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Fashion Industry

Volume 653: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019


Select Committee Statement

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to present to Parliament this interim report on the sustainability of the fashion industry, the 15th report of this Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee. I also thank the dedicated staff and Committee members who, despite the Brexit crisis, continue to work tirelessly to hold the Government to account on environmental protection, and I am delighted to see so many members in their place.

We launched our inquiry last June to examine the social and environmental impact of fast fashion and the garment industry and to consider what actions consumers, retailers and the Government must take. Our final report will be published next month. The subject of today’s statement is the interim report, which focuses on retailers’ responsibility to ensure they employ people fairly and reduce fashion’s footprint and to ensure that fashion does not literally cost us the earth.

We heard evidence that fast fashion encouraged the over-purchase, over-consumption and under-utilisation of clothes. This leads to excessive waste. In the UK, we throw 11 million items of clothing worth £140 million into the bin every year. People in this country buy more clothes than people in any other European country: 27 kilos per person a year, or two big suitcases, which is twice what the stylish Italians buy. This is spurred on by retailers selling clothes at pocket money prices—£2 T-shirts, dresses for a fiver—and encouraging consumers constantly to change their wardrobes, to stay on trend, to instagram it and to treat garments as single-use items.

If retailers are selling their T-shirts for £2, how much are the people making them getting paid? The answer is not enough, and they are sometimes working in terrible conditions. As Livia Firth from Eco-Age said this morning on Radio 4, we wear the stories of the people who make our clothes, and if we wear those stories, we must reflect deeply on the fact that five years ago the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,130 garment workers. It was the biggest industrial accident of the modern age. The victims were mostly young women producing clothes in inhumane conditions and being paid poverty wages to fuel fast fashion on the UK high street.

Our inquiry has heard that harsh working conditions are not just a problem in Asia and China. We have heard worrying evidence of illegal practices in clothes factories here in the UK, particularly in Leicester, where 10,000 textile workers produce more than 1 million items of clothing a week. One whistleblower told me they saw fire exits padlocked shut. Online retailer Missguided told us that two of its inspectors were manhandled by factory bosses. It raises the question: if that is how factory owners treat their potential customers, what are the conditions being endured by their workers?

We heard that workers were working long, gruelling shifts and often earning as little as £3.50 an hour. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs told us that since 2012 more than 90 factories in the UK have been caught in breach of minimum wage regulations, illegally underpaying their workers, and have been forced to pay out £90,000 in wage arrears—an average of £900 per worker. David Metcalf, the director of Labour Market Enforcement, said in his first annual strategy that labour abuses, exploitation and modern slavery were all part of a single continuum of abuse and needed to be tackled holistically.

Last autumn, we wrote to the UK’s top 10 fashion retailers, four major online retailers and two supermarkets, Tesco and Asda. We asked 16 questions—for example, whether they were signed up to the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s sustainable clothing action plan to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint or to Act, Collaboration, Transformation, an initiative by the global garment workers union IndustriALL that works towards a living wage for all garment workers through collective bargaining, and about their use of sustainable cotton and recycling. Based on their replies, we have grouped them into three categories: most engaged, moderately engaged and least engaged. Only six of the 16 retailers are signed up to that ACT global trade union initiative. We were pretty shocked to see a group of major household name retailers failing to take action to promote action to protect their workers. Let us take their responses in turn.

The most engaged retailers were ASOS, M&S, Tesco, Primark and Burberry. They all use organic or sustainable cotton in some of their garments and recycle their materials. They all have in-store take-back schemes or recycling banks. However, the Committee was shocked to hear that Burberry incinerated over £26 million of clothing last year. We welcome its commitment to end this completely unsustainable practice.

All five of these engaged retailers are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which aims to improve conditions for workers globally. The Committee particularly welcomes ASOS becoming the only retailer to sign a global framework agreement with IndustriALL, the global trade union, committing to the highest standards on trade union rights, health and safety, and labour relations. We would like to see many more retailers follow its lead. We believe that freedom of association is far better than company audits at driving up worker protection.

The moderately engaged retailers were Next, Debenhams, Arcadia Group and Asda. These retailers are the proverbial curate’s egg, taking some steps towards sustainability in the social and environmental spheres, but still falling short. For example, Next does not run take-back schemes for used clothing, saying that it would just be too expensive. Arcadia has one take-back scheme in one Oxford Street store out of its 2,500 UK shops. None was committed to reporting on climate change risk and only Next is taking action to tackle hazardous chemical discharges in its fabrics supply chain.

