The social and environmental impact of our clothing is increasingly being scrutinised by consumers, NGOs, politicians and retailers themselves. Recent reports, including the Commons environmental audit committee report, published in February, have focused on the amount of textile waste, the impact on the environment and the social cost of our fashion choices.
Such scrutiny is a key part of encouraging transparency among retailers and manufacturers in both the UK and abroad. British retailers are embracing greater openness by providing better information about where our clothes come from and the ethical standards they adhere to.
Progress has been made, but there’s still more to do
Retailers must provide fashion that is affordable to all income brackets while respecting their societal responsibilities for sustainable production. Articles about “£5 dresses” bring up important questions about sustainability, but also how we reduce the cost of living for those who have suffered years of minimal real wage growth.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) and our members are trying to mitigate the social and environmental cost of the fashion industry throughout the supply chain. Retailers recognise they have a duty to reduce the impacts of clothing on carbon, water and waste, especially as the industry meets the demands of a growing population.
This impact will occur regardless of the materials used in fashion. Natural fibres such as cotton must be grown, requiring land and water, whereas synthetic fibres like polyester, while recyclable, require fossil fuels to make.
Thankfully, progress is being made. From 2012 to 2016, the amount of water and carbon required to make each tonne of clothing has fallen by 6.5 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. The BRC, working with retailers, manufacturers, consumers and government, aims to create, foster and disseminate good practice across the industry.
And more can be done. Our Better Retail Better World campaign builds on a framework set out by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to drive industry co-operation on issues such as climate change, deforestation, gender equality and responsible production, all of which are impacting the fashion industry.
Retailers that have signed up to the initiative are committing to meeting targets within the SDGs and working collaboratively to ensure the industry can meet the UN’s own targets for 2030.
Sustainability issues the fashion industry must tackle
Lately, there has been intense media focus on fast fashion and the link to microfibres, microscopic plastic fragments that get into our water systems and harm marine life. Many of these microfibres come from our own clothing, entering the water supplies when we wash our own synthetic clothing, such as polyester and nylon.
The full implications of microfibres entering the marine ecosystems and food chains are yet to be fully understood, but retailers, academics, NGOs and manufacturers are working hard to raise awareness and find viable solutions that will prevent this issue getting worse.
Another issue rising through the media consciousness has been the environmental and ethical implications of animal-derived products in fashion, from wool and leather, to the animal-derived dyes and glues. This has led to the rise in vegan clothing and footwear lines from a variety of retailers. The complex nature of fashion supply chains is forcing retailers to scrutinise the whole journey of their clothing from the farm to the factory to the outlet.
Fashion is incredibly important, not just to the retail industry, but to the UK economy. The BRC is committed to bringing together retailers behind a common set of measurable goals that can ensure a future of sustainable and ethical fashion consumers trust.