Making the UK a global leader in Sustainable Fashion | APPG report 2020

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Making Making the the UK UK a a global global leader leader in in Sustainable Sustainable Fashion Fashion

Context COVID-19 has significantly hit the fashion industry. Before the virus struck the environmental and social impact of the industry was increasingly under public scrutiny. Fast fashion resulted in £140 million worth of clothing being sent to landfill every year in the UK. More than half of clothing given to charity shops or textile recycling was landfilled or incinerated. The industry’s carbon dioxide emissions were expected to rise to nearly 2.8 billion tonnes by 2030. The 2019 Environment Audit Committee report ‘Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability’, found that textile production accounted for 20-35% of microplastics in the oceans as well as toxicity in the land and particles in the air. COVID-19 has harshly shone the spotlight on these fault-lines within the sector. Supply chains have broken, sales have dropped, unsold stocks have built, retail outlets have closed and companies have gone out of business. Fashion is at a crossroads. Does it seek to rebuild using the ‘business as usual model’ or will it take this opportunity to create a more just and sustainable approach which builds greater long-term resilience? This report from the All Party Political Group sets out how the sector could follow a more sustainable route and the role that government and consumers might play. It builds on research undertaken with companies and consumers before and during the COVID-19 epidemic.

The COVID-19 impact on the fashion sector The impact of COVID-19 on fashion has been significant. Headlines over the past couple of months have revealed: It is estimated that the apparel sector in the UK will be the worst hit with a decline in spending by a fifth or 20.6 per cent less than the usual spending. Sales of clothing and footwear in the UK alone are expected to decline by £11.1 billion.

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According to the ONS, clothing sales plummeted by 34% during March 2020 whilst online shopping as a proportion of all retail reached a record high of 22% with online retailers such as Boohoo thriving.


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It is estimated that the financial reckoning faced by the retail sector will result in 20,620 store closures this year – up from about 16,000 in 2019 – and trigger nearly 250,000 job losses, according to analysis based on a three-month lockdown.

Companies have been suffering severely with many on the brink of collapse. Aldo, Cath Kidston, Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Monsoon Accessorize, Oasis, Quiz and the UK arm of Victoria's Secret, have all fallen into administration.

Due to store closures and sale downturns, 1,089 garment factories in Bangladesh have had orders cancelled worth roughly $1.5 billion. This has had social ramifications for those 1.96 million workers and environmental consequences relating to the vast quantity of unsold stock such as Primark sitting on £1.5 billion worth of clothes sat in stockpile.

It is reported that 72% of brands have refused to cover the costs of raw materials they had purchased, leaving Bangladesh garment manufacturers and exporters in an impossible situation. Companies such as Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Kiabi, PVH Corp. and Target have come forward and reportedly agreed to follow through their commitments to pay suppliers for orders already in production.

Resilience Values

A Time to Rebuild




Faced with such devastating impacts, fashion companies need to reassess and rebuild. This reassessment might be informed by the experience of companies in other sectors which has shown that:

Leading companies are shifting emphasis from shareholder to stakeholder value. Many have made significant financial investments to protect the most vulnerable, to support employees and to help suppliers.

Companies that have a clear sense of social and environmental purpose have been able to respond quickly to the change of circumstances. Those companies that have a strong connection with their suppliers, employees and customers have fared better than others.

Resilience has become the new watchword. Progressive companies are taking a broad view of resilience ensuring that they build models that can cope with climate shocks as well as future pandemics.

Consumer values have shifted. Expenditure on nonessential items has decreased. Polling suggests people are expecting companies to provide items that will last longer and not to try to sell them things that they don’t need.

Progressive companies are putting the welfare of people at the heart of their strategy. Many are reporting the need for a new duty of care for suppliers, employees and vulnerable sections of society.

Signs of Change A number of companies reacted rapidly to the impact of COVID-19. Examples include: Brands globally such as H&M, Prada, Inditex have helped to manufacture protective clothing for hospitals, showing how quickly production lines could be altered.

Designers Phoebe English, Bethany Williams and Holly Fulton launched the Emergency Designer Network to produce PPE in the UK for hospitals.

Burberry has used their supply network to deliver 100,000 surgical masks to NHS workers as well as fund research into a single-dose vaccine that is being developed at the University of Oxford.

Mulberry manufactured 8000 hospital gowns for NHS hospital staff in Bristol and Mckintosh gave their factory in Lancashire to produce nurse's uniforms.

French brand Sandro is helping produce masks with excess fabric stock from previous collections, aiming to produce around 10,000 safety masks for non-medical staff workers.

There are signs that some companies are starting to positively assess how they might change in the long-term as part of the rebuild. For example: • A number of big fashion houses have made commitments to reduce the number of collections they produce going forwards. Italian label Gucci has cut shows from five to two each year and declares fashion calendar obsolete. Saint Laurent announced it would sit out Paris fashion week this September and set its own schedule going forward. • Dries Van Noten has led a number of independent designers calling for a radical overhaul of the industry, with fewer fashion shows and less product. • Danish Brand, Ganni, in light of COVID-19 has committed to accelerate the digital strategy, reduce samples, implement a virtual showroom and break with the traditional fashion calendar.

Whilst hugely encouraging these initiatives are piecemeal and more fundamental change is required. This requires action at all levels including government, companies and citizens. What might this look like?

Investing in research and development to create more sustainable fabrics that have a lower environmental and social impact.

The role for Government   Strategic investment in the fashion industry gives the government an opportunity to stimulate economic growth through a green recovery. Targeted initiatives could support the levelling-up agenda by supporting left-behind communities, boost skills and jobs amongst the young, women and BAME communities and create a more resilient industry. Investment areas could include:

Boosting investment in UK fabric recycling facilities to create a more circular economy.

Supporting new start-up businesses operating more sustainable business models.

Investing in skills to bring more jobs back to the UK.

Supporting industry to create clearer information and labelling about the sustainability of clothes helping to educate consumers about their everyday choices and force companies to change their approach.

The role for Industry   Companies need to fundamentally reassess their business models to create a more resilient model that is just and sustainable. Sustainability credentials will be employed as one method to regain consumers’ trust and will need to be grounded in authentic behaviour and rigorous internal practices. This should include: Placing people and communities at the heart of their strategy building transparency, resilience and social justice throughout operations. Enhancing communications with consumers enabling them to make more informed choices. Creating more resilient business models able to cope with future shocks. Greater collaboration with government, other companies and citizens to jointly create a more sustainable business model. Reviewing business processes so that they generate profit operating within environmental limits. This should include delivering on climate targets, enhancing biodiversity, safeguarding natural resources and reducing waste.

The role for Citizens   Citizens have a crucial role in holding government and businesses to account in the post COVID-19 rebuild. This includes:

Questioning and holding to account practices that are not just and sustainable.

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Using purchasing and social media influence to support progressive organisations.

Making more sustainable life choices through not over-buying, reducing the level of returns, prioritising garments made from sustainable materials, getting maximum value from clothes and by disposing of them responsibly.

T H A N K YO U The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion (APPG) was reformed in February 2020 by Catherine West MP and Baroness Young of Hornsey OBE. Fashion Roundtable act as the Secretariat to the group, with kind support from Hubbub and Anthesis.