2023 companies including Asda, Boohoo and ASOS were put under investigation in the UK for greenwashing by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). To entice green-conscious customers, companies may misuse buzzwords like ‘sustainable’ (see false recycled plastic fibres claims), ‘eco’, ‘organic’ (which can amount to cotton fraud), misleading product names and made-up eco logos, and use implicit messaging through packaging (such as using green or brown paper).

While there is currently no single legal definition or legislation in the UK to counter greenwashing, watchdog organisations play an important role in disincentivising such misinformation. This year, the Advertising Standards Authority and Committee of Advertising Practice issued updated guidance targeting the overuse of the terms ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon neutral’. This builds on the CMA’s guidance on environmental claims to provide clear guidance to industry players, create fair competition between businesses and improve communication to consumers. In addition, the CMA’s ability to penalise companies found guilty of greenwashing has also been enhanced under the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill of 2023.

Changing consumer culture

Many of the issues locking the fashion industry into unsustainable, unethical and dirty practices are systemic, but consumers in the UK and beyond can and must play their part in reducing the harm the industry causes. Encouragingly, it appears that especially among younger consumers, there is a growing trend to reject fast fashion and favour more [genuinely] sustainable and green products. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents to a 2020 survey said they preferred clothes made of more sustainable materials, focusing on the hallmarks of quality and durability in product design.

Individuals can support sustainability in fashion by making clothes last longer: from buying ‘pre-loved’ items to repairing and borrowing garments. Consumers can simply buy less: research shows that restricting buying to only eight clothing items per year reduces supply chain waste by 50% and buying only three new items reduces waste by 75%. They can also choose brands with better environmental and social credentials. Online research platforms like Fashion Revolution, Remake and Good On You help aggregate data to improve brand transparency and increase awareness of what more sustainable options are available to consumers.

The views in this commentary collate the author’s contributions at panel events organised by Creative Resilience International at Soho House and the Southbank Centre, London, in 2023. The author would like to thank Georgina Kyriacou and Natalie Pearson for their contributions to this commentary.

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