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Clothing Industry: Ethical and Sustainable Fashion

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 3 March 2011

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support and promote the ethical and sustainable fashion and clothing industry.

My Lords, I am delighted to open this debate this afternoon, especially with such a wide-ranging group of illustrious speakers. The timing could hardly have been better, following the earlier debate on the challenges that women face—challenges which include exploitative labour in the clothing supply chain. It also comes hot on the heels of London Fashion Week, where the British Fashion Council promoted Aesthetica, the ethical fashion showcase and forum. Also, importantly, it takes place during Fairtrade Fortnight.

I have several interests to declare. I am an ambassador for the Ethical Fashion Forum and for Made-By, which works with major fashion brands wishing to develop their ethical and sustainable standards. I have received briefings by the Fairtrade Foundation—which sent me this scarf to wear this afternoon—the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Made-By, RITE, PETA, Anti-Slavery International and various individuals. I am setting up an APPG on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, and hosting an event on the subject on 16 March. The CSF and Made-By have generously agreed to provide creative and secretariat input to the group.

There are too many individuals to thank for their help on this subject, but I want to give particular recognition to Jocelyn Whipple, Lucy Siegle, Livia Firth and Orsola de Castro for their generous support and encouragement. I was pretty ignorant at the beginning of this journey in the early days, and they have educated me enormously. I would also like to thank Defra officials and the Library for a very comprehensive and hugely helpful briefing pack.

Fashion and clothing are sometimes seen as frivolous, or only of minority interest. This was brought home to me when I started asking noble Lords to join the APPG. As I frequently pointed out, however, many of your Lordships could be considered the ultimate ethical fashionistas—wearing beautifully cut, high-quality tailored suits, timeless in style and lasting several years. This is the antithesis of fast, disposable fashion, which makes it more likely to be sustainable and less likely to contribute to the 30 per cent of textile-based landfill. Perhaps more seriously, many noble Lords have an interest in human rights, forced labour practices, environmental issues, international development, organic farming, corporate responsibility, animal welfare—et cetera, et cetera—and can make substantial, well-informed contributions on this subject as it touches on all these areas.

Creating and making, selling and buying fashion and clothing clearly are not marginal activities. The BFC estimated that in 2009 the UK fashion industry directly contributed £20.9 billion to the UK economy. There are some 815,000 jobs directly arising from it.

Fashion carries social and cultural meaning, and thus how we feel about clothes is subjective and prone to change. This has always been the case, but we seem to have reached a moment where the renewal of the self—the demonstration of our sense of belonging—is achieved through overconsumption of clothing, the costs of which include damaging agricultural practices; resource-intensive fibre, fabric and garment manufacturing; and the exploitation of garment workers and passive consumers who follow trends prescribed by the industry, and who are ill informed about, and distanced from, the creative and labour practices attached to their clothes.

Government can make very useful interventions. The sustainable clothing action plan, a Defra initiative from the previous Government, was a key development bringing together well known high-street brands to improve the sustainability performance of clothing across the supply chain. I am glad to hear that that is to continue. DfID’s responsible and accountable garments sector—RAGS—challenge fund works with the private sector and civil society to adopt ethical approaches to production in developing economies.

In what I believe is the first debate focused on the subject of ethical and sustainable fashion and clothing, I want to ask the Government several questions. The first, a question which arose from several of the discussions that I have had with various organisations, is on tax breaks for green fashion businesses. It is quite costly to convert goods to organic, Fairtrade or recycled products. A tax holiday or some form of rebate would encourage more new and innovative companies to enter these sectors. Sir Harold Tillman, chair of the British Fashion Council and owner of Jaeger and Aquascutum, has said that incentivising eco-friendly design would make sense for businesses and consumers across the fashion sector. He asks why, if UK citizens can get tax breaks on energy-efficient cars and other sustainable products, they cannot wear their values with pride and get tax breaks on ethical fashion. I ask the same question.

There is another point: the power of government procurement processes. The Government are among the largest non-retail purchasers of clothes and textiles in the country and spend £691 million on wearing apparel alone. With other textile-related expenditure, the Government spend a total of £1.186 billion a year on these items. However, ethical specifications for clothes are not a core requirement in public procurement. Current standards only suggest that government procurers can award extra points in the bidding process for ethical production principles. This does not incentivise bidders to meet higher ethical standards to win government contracts. Sir Philip Green’s review of government procurement in October 2010 neglected the potential that greater centralised purchasing could have on driving up ethical standards. Do the Government have a strategy for using their potential to lead by example and to embed ethical and sustainable principles in their procurement processes?

All political parties are committed to setting up the supermarkets adjudicator to investigate where supermarkets are using their purchasing power to treat suppliers unfairly. There are clearly many similarities between the food and fashion retail sectors, and many of the practices that lead to unfair treatment will be common to both. As they have for the food retail sector, will the Government commit at least to investigate the extent of these practices, and their impact on ethical clothing production, to establish whether the remit of the supermarkets adjudicator should be extended to cover fashion retailers as well?

Cotton is a recurring motif throughout this subject. Cotton growing is acknowledged as an opportunity for income generation, particularly for farmers from developing counties. But there are two key issues that need to be addressed. The first is that DfID should recognise the developmental and environmental benefits of organic cotton production and fund projects to develop this sector. Secondly, and very importantly, unfair subsidies from the EU and the USA create problems for producers in developing countries. Rich countries, including the US and those in the EU, have subsidised their cotton farmers by $47 billion in the past 10 years. West African cotton farmers, who are among the poorest in the world, are forced to try to compete on a global market against this subsidised cotton. The Fairtrade Foundation is campaigning and its supporters are lobbying the UK Government and the EU to drop their subsidies and to isolate the US on this unfair practice. Defra has already indicated its opposition to trade-distorting cotton subsidies. How does the department intend to demonstrate that it is seeking to influence directly the EU Commission’s proposals on the future of cotton subsidies, or has it begun to build the necessary coalition among member states and MEPs to end this subsidy?