Our real concerns involve the least engaged group of retailers. JD Sports, Sports Direct, Amazon UK, TK Maxx, Boohoo and Missguided are clear industry laggards, and Kurt Geiger did not even give us the courtesy of a response. I leave hon. Members to draw their own conclusions about that. None has signed up to WRAP’s sustainable clothing action plan to reduce their carbon, water and waste footprint. Internationally, none has signed the ACT labour rights agreement.

Amazon was notable in its lack of engagement. It is taking none of the sustainability actions that we asked it about, nor has it signed up to ACT or the Ethical Trading Initiative. Its size, online reach and potential for growth as a fashion retailer mean it must get serious about its responsibilities.

We also have major concerns about the online retailer Boohoo’s approach to trade unions. When we asked its joint CEO, Carol Kane, about unionisation at its distribution depot in Blackburn, she told us that it would recognise a trade union if there was demand from workers but there was not really any sort of demand. Shortly after that, we got a letter from Mike Aylward, from the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers trade union, contesting her evidence. He said that Boohoo

“has, over a prolonged period of time refused even the most basic level of engagement with Usdaw and appears hostile to the very idea of recognising a trade union.”

We recommend that Boohoo engages with USDAW as a priority and stops blocking union recognition and collective bargaining for its UK workers and its workers overseas.

This interim report shows that the current business model for the UK fashion industry is unsustainable. We are disappointed that so few large retailers and supermarkets are showing leadership. If we are to tackle climate change, cut emissions and reduce fashion’s heavy footprint, these socially exploitative and environmentally damaging practices must end. Retailers must do more. By using this report, customers and consumers can make informed choices about where they choose to spend their money. We know they want to use their spending power wisely. It is time that retailers follow their lead. We will be setting out a blueprint when our full report is published. I commend this report to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know just from looking at me that I was the Minister for fashion for six years and the hon. Lady will know just from looking at me that none of my clothes enjoys a single-use outing.

I warmly welcome the hon. Lady’s report, which I urge Ministers to consider. The British fashion industry is one of the most successful parts of our economy and the British Fashion Council does a huge amount to promote it and, indeed, to promote sustainability. Does she agree that her report is so good it should not gather dust, and that Ministers and other willing Members should work with her and fashion stakeholders to give British fashion a fantastic competitive edge in being the world’s leading sustainable fashion industry?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right that the UK fashion industry is a £32 billion industry. Areas such as my own in West Yorkshire have a long and proud tradition of textile manufacturing, weaving and spinning—I have the Sirdar factory in my Wakefield constituency—and of reusing and recycling: industries are using shoddy and mungo in mattresses, carpeting and bedding. So this is a proud industry. We found that no one is speaking for the end-to-end industry. There are people focused on the high street and people focused on the British Fashion Council side of things—all the exciting creativity—and then there are the textile manufacturers, but they are not really altogether in one group. We think that they need to speak with one voice.

Last week, I visited the UK Textile Centre of Excellence in Huddersfield, where I saw some of the plasma technology and digital laser technology that it is inventing to reduce fashion’s footprint and to give clothing antimicrobial properties so that it becomes more waterproof. So instead of processes using chemicals that wash off and wash down the drain, they are done at reasonably low temperatures with no chemical or water discharges. This is the future of fashion. We are inventing it here, but it is being exploited by a US company, which will shortly be listing on AIM—the alternative investment market. We need to keep this home-grown technology in our country. We have fantastic heritage brands. I am wearing a John Smedley sweater, made in Derbyshire, which has been worn at least 1,000 times—and darned. It offers lifetime repair and reuse services, as do Church’s for shoes and Burberry for raincoats, which are made in the constituency next door to Wakefield: the constituency of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. We have to celebrate what is good and shut down the bad things.

I thank my hon. Friend for this report, which we welcome. I note the reluctance of certain clothing manufacturers to co-operate in any attempt to audit the environmental impact of their business and, in one case, a point-blank refusal to engage at all.

Climate change does not respect political sensitivities. Whatever is said in this Chamber will make no difference to the rate of global temperature increase unless we can reduce our consumption of fossil fuels globally. Every area of our lives needs to be geared to that objective fact. Does the Chair of the Select Committee share my hope that more of the major retailers will sign up to the sustainable clothing action plan? Clearly, there is a way to go both with pollution, especially the release of micro-fibres into the environment, and with the climate change implications of fast fashion.

