25 April 2019 by Joshua Doherty

Fast fashion ‘a social and environmental problem’

Efforts to tackle textile waste and other environmental impacts from ‘fast fashion’ could hit the poorest of society, a panel session in London heard this week.

The ‘Fashion Question Time’ event took place the V&A Museum yesterday (24 April) where the panel and chairwoman, Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, discussed efforts to address the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Panellists included Mary Creagh MP, who is also chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

(l-r): Mary Creagh, MP, Hendrik Alpen, H&M, Laura Balmond, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Mark Sumner, University of Leeds and Baroness Lola Young

Speaking during the debate, the Labour MP claimed that some clothing items are cheap because the ‘true value’ of products is passed on in the form of low wages to garment workers in factories in south east Asia, for example, where a lot of clothes are manufactured.

And, she warned that any increase in costs, as a result of efforts to tackle sustainability in the clothing supply chain, could have a knock-on impact on the poorest people in society.

“While there is a climate emergency there is also a social one, and they need to be tackled together. In switching to a low carbon economy, we have to make it a just transition, we have to make sure that we don’t create winners and losers, and fashion does not become something just for the rich people to enjoy,” Ms Creagh explained.

In recent years, the textile markets have seen a rise in so-called ‘fast fashion’, which has seen inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. Recently, the environmental impact on the disposal of clothing waste has been in the spotlight.

Among those to highlight the issue has been Mrs Creagh’s Audit Committee, which has called for a 1P per garment charge on clothing to go towards the cost of recycling (see letsrecycle.com story).

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However, while it has been noted that ‘fast fashion’ has made clothes affordable, this has been linked to increasing disposal of clothing, with WRAP estimating that £140 million worth of clothing goes into landfill each year. This issue was raised during the panel session by Mark Sumner, lecturer in sustainability at the University of Leeds.

Hendrik Alpen of H&M said retailers need more ‘sustainable initiatives’ to cut down on textile waste

“One of the real positive things to come out of fast fashion is that more and more people can access it, which is a positive thing,” he explained.

“However, if we carry on with this approach, we will end up in a situation where cotton becomes very expensive, and therefore other material would increase as well. The majority of working-class families could go back to the 70’s and 80’s where families would struggle for clothes. We have the opportunity to change this and change our habits, which in the long run would ensure we still have fashion as a valuable part but of our lives not destroying the environment.”

Later-on in the discussion, a representative from the group behind the recent climate change protests in London, Extinction Rebellion, asked if there was a place for ‘fast fashion’ if the UK is to act to reverse climate change inside the next five years.

In response, Hendrik Alpen, sustainability engagement manager, at the H&M group said that as business models of these companies are focused on selling products, the main thing that can be done now is to introduce initiatives to clamp down on waste.

“Obviously it is hard for me to say we shouldn’t exist, but I can relate to the thoughts,” Mr Alpen responded.

He added: “The question is how do we operate under this model? Fashion will always be there, but how do we do it in a way that doesn’t ruin the environment. Our business model is based on selling products, and it will be for a while, this means jobs for people and joy. But we need to find ways to do so in a sustainable way, we have a take-back scheme and have just launched a scheme to repair old clothes, which is small scale but a start.”

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