On the other hand, we have the absolutely deplorable situation in Uzbekistan where the Government force children from the age of 11 to harvest cotton from September to November every year. In January 2011, the Council of the European Union announced that it had agreed changes to the EU-Uzbekistan Partnership and Co-operation Agreement protocol with Uzbekistan to extend the provisions of this PCA to the trade in textiles. These have yet to be approved by the European Parliament. This is an opportunity to call on the Parliament at the very least to ensure that the provisions of this agreement are conditional on Uzbekistan ending this practice. I note that the honourable Member for St Austell and Newquay has tabled an Early Day Motion on this subject.

The recently formed Sustainable Apparel Coalition will work to lead the clothing industry towards developing improved sustainable strategies. I hope that such initiatives will also help consumers to make informed choices on what they buy. There are no easy ways to address the issue of product traceability due to its complexity, but I would ask the Government what plans they have to help the consumer who wishes to make ethical choices by working with the industry to improve traceability throughout the supply chain.

Through diligent campaigning, PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—has helped to ensure that items of regimental apparel have been replaced by synthetic material. There remains the issue of the Queen’s Guards caps. I understand that they are still made from the pelt of Canadian bears which are treated cruelly in order to produce this material. Following a meeting last year, there has been some progress, and there is now an agreement to develop more refined samples to test with the regiments that wear the ceremonial caps. That process seems slow and an update would be helpful.

Finally, for those of us who have occasion to wear ceremonial robes, I understand that the fur trimmings have been switched from ermine to rabbit. But that is still fur. I know that although many Members of your Lordships’ House—like the overwhelming majority of Britons: 95 per cent, according to one poll—would not dream of wearing fur coats or any other fur garments, some may not question wearing those wonderful red robes with the fur attached. A representative from Parliament has informed PETA that Peers can choose new robes, manufactured by Ede & Ravenscroft, which contain only synthetic fur, therefore making it very easy to make the humane decision to wear a guaranteed cruelty-free faux fur robe.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness not only on securing this debate but on the work that she has done in support of ethical clothing over many years. She is absolutely right to support ethical clothing. Ethical consumerism and sustainability in the textile industry is something that we should all support. As she indicated, it is an issue which gets support from some of the big players in the industry—for example, Levi Strauss; the Government, with their sustainable clothing map; and ethical retailers such as Marks & Spencer. But that support is often expressed more in word than in deed. In addition, although the support is passionate, it is also fragmented and unco-ordinated.

The reason is that this idea has many powerful forces and interests ranged against it. Thanks to the Government’s failure to give us any kind of hope for growth, the consumer of fashion has to grapple with increased VAT, higher fuel and food prices and concerns about employment, with little hope of the return to better times. Indeed, earlier this week the Governor of the Bank of England told a committee in the other place that the good times may never return. These conditions mean that price, speed, turnover and competition must take priority in the fashion industry. Rectitude and reputation take a back seat; and thanks to the attitude of our rescued banks, so does planning and investment for the longer term.

What is to be done? First, the Government have to get their act together and produce an overall green strategy for industry, a strategy that all can support. Until now, we have had only warm words. Environmentally friendly clothing and its disposal must be part of that strategy, and so must sustainable clothing. In Britain we have all the ingredients for this: textile design, textile technology and environmental technology. We even have fabrics that purify the air around them. All this needs is to be brought together as part of our green business strategy. Perhaps it could be part of the platform of the Technology Strategy Board, perhaps as one of the new technology and innovation centres. After all, with increased transport costs, rising raw material prices and rising wages in Asia, some manufacturing is coming back to other parts of the European Union, so why not here, where there is very high consumption? Less disposable and more sustainable clothing has the makings of a stable industry which can produce many jobs.

The talent is here. The Minister does not have to go far to see it on display every summer at the Treasury, where environmentally friendly textiles are enthusiastically exhibited. For the past dozen years, the Textile Institute, of which I have the honour of being a past president, has organised an exhibition of the work of the best students from our leading colleges. All the buyers come because they like the idea of going to the Treasury, or perhaps the attraction is that they get to have a cup of tea on your Lordships’ Terrace with me. But our best students are certainly learning about green and sustainable fashion, so why is it not part of the broader curriculum? As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, suggested, possibly the most environmentally friendly clothing with the least waste is made here—it is made to measure. And what about Government procurement, as the noble Baroness suggested?

Changing our perceptions and our culture is difficult. What we can all do, including the Government, is recognise the need for change and recognise the social, economic, scientific and commercial pressures that make that change necessary, and to acknowledge it and make it part of our overall vision for a sustainable and green future. Ranged against this is a growing scepticism about climate change. Recently I returned from a visit to the United States, and unfortunately that scepticism is particularly apparent there. But you never know. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, and her cause may get lucky. My local FE college runs an excellent catering course. For many years it was hard to fill, but then a celebrity chef came along. Now even the enlarged course is oversubscribed. So I would say to the noble Baroness: keep plugging away, because the future is on your side. To the Minister I would say: help make it happen, and make it happen here.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on bringing this subject before us. When we talk about the clothing industry and fashion, it is something where Britain has a considerable history. Indeed, the authority of this House is the Mace that rests upon the Woolsack. We have been dealing in textiles for just about as long as there has been an organised Britain, and we started the industrial revolution with wool until cotton took over. We have a history of great production lines. However, we also set the pattern whereby every time you want to industrialise or get into something, you go into textiles. As the noble Baroness pointed out, that textile is usually cotton.

