Covid-19 and various UK lockdowns have resulted in some well-known high street casualties. Despite this, the perpetual rise of fast fashion doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon.
The textile industry is considered one of the largest polluting industries in the world. Some estimates suggest it produces around 8% of global greenhouse emissions. Global clothes consumption is predicted to rise by 63% by 2030, fuelled both by increasing demand for readily available, mass-produced, trend-driven fast fashion and by a growing middle class population with disposable income.
However, the social and environmental cost of this demand continues to make headlines. Reportedly $500 billion  is lost annually to clothing underutilisation, with 300,000 tonnes of clothing ending up in landfill every year in the UK alone. Besides wasteful over-consumption, there are issues associated with waste products in the oceans, production (which requires vast amounts of water and pesticides), and the human implications of low cost labour and poor working conditions. The collapse of the Dhaka garment factory in 2013 was a startling reminder of this.
Globalisation has fuelled the growth of the fast fashion industry, yet presents a barrier to harmonisation. Supply chains are spread across the world. A significant proportion of manufacturing and production now takes place in developing countries, where protections and regulations are limited. Therein lies the challenge of trying to regulate a global industry with unstandardised practices.
In the UK, the fashion industry is largely one of self-regulation with firms guided by industry codes, such as those set by the Retail Ombudsman. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), of which the UK is a member, has adopted global guidance for due diligence requirements in supply chains. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) has 250 global members, including many major fashion companies. It provides a framework for sustainable production by which companies can measure their social and environmental impact. Also, many firms are launching eco-friendly products, such as H&M’s ‘Conscious’ range.
Yet most memberships and certifications like these remain voluntary, with no legal repercussions if companies fail to follow industry guidelines. Terms such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ do not have legally objective definitions, remaining open to interpretation across the sector. Consequently, achieving any sort of regulatory harmony may require more action on the part of the UK and global governments, as well as consumers.
The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) 2019 report made several recommendations to the Government. It suggested that tax reforms could reward retailers for reducing their carbon footprint, proposed that there should be a ban on landfill of unsold clothing and recommended laws requiring companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains. Whilst the Government did not act on any of the EAC’s recommendations, it recognised the concerns raised and highlighted other proposed actions being taken as part of its 25 Year Environment Plan and Resources and Waste Strategy. But without committed legal changes, critics may question whether this is enough.
Given the current climate, it seems unlikely the Government will pressure struggling retailers with more regulations. However, the UK could learn from other countries’ approaches to these issues as the retail industry opens up again. France, for example, appointed a Secretary of State to the Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition. Brune Poirsion (2017 – 2020) became known as the unofficial Minister of Fashion and was instrumental in the anti-waste law passed by the French parliament in 2020. A particular focus for this ground-breaking piece of legislation was to introduce a ban on the burning of unsold clothing in France.
The Swedish government has considered implementing a tax on clothing and footwear products containing SVHCs under EU REACH regulations. The proposal recommends enforcing the tax from 1 April 2021, with tax liability arising after June 2021.
In the UK, Sir Brian Leveson has recently been appointed by fast fashion retailer Boohoo to assist the brand in overseeing its ‘Agenda for Change’ and assessing the overall suitability of its supply chain after a period of negative exposure in 2020. Leveson published his first report in January on required areas of change and progress required. It is hopeful therefore that the efforts of Boohoo will positively influence other fashion retailers.
In the law of contract, potential fiscal penalties could encourage improved and updated ethical practice in the supply chain process. Insertion of a clause to guarantee particular standards within supply and purchase agreements could apply much needed pressure on fashion brands, and promote forward-thinking environmental policies and sustainable practices in the sector as a whole.
Finally, as discussed above, currently voluntary certifications could become a legal requirement in the UK. ‘Ecolabelling’ refers to labels used by fashion brands (currently on a voluntary basis) to confirm their sustainable credentials and commitment to more environmentally conscious fashion. The idea is that the label can be found on specific items of clothing and is therefore directly accessible to consumers. Mandatory certification, it is hoped, could have wide-reaching ramifications.
Following high profile movements including climate change protests across the world and the work of Greta Thunberg and other activists, there has been a marked change in consumer awareness and an increase in demand for information relating to overall clothing quality and how garments are manufactured.
Whilst the fashion industry still has a long way to go in terms of regulation, there are various strategies available that can attempt to enforce sustainable polices and therefore drive change in the industry. What is clear, however, is that most of these are local solutions. The global nature of the fashion industry requires worldwide co-operation to face these problems head on.
This article has been co-written with Jenny Wright, a trainee solicitor in the commercial dispute resolution team.
 Ellen Macarthur Foundation, ‘A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future’ (2017)