A few hours before we speak, Mary Creagh does a deft job of chairing an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) meeting with secretary of state Michael Gove and resources minister Therese Coffey. The committee’s MPs question Gove and Coffey about the Government’s Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, the proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which would hold the Government and public bodies to account, preparations for a no-deal Brexit and plans for introducing wider extended producer responsibility (EPR).
Creagh (pictured, left) explains that the EAC has scrutinised the draft governance and principles, and has looked at how the EU’s environmental principles will be translated across to UK law, how they will be applied across the four nations of the UK and how they will be enforced.
She adds: “We have looked at it in terms of ‘how does it fill the gap left by not being subject to the European Commission’s policy-making role and not being subject to the European Court of Justice’s legal role?’ And our concerns are about the lack of distance between Defra and its ability to judge the Government, and the potential for it to issue actions against individual public bodies rather than across the Government as a whole.”
In the meeting, Coffey revealed that plans had been made for an interim secretariat to fill the gap between the UK leaving the EU with no deal and the formation of the proposed OEP, which would comprise around 16 civil servants, a number of whom would be from Defra. She said they would be located in separate offices from the department, with their own IT system, email and website. She had suggested that the new chair of the interim secretariat be invited to the post by the EAC or the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, or both.
Creagh said: “Clearly, steps and provisions have been made for a no-deal but that in no way would make up the numbers of staff that currently deal with environmental law and policy in the European Commission. The idea that 16 staff sitting in a different building is going to fill that gap – that is for the birds.
“There is a [number of questions] such as what happens to the [waste and recycling] targets? Who sets them? Parliament will have to do that.
“As far as it applies to waste, it looks like the UK will miss its 2020 EU recycling target. It is anybody’s guess as to whether we will be in the EU in 2020, whether we will be in the transitional period and so on, but we are clearly going to have a governance gap if there is a no-deal Brexit.”
But Creagh said she had been “encouraged” after she asked Gove about embedding the principle of EPR in the Environment Bill so that, in the future, other material streams could be brought under EPR more easily: “That was something he agreed he would look at, which was encouraging.”
Gove and Coffey both told the EAC that no firm decisions had been made as to which of the five priority streams for EPR that were mentioned in the resources and waste strategy would be completed first, by 2022, but both mentioned that tyres were important. In addition, if the UK is still in the EU and therefore bound by EU law, it may have to bring in EPR for fishing gear because this is currently being discussed at EU level.
“Innovations are being made in the UK – the tragedy is that the funds are being raised on the Nasdaq in the US. So [technology] is invented in Britain but it is going to be made profitable by a US company.”
EPR for the fashion sector is something that the EAC is calling for. Its inquiry into the sustainability of fashion included the largest ever public select committee meeting, held in London’s V&A Museum. While its final report and recommendations, Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability, generated a significant amount of media coverage and public debate, much of this focused on the figures that a charge of one penny per garment on producers as part of an EPR regime could raise £35m for investment in better clothing collection and sorting across the UK.
But one question raised after the report came out was how to tackle the vast amount of clothing that people buy. Creagh says: “I think we need to price properly the carbon and biodiversity inputs into the fashion industry. It was very clear from our inquiry that, if fashion carries on its current path, we will use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
“Fashion is set on an unsustainable path which is incompatible with our climate change commitments, both nationally and globally. It needs to do a handbrake turn and work out what the sector is going to do to tackle carbon, waste and water footprints in its industry. How is it going to be a net zero emissions industry by 2050? What’s the route map?”
She adds that she was pleased to hear John Lewis Partnership announce recently that it would reduce its operational greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 at the latest: “That is the sort of radical, urgent response that we need to see other businesses emulate.”
I suggest that sustainability in fashion is a complex issue for the average consumer to understand because messaging from the industry itself is quite unclear. She says: “It works in the industry’s interest to basically keep consumers confused and to have a plethora of different industry initiatives, none of which we really understand or know from the outside…and to have certain companies saying very loudly about what they are going to do while others hide behind those companies and not do anything.
“I am very clear that we need a regulatory framework with EPR to force fashion to stop marking its own homework. I would encourage consumers to take part in Fashion Revolution Week, which is a global response to the Rana Plaza disaster [in 2013]. Ask brands ‘who made my clothes?’ to get them to shorten their supply chains and bring consumers close to the people who did the work to make their clothes.
“But it is impossible as a consumer on the high street. I would urge people to look at the table of retailers that we did as part of our inquiry and to see who the leaders and laggards are – and choose to spend their money [with the leaders]. And choose to buy less, wash cooler, hang items out to dry and buy things they think they will wear 30 times – because the most sustainable garment is the one you have already got.
“Fashion needs to do a handbrake turn and work out what the sector is going to do to tackle its carbon, waste and water footprints.”
“[I would urge people to start] reflecting on the psychological impulses that drive them to buy new things. How long does that shopping pleasure last – research has shown that it lasts only 72 hours.”
As to where the responsibility should fall for messaging about the need to be more sustainable, Creagh says: “It has to come back on the industry – it cannot be the consumer’s responsibility. If the fashion industry can’t check its supply chain, why do you expect somebody on the high street in Wakefield to know?
“We also need to make sure companies are abiding by the Modern Slavery Act. Many of them, like Footlocker and Valentino, aren’t even bothering to publish a modern slavery statement on their consumer-facing websites. They are in breach of UK law.”
Creagh adds: “We need the Government to say what steps it is going to take. And we need to price the true environmental cost of the clothes we wear to work out a model for reducing their impact.
“What happens to polyester in a zero fossil fuel world? At the moment, there is a huge move towards polyester because it is so much cheaper than natural and organic fibres. Yet, at some point in the future, we will have to stop pumping oil out of the ground unless we can find some way of achieving carbon capture and storage which has not yet been proved at scale.
“So, if we get to a stage where the oil refineries shut in 15 or 20 years, what is the fashion industry going to do?”
During the EAC inquiry, some fashion sector representatives suggested the UK had an opportunity to be a leader in new technologies and solutions, such as fibre-to-fibre recycling. But Creagh says: “They are hugely energy-intensive as well. I don’t think there is one simple answer. The problem is that this is multi-faceted. It is difficult and it is going to require a lot of money to go into innovation.
“But there are innovations out there. In the Huddersfield Textile Centre of Excellence, I saw a machine which can make clothing waterproof without having chemicals and high-energy processes – just using a plasma beam and a laser beam and roughing up the surfacing of the clothes and doing it at a nano-particle level.
“These innovations are being made in the UK – the tragedy is that they are being spun out and innovated but the funds are being raised on the Nasdaq in the US. So [technology] is invented in Britain but it is going to be made profitable by a US company. These things are going to come on-stream and there will be a revolution in the industry.”
Creagh adds that action first needs to be taken across the board at a fairly basic level: “I was shocked to find that around only 10 major UK high street retailers were signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. That should be part of your licence to do business and reducing your carbon, waste and water footprint should be what they all trumpet.
“Well, they don’t trumpet it because, particularly in the area of waste, they haven’t reached their goals because the volume of stuff they put on [the market] is simply too much.”
Mary Creagh will be speaking at the daytime conference held ahead of the National Recycling Awards, on 27 June at the Hilton on Park Lane, London.