As we look at the stance taken towards industrialisation, we can see that it mirrors what we went through: bad labour conditions, overexploitation and no environmental consideration. The first time we polluted our rivers, we did it with dyes on a mass scale. Mining might have challenged that, but streams in the north of England that turned different colours as dyes were used is definitely something that can be traced back to the textile industry. It goes back to when we produced virtually all the textiles in the world, so we have a great deal of experience of what happens.

We also know, thanks to the work of many people who are involved in this, that taking your workers and driving them into the ground is not the best way to get the best out of them. Sir Robert Peel, the father of the Prime Minister of that name, brought in the first Act about the treatment of workers and their hours and conditions. This might be an odd thing to ask a Conservative Minister, but are this current Government going to help in setting up organised labour and encouraging how this can be done to get the best out of the labour force, and how to make things not so exploitative yet more efficient? This is probably something that comes through in much of what the noble Baroness said. I think I got quite a lot of the same briefing—she handled it very well and I will not repeat it. If we are going to make sure that the workers in these overseas industries are better treated, making sure that the textiles and the product we consume here are valued is a good first step—making sure that you invest in these people to get a better return. The technology needed to enter this industry tends to be at the lower end. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, has said there are higher-tech solutions, but the entrance level—which I believe is mostly what the noble Baroness was talking about—tends to be fairly low-tech, or yesterday’s tech. Can the Government tell us what they are doing to encourage those employers and those states that are involved to represent and cherish these people?

I got a great deal of ribbing in my party when it was heard that I had to talk about fashion, although not primarily from those who are here, it has to be said. Fashion is a driver of consumption in this country. When we talk about ethical fashion, we are talking about getting away from throwaway fashion; or, if we are going to throw it away, about how we recycle. Relying on landfill, as has been pointed out before, is a ridiculous state of affairs when you have to export it all around the world, with huge costs in transport. How are we going to get out of that? For instance, are we going to encourage, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, has suggested, more home-produced textiles, which will basically mean wool? This is something for which the Government must encourage research and development. Our universities, which now have a slightly more secure financial situation, might well have to take this on. Will the Government tell us exactly how much support is going into that? Fashion itself has a moral responsibility to make sure that it encourages not merely consumption but consumption done on a civilised basis—that is, one in which you are encouraging people who are being treated well to produce it, and one where there is not abuse and throwing away.

That is far too many questions for a speech of under five minutes, but I encourage the noble Lord to answer this in the sprit in which this subject has been raised today—as an all encompassing global industry, in which we are players.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for securing this debate and for an excellent speech. The noble Baroness is an expert on cultural matters who has enjoyed a successful career in both the arts and academia.

Promoting ethics in fashion is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. Due to our own success and leadership in this field, I thought it best to begin my contribution with a few words on the British fashion industry. London is one of the key fashion capitals in the world. According to the British Fashion Council, designers and retailers spent approximately £13 million on shows during London Fashion Week last year. The fashion industry makes a contribution of £21 billion to the British economy, which makes it the country's 15th largest sector.

Garments are said to account for 5 per cent of consumer expenditure in Britain. It has been estimated that Britain spends £46 billion per year on imported clothing. The civil unrest in north Africa, Egypt in particular, has slowed the supply of textile products to the UK, thus affecting a number of leading British retailers, including Marks & Spencer and Debenhams. These recent events can perhaps serve as a catalyst for retailers to look for more suppliers based in Britain. This will have the added benefit of boosting the UK textile manufacturing base. Clothing companies have warned that the price of garments will increase due to the rising cost of cotton, which has risen by 150 per cent since the beginning of 2010.

With our prestige in this industry comes social responsibility. Ethical fashion practices will broaden opportunities and improve the standard of living for millions of citizens in the developing world. The low cost of producing garments overseas is to be welcomed, but should not be at the expense of decent working conditions. I wholeheartedly support the important work of the Ethical Fashion forum in seeking to improve working conditions in the fashion industry. One of the key aims of the Forum is poverty reduction. This is a subject that is very close to my heart. The global fashion industry is said to generate profits of $1 trillion each year. However, the working conditions and salaries of those who contribute to the success of the industry are a huge cause for concern. Many who work in the fashion industry are on frightfully low wages.

One of the greatest successes of the Ethical Fashion Forum has been its work to promote market access in the developing world. We should do everything to support individuals in the developing world to export their unique prints, such as batik and kente, to a wider global audience. In India, the forum supports a fair trade initiative that employs 800 women, all of whom are shareholders in the company. This project also provides access to schooling for more than 1,000 local children and supports healthcare provision. The forum also supports initiatives in Kenya and Uganda. I have a personal affinity with these nations, as I was born in Kenya and spent my childhood in Uganda. The EFF supports the Crochet Sisters initiative, which helps impoverished women in Kenya by providing them with food, shelter, training and schooling. The forum supports 500 refugee women in Uganda to sell the jewellery that they make at minimal cost from recycled materials.

Many of the forum’s initiatives have an educational element. This is particularly encouraging as education has been repeatedly proven to be one of the main factors in improving the fortunes of poor people. I also welcome the efforts of the Ethical Trading Initiative to promote good labour standards for workers as declared by the International Labour Organisation. Members of the initiative adopt a code of conduct relating to decent wages and working conditions that they expect their suppliers to honour.

The number of reputable companies selling garments made by exploited workers is nothing short of a disgrace. One of the most memorable cases of exploitation to be disclosed in the fashion industry was the revelation that Levi Strauss was using Chinese prisoners to manufacture its goods in Saipan. Although this came to light almost 20 years ago, cases of exploitation are still prevalent today.

As someone who cares about humanitarian issues, I feel strongly about the exploitation of children in certain countries where children are employed to work in clothing and other industries in unhealthy conditions for a pittance. The challenges facing companies as a result of the current economic climate must not be used as an excuse to exploit vulnerable workers in the retail industry. We live in an increasingly globalised market where businesses are forced to compete for an increased number of exports.