Transition towards a globally sustainable pattern of clothing consumption will not be easy, but does my hon. Friend share my conviction that companies that set out to do the right thing will reap the rewards of their initiative? Customer trust in brands is essential to clothing retailers and trust in those brands’ environmental credentials will be an increasingly important part of the way consumers feel about them. Companies that are already striving to improve their environmental impact will be better placed to meet any regulatory or financial changes that may come about as a response to climate change.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fashion industry can and must contribute to the move towards a more sustainable pattern of global consumption, and does she share my trust that the Government will take the recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee very seriously when they come out in the final report?

I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for that question. He is absolutely right. If we have just 12 years to tackle damaging climate change before we reach certain tipping points, every sector and industry in the UK economy is going to have to tackle its carbon, waste and water footprints. Signing up to initiatives such as SCAP will literally be their licence to do business and their licence to operate. It is not a nice cherry on the cake or just a nice thing to have.

The fact that the sustainability manager and the buying manager often run in parallel in such companies, rather than the buying manager’s work feeding into the sustainability manager’s, is a problem. The cost per garment is put against the environmental and social cost per garment, and the financial cost always wins out. We need to change that relationship.

I agree with my hon. Friend that, through our clothes, we are wearing the fresh water supplies of people in India and in Uzbekistan, and we are destroying the environment. We have heard about the drying up of the Aral sea in Uzbekistan, where cotton farming has contributed to an economic, social and environmental disaster. We have not made our final recommendations, but I promise him that, when we do, they will be pretty far-reaching.

The hon. Lady makes the point that considerations about the fashion industry relate not just to economic conditions but social conditions around the world, so I am sure she would agree that it is in everyone’s interest not just to buy from the highest ethical producers, but from British companies too. Will she take this opportunity to confirm to the House that the first evidence session at the Victoria and Albert Museum was the highest attended public session of this Parliament? I had some scepticism about this inquiry at the beginning, but the number of people interested in it has convinced me. To confirm what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) says, we will not allow the report to gather dust. There is a great deal of interest in it out in the country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a passionate and committed member of the Committee. We were thrilled to be hosted by the V&A. Its amazing “Fashioned from Nature” exhibition contains earrings made out of little birds 150 years ago, showing how we have consistently stolen from nature to decorate ourselves. There is nothing new under the sun.

The hon. Gentleman is right about our very large Committee hearing. We are breaking all sorts of new bounds with this Committee. When we launch the report we are going to have some cartoons to accompany it. I think that will be a first for Parliament, too. As the right hon. Member for Wantage says, the real value of a garment comes not in its price but in the number of times it is worn. That is where we get real value. A £50 garment worn 100 times is better than a £5 dress that is worn just once.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, our Committee Chair, for her foresight in bringing this inquiry forward at this time. It is absolutely the right time. Does she agree that it is shameful that one of the top 10 fashion retailers in this country, Kurt Geiger, refused point blank to provide evidence to our Committee? It must come forward with evidence before we get to the final report.

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, who is also an enthusiastic participant in this inquiry. I had to do a bit of convincing, but this has been quite a revelation for us as a Committee. To have a nil response from Kurt Geiger is extraordinary. It is not too late for it to give us its response. I hope it will listen—its public relations firm is probably writing it a desperate note at the moment—and I hope its chief executive will take this issue on board. I will make one other point to the House. This House passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015. It is not clear to me which brands have or have not submitted modern slavery statements. I hope journalists listening to this debate do their own research into that.

Trying to make ethical choices as a consumer can be really difficult, whether for food or fashion. I must admit that after sitting through one session I came to the conclusion that we would all be walking around in brown paper bags—recycled paper, of course—because there seems to be a problem with almost every type of clothing. Does the Chair of the Committee agree that the onus cannot just be on the consumer to shop around? We must require manufacturers and retailers to step up to the mark and make sure that what they put on the market is ethically sourced, whether it be in terms of labour, materials or the way they treat their workers and so on.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for her incredibly dedicated leadership in the Committee, particularly on food waste on which she is a real national expert. She is right that it is impossible for the consumer to pick their way through this situation. The supply chains need to be guaranteed by retailers right down to farm level. That is very difficult because cotton is a global commodity. We heard that some retailers are attempting to do that by working with small-scale cotton traders. We live in a digital world where we have blockchain sustainability and sourcing. Some supermarkets can tell us more about the sourcing in their sausage supply chain—the factories and the abattoirs where their animals were killed—than they can about the lives of the women and in some cases the children working in factories. The International Labour Organisation definition of a child is someone under 15. There are 15 and 16-year-olds working in factories to make our children’s clothes. I want much more transparency in the fashion supply chain, so there is a real movement towards people having an answer to the question of who made their clothes.

