Last week, the UK government comprehensively rejected a series of proposals by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) which had been designed to address the environmental impact of fashion production across the globe. This rejection has been met with criticism by many environmental sustainability groups, with them claiming that the Government is being too complacent. Will the UK government’s preferred response of encouragement be enough to combat environmental impact of fashion; or is it another example of the threat not being taken seriously?
Fixing Fashion: Just what were the recommendations made to the UK government?
The impact of £4 dresses or £1 bikinis can’t be ignored. The statistics of fast fashion’s impact are staggering. According to Sustain Your Style, 5.2% of landfill is textiles and fashion production uses 1.5 trillion litres of water every single year. In addition, only 15% of unwanted clothing is donated or recycled. Fashion production continues to pollute the atmosphere, as well as degrade vital soil and waterways with CO2 production and chemical waste. Fashion manufacturing can also have impacts on the human rights of workers, with exploitation and modern slavery highlighted as real concerns.
The Fixing Fashion report by the Environmental Audit Committee sought to address these impacts, making up to 18 recommendations. These included introducing a 1p new garment tax to contribute £35 million to environmental clean-up, addressing microfibre pollution from clothes fibres, reforming tax laws and reducing VAT on recycling and reusing schemes. The UK government’s formal response rejected all of these recommendations, an action which has been met with frustration and disappointment amongst environmental groups.
So why has the UK government rejected these proposals?
In their response, the UK Government have stated that they support a gradual policy of positive encouragement to address sustainability concerns. They strongly argue that much of what the Fixing Fashion report proposes is already part of government policy, highlighting their Modern Slavery Act and their support of the voluntary Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP). Rather than add a tax on clothes, they want to focus on reducing the plastics in the packaging of garments. The Government argues that changing attitudes and actions through positive pressure and attitude, rather than legislation, fines and blanket bans will be much more effective. So, do they have a point?
The UK government needs to do more, but it can’t be held solely responsible
It’s easy for many to accuse the Government of apathy towards the environmental impact of fashion, and many have accused them of being out of step with current public concerns about climate change, plastic pollution and worker exploitation caused by the industry. The UK government should be a leader in tackling the impact of fast fashion (after all, the UK is the top consumer of fashion in Europe); and it’s difficult to see how real progress can be made without new laws and stronger legislation to address this future environmental crisis. Relying on encouragement and voluntary better practice by manufacturers and retailers is unlikely to make a significant difference.
But, and this is really important, the government can’t be held solely responsible for consumer behaviour. Whilst many shoppers do share concerns about the environment, the fact remains that consumers still have an insatiable desire for fashion, consuming it and throwing it away at a never-ending, damaging and polluting rate. Cheap, disposable fashion exists because people love to buy it. £1 bikinis exist because shoppers are ok with ignoring the real cost to the environment and workers of these items.
Until this is addressed, and until consumers are ready to really stop their addiction to fast fashion; no government proposal or new legislation will truly make a real impact. Manufacturers, consumers, designers and legislators across the globe need to combine effective legislation with drastic changes in shopper behaviour if sustainability in fashion is ever to be achieved. The UK government needs to take the threat of fast fashion more seriously, but then so does everyone.
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