Increased competition coupled with the demands of the fashion industry has led to a sharp rise in subcontracting. This practice allows manufacturers to make substantial savings. A key factor in successfully ending the exploitation of workers is those workers being made aware of their rights. Quite often, many workers in the developing world have experienced only poor conditions, to the extent that they do not even realise that they are victims of exploitation. The efforts of groups such as Women Working Worldwide, an organisation that seeks to ensure that workers in international supply chains are informed of their rights, are crucial to achieving this aim. I would be grateful if the Minister could inform your Lordships’ House about any plans that Her Majesty’s Government have to support such measures.

The politics of delivering ethical standards in the fashion industry are complex and rife with accusations of hypocrisy. Certain impoverished nations like Haiti have received vast amounts of cheap clothing from generous western countries—in Haiti’s case, following its devastating earthquake. However, this generosity has had the adverse effect of competing with the native clothing industry. Even with the best of intentions, it is important that developed nations are mindful of creating instances like that in Haiti.

We have a moral duty to work towards achieving ethical standards in the global fashion industry. The majority of workers in this sector are females. Therefore, success here will have a positive impact on many supranational programmes, including, most importantly, reaching our targets under the millennium development goals

I end by saying that I was recently a member of the parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka, where we were taken to a factory belonging to Brandix, which makes garments for Marks & Spencer. The factory was eco-friendly, the working conditions were excellent and the staff were very well paid. Such a factory is a role model for others to emulate.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for bringing this debate to the House, but I will quickly follow that with an apology. I have perhaps not interpreted the topic in exactly the way she wanted it to be debated today. Many of the speakers so far have followed the course of ethics, child labour and all that type of stuff, which of course are serious issues. I, however, have picked the fashion side of the question, to try to address something more positive and to see how we can move forward in this country in trying to promote some resurgence in that industry.

I would add that child labour is not new. As a point of comfort, I would say that most of the retailers in this country are now fully aware that they should not support suppliers of anything, be it textiles or electronic goods, if it is produced in a factory that employs child labour. I know that in my own factories and with subcontractors abroad, to be perfectly blunt and frank about it, this was something that we never considered; we just asked the factory to make stuff for us, and it was only when the issue was brought to our attention that we sent our own inspectors there to ensure that they were compliant and did not use child labour. I feel that most sensible companies in this country comply with that, so personally I am not too bothered any more.

I shall now get on to something that might bore your Lordships a little, because it is off the noble Baroness’s topic. It goes like this. I was brought up in Hackney, an area that was a hive of activity for the garment industry. Indeed, my father, mother and siblings all worked in garment factories. My father was a tailor and my mother worked as something called a felling hand, which might mean something to your Lordships, while my elder brother and sisters were machinists. These types of jobs supported many families in the East End of London back in the 1950s and 1960s but, sadly, we have seen the complete migration of the textile industry to areas such as the Far East and other continents.

Over the years, the technology required to produce various fabrics has greatly advanced, allowing flexibility and speedy delivery for garment manufacturers. Regretfully, those responsible for the production of raw materials seem to have focused on the low labour-cost territories of the world. I assume that the sensible fabric manufacturers do not use child labour and do not exploit slavery or all of that stuff.

The retail trade as we know it today seems to rely solely on cheap imports. Compared with the past, when a young woman’s decision to buy a dress took perhaps a couple of weeks to build up to, bearing in mind the large financial commitment, by today’s standards the price of clothing has tumbled—so much so that a dress that once represented a week’s wages now costs the equivalent of a round of drinks on a Saturday night. Because of that, demand has gone up tremendously, which in turn has created an appetite for more and more designs, so there is now a continuous flow of new products through the stores. I believe this has created, in effect, a kind of “buy weekly” mentality whereby the old traditional autumn, winter and spring collections seem to have gone by the wayside, particularly with the low-cost stuff.

As a result, it is fair to say that we have lost the manufacturing industry for high-volume production in this country. We seriously need to recognise this fact. What can we do to re-engage in that very lucrative market? I believe that the secret lies with encouraging young people who are fashion-orientated to be trained so that they are allowed to express their artistic talent in a way that translates into locally produced finished product.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to Sir Philip Green. I think the point being made was that his report emphasised pushing prices down, which perhaps implies that we would be going to low-cost manufacturing areas. On the other side of the coin—this is similar to the involvement of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, with her colleges—Sir Philip Green founded his fashion retail academy in 2006. That currently houses 550 students, and while he has done a tremendous job in achieving some results, such as passing 65 per cent of his students through to full-time work placements, most of those places are on the retail side or in the buying department. A very small proportion has gone into actual manufacturing.

I therefore suggest that the Government start to fund what I would call incubator factories. There are so many empty buildings and premises in this country. The Government could assist in kitting out those factories with a central core of machinery and facilities so that around the periphery of the factory floor there could be many silos where young designers can come in and do their bit, exploiting the facilities in the factory without having to invest themselves. That facility would also provide employment for those who can gain skills. Not that we are all going to be fashion designers, but there is a need for pattern cutters, for example, and for machinists. Where will they learn how to do that and get their experience? Only on the factory floor, if they are helping in those peripheral factories.

I remind noble Lords that the backbone of the country’s economy is made up of SMEs that employ from two to 10 people. That is an amazing statistic, as I am sure most of us would wrongly assume that the giant companies and the ones that employ most of the working population. Picture a scenario in which a young designer is able to run a workshop—one of those silos that I suggested—and employ, say, five people including assemblers and a salesperson. There is a good market to sell to independent retailers, specialist shops or market stalls, if you like, not to mention online. One does not have to produce in the thousands to start a business. From those small acorns, mighty oak trees might grow.

