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UK retailers defend selling cheap clothes in sustainability enquiry

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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A cropped top in jersey featuring glittery threads with narrow shoulder straps retails for just 3.99 pounds on the H&M website. A pair of blue skinny jeans is a steal for 7 pounds at Primark. These retailers, along with most of the UK high street chains including Topshop, Asos and Boohoo, defended their models of selling cheap fashion in parliament this week when questioned as part of the Environmental Audit Committee’s ongoing inquiry into sustainability of the fashion industry.

The enquiry was chaired by Mary Creagh MP who asked outright how Primark could justify selling its T-shirts for as little as two pounds. A cappuccino at Starbucks in the UK costs nearly double the price.

Paul Lister, head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability at Primark, said: “Primark has never done any significant advertising at all, and that can save us in any year 100m to 150m pounds, compared to some of our larger rivals. That goes straight into price. That keeps our pricing low. It’s our business model that takes us to a 2 pound T-shirt.” Chair Mary Creagh stated retailers are chasing the needle around the world, wherever it may be cheapest to produce clothing.

Retailers were also asked about their supply chains and factory workers, and how they comply with safety and fair wages. Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at Marks and Spencer stated their is a known risk when producing in countries where the minimum working age is 15. "The more you have people on the ground, the more you hear, the more you can respond to that."

At the start of the enquiry Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP wrote to the chief executives of the UK’s ten leading fashion retailers to find out what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the clothes and shoes they sell.

UK companies to address excessive waste, plastic pollution and carbon footprint from fashion fashion

The Chair also asked the UK’s leading online retailers to give evidence as part of the inquiry, following statements heard on 30 October about illegally low wages for garment workers and disposability of some fast fashion garments. Furthermore companies were asked to respond to concerns about the excessive waste, plastic pollution and carbon footprint being generated by the fast fashion business model.

In the age of Instagram, companies tell consumers, especially a younger generation of fashion buyers, that they ‘need’ to keep up with the latest trends and that people’s identity is defined by what they consume. This only serves to fuel fashion’s overproduction, overconsumption, waste and negative social impact writes Fashion Revolution, a global organisation that aims to unite people and companies working together towards radically changing the way clothes are sourced, produced and consumed. The prevailing business model in the fashion industry in the U.K. and many other consumption-based countries — where the need to ‘sell, sell, sell’ and deliver shareholder return is paramount above all else, no matter the social or environmental consequences.

The Burberry stock-burning example has exposed only the tip of the iceberg, states Fashion Revolution. The vast amount of clothing and accessories that is discarded in an economically and environmentally inefficient way by fashion brands of which little is known about waste practices throughout the rest of the fashion supply chain.

For example, it is estimated that 400 billion square metres of textiles are produced each year globally and 60 billion square metres (equalling 15 percent of all textiles produced) end up as cutting floor waste (MIT, 2015). It begs the question: where does this waste go? The answer: we don’t really know.

Photo credit: H&M and Primark online stores, Fashion Revolution chart; article source: Fashion Revolution website, Retail Sector UK website