Interest in sustainability, including waste and reuse, was on display when the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) invited the public to an evidence session at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The room was filled to its capacity of 250 people, while more than 400 had registered for tickets. It set a record for the largest public select committee meeting ever held for a UK House of Commons committee.
It formed part of the EAC’s inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry. Specialists gave evidence in response to questions from MPs to be used to inform EAC recommendations to the Government in a report next year. Its next evidence session will call on high street and online fashion retailers.
The witnesses called for legislation and guidance, as well measures to encourage repair, such as removing VAT from repair services as well as re-wear and reuse items. Designer Graeme Raeburn suggested a deposit scheme for clothing, so the consumer “can return it to the correct end-of-life or rejuvenation scheme”.
Andrea Speranza from clothing reuse charity Traid said the UK buys approximately 38 million items of clothing a week and landfills or incinerates 11 million items of clothing a week. She added that Traid has started a campaign targeting the 23% of our wardrobes that we no longer wear, often because it no longer fits, to pull these items into the second-hand clothing market.
Speranza called for greater education of consumers on the environmental impact of the clothing industry, the impact of consuming clothing and the benefits of longer lasting clothing. She said the impact of buying three items of second-hand clothing is equal to buying one item new.
According to Speranza, various options were needed for consumers to recycle – to make it easy. These include home collections as well as points at schools, libraries and work places. Speranza said councils had “a key role to play” but Traid had recently been asked by some to remove textile banks because they were experiencing fly-tipping in the vicinity.
Jane Grice from Waste Not, Want Not called for nationwide kerbside collections of textile waste, as well as more reuse shops at household waste recycling centres, more repair cafes, reclassifying some wastes so they are deemed ‘reusable’ as opposed to ‘waste’, and a legal framework to increase upcycling.
Small business owner and designer Pheobe English described the current high street model as “not sustainable”. She said: “It is not how people will be shopping in the future.”
By working with a hire company, she said people could access her occasion wear at a much more affordable price than purchasing. In addition, the ‘endorphin high’ from purchasing tends to wane by the third day, but with a hire model “you get that endorphin high constantly”.
Backing the need for legislation, English described how a tax on commercial businesses creating textile waste in New York led to the creation of new businesses to service that need. She cited the example of Fabscrap, which collects scrap materials for reuse or recycling.
Professor Dilys Williams said her work with fashion businesses showed some focused on designing out waste and improving efficiencies around garments, while others were trying different business models. She said legislation and support from the Government was needed so that such work would not be undercut: “The system is broken and it can’t continue as it is.”
She made the point that people were buying and throwing away a lot more clothes, but their overall spending was not necessarily less. Therefore, there was a need to change the attitude that ‘more is better’.
She said new types of businesses, such as Depop, a creative online marketplace, were encouraging consumers to look after their goods to maintain resale values. English pointed out that Depop users were mainly teenagers, a sign that the next generation would make purchases under different business models.
Looking at the future global picture, journalist Lucy Siegle said there was a need to “create appetite for reuse in the increasing global middle-class market” by matching the demand for clothing from a growing population with the amount of clothing that would be put on the second-hand market. She also pointed out that, while some big brands were currently “so-called partnering with a recycling scheme”, they were not really investing in the area.
Greater education in schools and beyond on the impact of clothing as well manual craft and repair skills were called for. As Grice summed up, the key to sustainable fashion is simple: “We need to buy less, buy better and keep things for longer.”
MPs and Witnesses
MPs: Mary Creagh, chair; Geraint Davies; James Gray; Caroline Lucas; Anna McMorrin; John McNally; Dr Matthew Offord; Joan Ryan
Witnesses: Claire Bergkamp, sustainability and innovation director, Stella McCartney; Clare Hieatt, founder of Howies and Hiut Denim; Graeme Raeburn, designer; Phoebe English, designer; Professor Dilys Williams, director and professor of fashion design for sustainability at LCF; Livia Firth, Eco-Age; Jane Grice, Waste Not, Want Not; Lucy Siegle, freelance journalist and writer; Jenny Holdcroft, Assistant General Secretary, IndustriALL union; and Andrea Speranza, Traid