One such example is a young man I came across a few years ago. He was an alteration hand working in the menswear department of a department store. Encouraged by me, he took the leap to start his own business and make men’s suits. I made sure that I was wearing one of his suits today. With my help and several referrals, he is now in a fair way of business and employs five people.

Realistically, not every young person is blessed with the brain to become an accountant, doctor or lawyer. It is those forgotten young people, who perhaps do not excel academically but do have a talent for fashion and design, who we could offer a future to. This country is known for producing some great fashion designers. The Government need to engage with people like Sir Phillip Green and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and try to fund these incubator factories that I have suggested.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on instituting this debate on a subject that is both unusual and highly topical, and for giving your Lordships' House the opportunity to examine matters that are so relevant in the present century.

Like my noble friend Lord Sugar, I will perhaps refer to fashion itself as much as the working conditions and environmental issues. Ask anyone who likes fashion, keeping up with trends and finding flattering and elegant design on all or any price level, and they will react to the term “ethical fashion” by describing the kind of clothes worn by the Bohemians of the 1960s and 1970s: hippy fashion, trailing skirts, dangling beads, frayed hems. This is still worn, particularly at pop festivals, but modern ethical fashion has left it behind.

That this hippy style might evolve and be transmuted into desirable and much sought after clothing would have been inconceivable to wearers of cheesecloth in 1970. That a designer of the stature of Stella McCartney might be producing haute couture and only producing it would have looked like a mistake on her part, not the total success it has proved. She is famous for taking a stand against cruelty to animals, using no fur or even leather, and now, thanks to determination and hard work, she is known as a chic designer label who happens to be green, but not principally as a green designer. She says herself that her customers like her clothes, how they look and fit, and see their being sustainable as an added bonus.

However, Stella McCartney is, in anyone's estimation, a maker of designer clothes on the highest level. What of the manufacture of cheaper clothes? It is well known that many outlets in the UK have as their sources factories in countries where conditions are squalid, hours are long and pay is as low as it can get. This ensures that a dress can cost £10 and a T-shirt £2. Human nature being what it is, it is hard to see how buyers can be turned from the desire for very cheap clothes simply on the grounds that some part of the world is being turned into a desert, or some group of people they have never seen is being deprived of health.

According to the Business of Fashion’s comment and analysis section, the demand for cheap cashmere from the growing Gobi desert has created an environmental disaster, while increasing herds of goats graze away every bit of green that is left. But if the demand for cashmere slows down, what becomes of the goatherds who tend their animals? Do they lose their jobs and their ability to support their families?

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has referred to cotton production. Cotton provides much of the world’s fabrics, but growing it and treating the fabric that is its end product uses chemicals that harm the environment and are dangerous to the farmers who produce it. Hazardous chemicals used in the textile industry are lead, nickel, chromium IV, aryl amines, phthalates and formaldehyde. Cotton farmers face other problems. We are in Fairtrade Fortnight, and the Fairtrade Foundation is campaigning and lobbying the Government and the European Union to drop the subsidies paid to cotton farmers in European Union countries and the United States. While the price of cotton has dropped by 75 per cent, largely through western subsidies, west African cotton farmers are forced to compete globally against this subsidised cotton and as a result are unable to make a living and are leaving the industry in droves.

Her Majesty’s Government are among the largest non-retail buyers of clothes and textiles in this country. They should therefore lead by example, but ethical standards are not a principal requirement for government purchasing. This is regulated largely by the buying standards for textiles that exclude local government and the NHS. Does the Minister agree that a better system is required so that the Government can accurately assess the cost of buying ethically sourced textiles and make decisions based on this?

Other retailers have recognised that purchasers want to wear their clothes with a clear conscience. A few years ago, the deriding and insulting in the street of women wearing fur coats resulted if not in a ban than in considerably reducing the number of fur coats that were worn and brought about a rise in the fashion for wearing faux fur. This kind of treatment is not to be recommended; there are other more civilised and appropriately ethical ways of changing people’s minds, and other retailers have recognised that purchasers want to wear their clothes with a clear conscience.

A company based in London is Wall of Notting Hill. It has the same ethical principles as Stella McCartney but its clothes are far more modestly priced and are accountable and sustainable in the best possible ways. Certainly, it uses fur and it uses alpaca from Peru but it uses only the hides of animals that have died a natural death. Wall, by its nature, is unlikely to bid for a government contract but it sets an example that could be a standard for companies bidding to win government contracts. Wall has strong connections with Peru, where many of its products and the people who work for it come from. It inspects the factories that are the centres of production not just once but regularly so that no one has the opportunity to make things look good for a one-off visit. Perhaps the most admirable of its ventures is to take children off the streets of Lima—poor children with no apparent future—and put them on a two-year course to learn to use knitting machines, for much of their clothing is knitted. When the course is finished, Wall supplies each child with a knitting machine so that after training they may continue with what has become a useful career. This contrasts with the exploitation of child workers in other countries who are subjected to violence, abuse and very poor pay.

The group of women who constitute the Andean Collection also have strong connections with South America. Though the company is based in New York, they travel twice a year for extended stays with the workers of Ecuador, who share in the profits of the company as part owners. They pay for the education of artisans’ children and require them as teenagers to assist in the family’s business, thus breaking the cycle of poverty.

At present, the industry suffers from unreasonable deadlines imposed by retailers, contracts with suppliers that are never written down, variations in terms and conditions after delivery, even to a reduction in price, and unreasonable penalties imposed on suppliers for defective products. Does the Minister agree that a change is needed here and that the Government’s encouragement of other textile and clothing firms in the UK to follow the example set by the few retailers who work on ethical principles is much needed? Are not these green and humanitarian issues that everyone who cares about their fellow men and women and animals, as well as looking good and keeping warm, should support? It would be good to know that they care about those issues as much as they care about our forests.

