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February 07, 2019

The UK fashion industry fumbles with sustainability

Written by Lucy Hartley
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The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has just published a blistering report about the UK fashion industry’s failure to become more sustainable.

The report is a result of the EAC writing to 16 leading UK fashion retailers to find out what steps they are taking to reduce the environmental and social impact of the products they sell. The committee was not happy with the responses. Here’s what the newly published Interim Report on the Sustainability of the Fashion Industry says:

We believe that there is scope for retailers to do much more to tackle labour market and environmental sustainability issues. We are disappointed that so few retailers are showing leadership through engagement with industry initiatives.

Ouch. As every child knows, having someone be disappointed in you is pretty much the worst feedback you can get. But the committee is justified in its comments: the report reveals that only five of the 16 retailers are participating in most of the leading industry sustainability initiatives. One retailer didn’t even respond to the survey.

EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP commented: “It’s shocking to see that a group of major retailers are failing to take action to promote environmental sustainability and protect their workers. It’s disappointing that only a third of the retailers we wrote to are signed up to ACT, an important global initiative working towards getting a living wage for all garment workers.”

Sustainability has become a rallying cry for many industries. And it should be for fashion, one of the most polluting industries in the world that is also tinged with a legacy of exploitation of workers both in the UK and abroad. As a recent BBC documentary, Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, highlighted, brands and retailers are facing increased scrutiny. 

But highlighting the problem is just step one. We know that disposable fashion creates more waste. That clothing releases toxic chemicals in production and plastic fibers when washed. What the EAC wanted to know is what fashion companies have been doing to address these problems. Are they using organic or sustainable cotton, or recycling of unsold materials? Are they engaging with global initiatives such as ACT or SCAP (sustainable clothing action plan)?

Only ASOS, Burberry, Marks & Spencer, Primark, and Tesco use organic or sustainable cotton and encourage customers to return used clothing. Those five businesses were ranked as “engaged” in sustainability, with the other 11 brands classified as only “moderately engaged” or “less engaged.” The five leaders have something else in common: they discuss their commitment to sustainability on their websites, as seen here:

Generally, the engaged firms share a narrative about their commitment to sustainability, including stories about how they embed sustainable practices in everything they do, ranging from their sourcing partners to their manufacturing practices. Their approaches, though, differ. For example, Burberry, true to its image, features a clean, sleek site that takes the readers to more detailed reports. Marks & Spencer brands its sustainability efforts under a program called “Plan A” (“our way to help build a sustainable future by being a business that enables our customers to have a positive impact on wellbeing, communities and the planet through all that we do”). Plan A reads more like a thoughtful platform that you might expect from a political campaign.

Of course, discussing sustainability on your website does not mean your business will escape scrutiny: words need to be matched by action. And the website is just one touchpoint. The story needs to be told consistently across all channels. It’s also fair to say that consumers need to better understand the impact their purchasing decisions have, but I would argue that a large part of the responsibility for their education falls on the retailers and brands who profit from those consumers. Done well, promoting the benefits of sustainable fashion should become a positive differentiator that helps build consumer loyalty and advocacy. Patagonia and Reformation are perfect examples of just how successful this can be when done consistently and authentically.  

A consumer reaction is exactly what the EAC wants, saying it hopes the report will spur consumers to do business with companies that take sustainability seriously. And the report may have a receptive audience, too. U.K. consumers are generally willing to pay more for sustainable products.

At Investis Digital, we work with companies to create strategies and marketing/communications programs that communicate their sustainability commitment to investors, customers, and employees. As a next step, we suggest assessing your corporate brand to better understand gaps and opportunities around leveraging your story to drive business impact. Contact us to learn more.

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