I thank the hon. Lady and the Select Committee for an excellent interim report. As chair of the all-party group on textiles and fashion, we welcome the report. We recently held a roundtable to look at this very issue and were shocked to hear evidence of child labour and child refugees working in a lot of the fashion and textile industry. Will she look at those issues going forward? One suggestion made was for a traffic light system to help consumers choose the most ethical fashion.

I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this subject. Yes, we did hear such evidence, particularly in relation to Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis. We heard about two 15-year-old Syrian boys working in a factory. The problem with the current model is that the factories are sending in auditors, but everybody knows when they visit. The factory looks spick and span and shiny, and they get shown the official set of accounts. A different set of accounts goes to the tax authorities and there is another set of accounts that controls workers’ wages. The whole supply chain is almost created to incentivise the abuse of manual workers, often women manual workers or what we would class as child manual workers, and we are just prepared to turn a blind eye. The fashion industry has been marking its own homework for far too long.

The traffic light labelling initiative is interesting. What we have tried to do with the 16 different initiatives is look at the landscape that exists at the moment, which is fragmented, complicated and difficult, to see how we can bring it all together and see what is being engaged with. I hope we can tackle some of these very bad labour abuses, not least in our own country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on a worthwhile and very thorough report. I am sure you remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that nearly 20 years ago we investigated Barbie dolls. There were allegations then about child labour, as well as the abuse of adult employees on very low wages. It is amazing, listening to the report, that not a lot has really changed. I hope the Minister will say something encouraging on taking up the issue of health and safety in working conditions, particularly in Bangladesh. Some working conditions are appalling.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One difficulty is that a lot of fashion work is piecework done in the home, so there is no ability to work out what the minimum wage that should be paid actually is. In many countries there either is not a minimum wage or it is not a living wage—it is not a wage that people can live on. We received supplementary evidence from Boohoo about its £5 dress, which stated that workers in factories in the UK are making seven or eight dresses an hour. I remember when I was doing textiles at school it took me about four weeks to make my skirt. Sadly, someone sold it at Bishop Ullathorne school so I never got to wear it. It was fantastic and it was going to look really good. That was my one chance to make my own garment. The point is that very skilled workers in factories are working really hard, but I do wonder when they are able to make a cup of tea or go for a loo break. In the UK, they are making seven or eight dresses an hour that are being sold for a fiver. That still raises too many questions.

I, too, congratulate the Committee on this excellent report. Following on from the answer the Chair gave to the previous question, I was struck by the evidence on minimum wage transgressions given to the Committee by the Financial Times journalist. She said:

“it is a totally open secret. Central government knows about it; local government knows about it. All of the retailers know about it.”

It is very clear and stark that there is a blatant disregard for the law. I am mystified as to why that has not been put a stop to already.

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. Sarah O’Connor’s testimony was literally jawdropping; we could not quite believe that that was happening in this country. After her testimony, more and more whistleblowers, who wished to preserve their anonymity, came to us to talk about what they had seen. They said that rivers in India are running blue from the dyes from cotton factories.

Sir David Metcalfe said that the textile industry is a problem area in the UK for national minimum wage enforcement. In Leicester, there were raids on 28 factories—the raids are based on risk. Of those 28 factories, 14 are now under investigation. We think that that is for non-payment of the national minimum wage, but two are under investigation for other reasons—we can guess that that is either for gangmaster issues or immigration issues. That shows the scale of the problem in these high-risk industries. We have shone a very bright light on Leicester, and we will continue to do so.

I appreciate the work of the Select Committee Chair and its members. When I was a Back Bencher, I worked with the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on the all-party parliamentary group on textile and fashion. I was also on the APPG on ethics and sustainability in fashion, and we had a swishing party in the House of Lords. Sustainable fashion is therefore of interest to me.

I am here on behalf of the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, who is currently at a roundtable, but I undertake to have a look at this very interesting report. It will go before Ministers in my Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so this important work can be taken forward.