My Lords, I join all those who have spoken in congratulating my noble friend—because she is my friend—Lady Young of Hornsey on securing this debate at, as she said, an extraordinarily timely moment; and on her tremendous vigour in seizing this issue and in getting the all-party group going, which is a good and helpful way to bring these issues to the attention of a lot more people. As part of declaring my interests, I am delighted to say that I have joined that group, and I hope that many other noble Lords and Members of the other place will do so in due course.

I should declare another interest in that my son is a member of the small but extremely effective team that makes up the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, which has been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I am indebted to him and his colleague Dr Kate Fletcher for useful briefing for this debate. As a result of taking on that briefing, I may, rather like my noble friend Lord Sugar, go slightly off-piste in terms of the way that this debate might have been expected to develop. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me.

The fashion industry divides opinion. For those involved in it, it is all consuming and endlessly fascinating. For others, it represents some of the most repellent aspects of a vain, consumerist culture. Personally, I confess to being more fascinated than repelled. I love clothes and I love fashion. What has not yet been said in this debate is that we have to recognise that fashion is part of the entertainment industry, at least to some extent. There is a lot of fun in fashion, and that is what attracts people to it. I particularly love the imagination and creativity of designers, and I admire the artistry of the photographers and stylists through whose eyes we understand their work. Frankly, most of us never get on to the front row, or even the back row, of a catwalk show in fashion week. It is therefore a tremendous pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about these matters in this House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has framed her topic carefully. It refers to the,

“ethical and sustainable fashion and clothing industry”.

Another thing that has not quite been teased out—and I am not going to try to—is the definition of the difference between fashion and clothes; but there is something there that is quite interesting. I want to concentrate on “sustainable” and “clothing”, but in a slightly different way—in perhaps a micro, rather than a macro, way. I want to talk about the old fashioned concept of “make do and mend”—perhaps appropriately in these straitened times.

We have already heard that most of the clothes available today on the high street are made far away in China, Asia or eastern Europe by people who we will probably never meet, working in conditions we would prefer not to think about, for wages that would barely buy us a cup of coffee. These clothes are, as a consequence, absurdly cheap—as we have heard—which allows them to be regarded as disposable. The human, economic and environmental consequences of our overconsumption have been graphically spelt out by other speakers. However, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Other speakers have touched on how different it was when they were growing up. Certainly, when I was growing up, clothes were relatively much more expensive and there was much less choice.

If you go back a bit further into the 19th century and beyond, the picture is even more starkly different. Clothes had to be made by hand, either by the person who was going to wear them or, for the better off, by a professional tailor or seamstress in the community. Making clothes was hard work. They had to last and they were often therefore reinvented by the addition of small embellishments, such as lace or ribbons, remade to suit changed shape or fashion, or passed on to others. How do I know this? It is not from serious study, but from reading novels—not, I regret, the novels of my noble friend Lady Rendell, but mostly the novels of the 19th century. If you take any of the great writers of that period—Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, and who remembers The Moonstone and the vital importance of a handmade nightgown to the plot of that novel?—you will find it all there in the detail of those novels. Most women and some men, until two or three generations ago, whatever social class they belonged to, would have had some skill in sewing, knitting, perhaps even lace-making or embroidery, and most importantly in repairing clothes. Such simple domestic accomplishments became unfashionable, I think largely from the point at which women began to seek a wider role in public life. Of course I do not regret that, but it had this consequence, among many others.

Now these skills have become the preserve of specialists. In the theatre, for example, where I have spent most of my professional life, clothes—costumes—are hugely important, both to the people who wear them and to the audiences who look at them. Many, especially in large classical theatre or opera companies, are tailor-made for individual performers, and require not only exceptional skill in cutting and making— comparable to that in fashion houses—but often the application of detailed research into style, fabric and decoration. They must also be made to withstand the rigours of whatever a performance may demand. Consequently, each piece costs a lot to produce and has to be maintained carefully throughout its life, which can be long. Many costumes, once their initial use is fulfilled, go into store, and in time reappear having been refurbished and changed in a completely different production.

This is sustainability in action. We have to ask, in a world of austerity and diminishing resources, whether we should not be learning again to value the ability to make things last, not just as a rare specialism, but as a normal part of everyone’s personal toolkit. Dr Fletcher of the London College of Fashion, to whom I referred earlier, points out that today the extreme cheapness of new clothes has pretty much consigned repair to history, overtaken by a new philosophy of “discard and repurchase”, about which we have heard a great deal this evening. The commercial imperative behind this, from the point of view of the industry, is pretty obvious. She also observes that the fact that most of us lack the practical skills nowadays to repair things ourselves must be partly to do with a general undervaluing of manual skills-based education, compared with academic subjects. It is timely to remember this on the day that the Wolf report is produced. We are not talking about it today, but I note it.

Furthermore, if we want to have our clothes repaired or altered professionally, it is increasingly difficult to find people able to do it. Even when we do, I fear that we are reluctant to pay properly for their services, thus making it hard for small businesses, to which my noble friend Lord Sugar referred—there are lots of them in this industry—to survive. When the Minister replies, I wonder whether he would consider the following questions; they are small but not entirely insignificant, I hope. First, how can the Government help to underline, through our education system and beyond, the importance of having basic skills necessary to get the maximum use from everything we consume? Secondly, what help can the Government give, perhaps through reductions in VAT or other tax breaks, to small businesses such as clothing repair services, aiming at this kind of sustainability?

The fashion industry is highly influential, particularly on young people. If it began to move away from its focus on cheapness and disposability, and started to construct some messages about the importance of conserving, reusing and repairing—it would be very difficult for it, I entirely understand—then the generation that needs to hear might begin to listen. There are some signs that this is about to happen. I hope that they will grow.

