Would you support government action to stop fashion retailers sending unsold brand new garments to landfill? How about paying a tax of one penny per garment to fund better recycling of used clothing? Do you think the government should step in to make sure garment workers in this country get paid the national minimum wage?
In 2019, the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a report called ‘Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability’ that recommended these steps. The report unmasked the environmental and social damage the fashion industry was wreaking: Carbon emissions that exceed international aviation and shipping combined (!); synthetic fibres from clothing discovered in the deep sea, in Arctic sea ice, in fish and shellfish; and women working in garment factories in places like Leicester being paid less than the minimum wage. The full report can be accessed here.
Disappointingly — and astonishingly, really — the government rejected almost all of the Committee’s recommendations, which seem quite modest in the context of the seriousness of the problems with fashion. Recommendations included: (1) more proactive enforcement of the national minimum wage, (2) strengthening the Modern Slavery Act to ensure that clothing companies adhere to legislation, (3) requiring tests on new synthetic garments for fibre release, (4) tax incentives to reward companies whose products have lower environmental impacts, (5) banning sending unsold clothes to landfill and (6) imposing a tax of one penny per garment sold, with the proceeds going to investment in better clothing collection and sorting (see this article).
The EAC are now conducting a follow-up to their 2019 review. In December 2020, leaders from BooHoo Group and NastyGal gave evidence to the Committee. It’s possible to read a transcript of the evidence on the EAC’s website. Yay for transparent government!
BooHoo were in the headlines in 2020 after an inquiry found that factories manufacturing their clothes were found to have locked fire doors, filthy toilets, buildings in “deplorable” condition, and “no wholesome drinking water”. The company was also implicated in coronavirus outbreaks in Leicester. The EAC were therefore keen to probe the company about working conditions. BooHoo’s Executive Chairman conceded to the EAC, ‘maybe we have not been diligent’. This seems an understatement. However, since the inquiry, BooHoo did say they have broken links with 60 suppliers which they couldn’t guarantee were paying the minimum wage. They have also commissioned a third-party auditor who have conducted 400 unannounced audits.
At least BooHoo manufacture in the UK, and this means that the scrutiny of workers’ conditions by the EAC is possible. The film ‘The True Cost’ reveals the working conditions in garment factories in countries such as Bangladesh, where worker protection is often much weaker. A United nations programme has been set up to tackle widespread practices leading to long working hours, extremely low pay, dismissal threats, or abuse of probationary contracts. So, although BooHoo is the brand most under scrutiny, that doesn’t mean workers supplying other brands are not suffering just as much, only out of sight.
Regarding the company’s environmental impact, BooHoo has a zero landfill policy for returned orders, which is great. But when they have sold clothing for as little as 6 pence, it’s hard not to believe that the brand is not contributing to the ‘disposable’ mindset that sees garments discarded after just a few wears. BooHoo told the EAC they will a sustainability strategy in March or April of 2021. Watch this space. For now, they have some clothes made from recycled polyester, but they make up a tiny fraction of their range.
Negative publicity during 2020 has not deterred BooHoo’s shoppers: on the contrary. The brand’s revenue grew by 45% in the six months to ended 31 August 2020, and the company raked in £449.2 million in profit. This is why I would argue that the government does need to play an active role in making fashion more sustainable for both people and planet. It’s unrealistic to expect that consumers will stop buying from brands that have poor track records on sustainability. Some people will, of course. Maybe you will if you’re reading this? But the reality is that BooHoo offers tempting fashion at very low prices. Their Instagram game is strong. That’s a powerful combination.
This month (March 2021), the Environmental Audit Committee has asked Boohoo Group Chairman Mahmud Kamani to link its bonus scheme for senior executives to achievement of its pledges on workers’ rights and environmental sustainability. Let’s hope they do. I also hope the government will this time accept the Environmental Audit Commission’s recommendations and take real action to make fashion more sustainable.
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