I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, on initiating this debate, and on speaking to it in such a knowledgeable and informative way. I know that she has had a long involvement with this issue through the London College and elsewhere, and has also raised these issues on previous occasions in this House. Indeed, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh reminded us, she has also been involved in raising the issue in both Houses through the establishment of the all-party group, to which I wish much success.

The noble Baroness raised a wide number of issues, and the debate has been widened even further by subsequent contributions to look at the fashion and clothing industry more generally, as did my noble friends Lord Sugar and Lady Rendell. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, spoke on the history of the industry, which, as he reminded us, has been very important in the past and from which lessons had to be learnt. Indeed, we had some literary allusions from my noble friend Lady McIntosh. The debate has been wide-ranging and there are many points to which the Minister will wish to respond.

When I first saw the title of the debate I was somewhat surprised that it was considered a Defra responsibility, although I understand why it is, for the purposes of this debate. It very much arises from the Defra sustainable clothing action plan launched three to four years ago under the previous Government. In that respect, I pay tribute to my noble friend and colleague Lord Hunt of Kings Heath who took a keen interest in these issues when he was a Minister. He helped launch the initiative at the London College, where his catwalk performance was described by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, as being very much appreciated. That conveys an interesting spectacle to most of us who had not thought of my noble friend as being a catwalk performer. None the less, I know that he was very committed to the action plan within Defra and to the initiatives taken by the noble Baroness. I know that he would like me to pay tribute to the staff in Defra who are working on the road map and who I know he felt were very enthusiastic about the work that they were doing.

Although I recognise the valuable role that Defra can play in this issue, this is a classic case of co-ordination being necessary across various government departments. Many of the issues raised today relate to government departments other than Defra, such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Department for International Development is relevant in terms of some of the important issues in development, as are departments dealing with education and training, and universities—mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Addington—and so is the Treasury when it comes to tax incentives or fiscal measures. What co-ordinating mechanisms exist at present for looking at the ethical clothing and fashion industry? Is there a committee that has representation from the appropriate departments? How would it support Defra in taking forward the clothing action plan and the initiatives that have already been taken?

Have there been any changes to the road map since the previous Government published their progress report in February 2010? I was trying to find out about it from the Defra website and ran out of time before the debate, but I was a little puzzled that there is still reference to the old Defra website. Somehow the new and old websites have not been consolidated into one departmental statement even though we are 10 months on from the election and the change of government. It is a bit confusing for those seeking information about this issue.

When she referred to these issues previously, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, talked about the role of small businesses in ethical fashion and clothing. She was concerned at the time, a couple of years ago, about the economic climate adversely affecting small businesses in particular. What contact has the department had with small businesses in the sector to confront some of the challenges that they face in what is even perhaps a more difficult economic situation?

The noble Baroness also mentioned procurement, a point that was echoed by one or two other speakers. I would be interested to know whether, with regard to Defra, the Government were considering widening the applicability of government buying standards to include the NHS, perhaps, or other parts of government that are not currently included. Is consideration being given to this?

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of what we have been calling the supermarket ombudsman—now called adjudicator. The main inspiration behind this was the perceived weakness of farmers and agricultural producers in negotiating with supermarkets. It was an interesting point as to whether there was a role for the adjudicator in the textile and clothing industry, particularly given that so many supermarkets these days are quite substantial sellers of clothing. Again, I would be interested in the Government’s reaction to that.

A number of issues raised would probably come more within the area of responsibility of the Foreign Office or DfID than Defra. None the less, they are important to raise during the debate. The noble Baroness referred to the alarming reports about the cotton industry and the employment of very young people in Uzbekistan. I read those reports and found them very troubling indeed, and wondered what representations might have been made about this, or if any positive progress has been made. This is of interest not only to Members of this House and to the public but to companies. I accept the point made by my noble friend Lord Sugar that companies these days are concerned about the standards of production of the goods that they are dealing with and the conditions in which people in those producing industries are employed. That is also reflected by the fact that quite a large number of retailers were willing to sign up to the clothing action plan. We hope that that number can increase in future. Those issues are important, and I hope that the Government will be able to respond.

If we can make further progress on this issue, this can be a win for the environment and for responsible producers and manufacturers as well as for trade and social justice. They are very important issues and, once again, I thank the noble Baroness very warmly for raising them in this House today.

My Lords, I start by answering one question from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, on the Defra website. I am not sure exactly what her concerns are, but I will look at that very carefully and get back to her in due course. I offer my congratulations to all other speakers in this debate, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on introducing it on this subject. Like my noble friend Lord Addington, I faced a certain amount of ribaldry about the fact that I would have to answer such a debate. I do not think—unlike the description given of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin—that I am the sort of person that one would see on the catwalk, and no one would expect to. But when I saw my noble friend the Chief Whip today, decked out in leather and quite a lot of bling—I do not know if other noble Lords saw her—I thought that it might be more appropriate for her to respond to the debate, but she was not prepared to take on that role, and there we are.

There is a lot that I want to say and quite a number of points that I want to address that the noble Baroness and others have raised. I start by offering my congratulations on the work that she has done in trying to put together again an all-party group—I cannot remember if it is a new all-party group or whether it is resurrecting the old one—on this subject. I wish her well on that. I understand that she is hoping to have the first meeting of that group on 16 March—that is what I was advised. That is the day before the next meeting that we have on the sustainable clothing road map, which is right and proper. I hope that those two things can go ahead consecutively on those dates. I offer her my best wishes.

I will run through very quickly some of the noble Baroness’s questions before I get to the main part of my speech. She asked about tax breaks for ethical, green fashion businesses. Noble Lords will know that I will not comment on that because it is more than my job's worth to comment on anything to do with Her Majesty's Treasury, but no doubt it will be passed on to colleagues. She also talked about the important role in terms of government procurement. I was reminded about that when I looked at the obituaries today, which announced the sad death of the last remaining son of the late Monty Burton of Burton the tailors. In that obituary, I was reminded that Burton the tailors provided a third of all uniforms for the British Army during the war and a large number of the demob suits afterwards. Therefore, one is reminded of the importance of the Government as a purchaser in this field. The Government feel that they have an important role to make sure that they get their exemplary action over to others. In Defra, I hope that we can lead that and encourage other government departments to behave in the right way.

The noble Baroness also asked about the supermarket adjudicator. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, commented on it. Again, this is not something that we plan to extend to clothes, but no doubt we will look at the idea that she has put forward in due course. Initial plans for a supermarket adjudicator are related to food, but it is a perfectly valid point and one that should be looked at.

Finally and this again was raised by others, the noble Baroness talked about the problems of cotton and the CAP and the fairly appalling distortions in that. She and others will know that we are in the middle of the process of renegotiating the CAP. Dare I say it, we cannot make any promises about what we will achieve as a result of attempts to reform the CAP, but Her Majesty's Government will be pushing very hard on it and we recognise that there are some fairly major distortions in there, particularly in relation to the production of cotton in Portugal, Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Greece. That is certainly something that Her Majesty's Government should be aware of and will push for.

Economically, the clothing and fashion industry is an important component of national and global economies, as all noble Lords made clear. Textile supply chains are long and complicated. They involve actors from the agricultural, chemical fibre, textile, and apparel industries, the retail and services sector, and—thinking particularly of part of my own department—waste recovery and treatment operations.

As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, historically we had a major textile manufacturing base. As the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, reminded us, 90 per cent of the UK’s clothing is now imported. We have seen a major migration of our textile industry abroad. However, I remind the noble Lord that we still have a considerable clothing manufacturing business even if 90 per cent has gone abroad, and a lot of that is in SMEs and involved in what we might refer to as ethical and sustainable fashion. I note again what he had to say about his ideas, which should be looked at. Those businesses are ones that we should continue to encourage and support.

Our consumption of clothes and textiles and so forth can have positive economic effects on not only our own country's economy but, as was made clear by a number of speakers, a great many developing countries. But alongside those positive effects, there are a wide range of environmental and ethical implications.

Alongside those positive effects, there is a wide range of environmental and ethical implications. Environmentally, we must consider the impact of fibre production all the way through the process, whether the water or the fertiliser—I have been given a figure for the amount of fertiliser used throughout the world on cotton; about 25 per cent of all pesticides go into that. I will correct that figure if I have got it wrong.

We also have to consider the greenhouse gas emissions when fossil fuels are processed into synthetic fibres. As the fibres are made into fabrics, there may be hazardous waste. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned the cotton and dyeing industry and the effluents from the dye and finishes.

As noble Lords have reminded us, ethical issues are associated with access to markets, trade terms for producer markets—that is why I wanted to mention the CAP—and concerns about labour conditions in clothing factories, sweatshop conditions and child labour issues.

Once we have bought clothes, there are the significant factors of water, detergents, greenhouse gas emissions associated with washing and drying them, and the waste produced at the end of life. Waste issues are close to my department. They have hit the headlines recently. Concerns about the impact of fast fashion are well founded. I was given an interesting statistic earlier. We buy about 2 million tonnes of clothing a year and discard about 1 million tonnes. It seems to me that our wardrobes are growing at an unsustainable rate, but I ask all noble Lords and Ladies to look at their wardrobes to see what is happening. Where are the clothes going?

The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, rightly referred to the sustainable clothing road map, which was established in 2007. It is a concerted effort by the whole clothing supply chain to understand and address its environmental and ethical impact. The road map provides a platform for sharing evidence and industry best practice to help catalyse change throughout the sector. From the evidence, the road map has prioritised certain hotspot areas where business can act to reduce the environmental and ethical impact of its clothing. The road map has produced an action plan under which more than 40 organisations, throughout the lifespan of clothing manufacture, retail and disposal, have committed themselves to specific actions to reduce their impact. A large number of big high street names are involved—Nike, Tesco, Adidas. I add that it involves not just big retail but people such as the Salvation Army, the Textile Recycling Association and Oxfam, because they have a role in disposal—reuse—which comes very high up in our waste hierarchy, because it is obviously far better to reuse or recycle clothes than to send them to landfill.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, who I think asked about education, that the Salvation Army is committed to the educative process of encouraging people to think of recycling and re-use and, as she put it, repair of clothing rather than throwing it out. People of my father's generation were even taught how to darn socks. I have never learnt that art and, I fear, now tend to throw out socks, but a different generation did different things. Within Defra, we have funded evidence projects on emerging fibres, reuse and recycling of clothes, clothes cleaning and the public understanding of sustainable clothing, and we will do more where appropriate.

I am now getting warning signs from my colleagues, but I should talk a little about what other government departments are doing, because DfID did considerable work when it recently launched its RAGS programme—that is the responsible and accountable garment sector challenge fund, which is a £3 million fund which supports projects aimed at improving the conditions of vulnerable workers in the ready-made garment production industries overseas. The fund is aimed at workers in low-income countries that supply the United Kingdom market such as India, Bangladesh, and a certain number of countries in Africa.

I can also mention the ethical trading initiative, supported by DfID, which drives practical action on better working conditions in the supply chains of its companies. It has brought businesses, trade unions and non-governmental organisations together to tackle poor working conditions. Some 60 companies in the United Kingdom are now members making progress in this initiative.

I could go on; there is much that I would like to say if the time were available. I am trying to assure you that we are doing our bit and that we will continue to work in all these funds. I look forward to the next meeting, on 17 March, on the sustainable clothing road map, and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will be involved in that.

House adjourned at 7.06 pm.