The fashion industry is worth $32bn to the UK economy according to the CEO of the British Fashion Council, with the country employing around 890,000 people across a wide range of fashion-related jobs.

But while it’s undoubtedly a thriving industry, there is a much bigger price to pay for the privilege of fast and affordable fashion.

According to a 2017 report – ‘A New Textiles Economy’ – by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, clothing production approximately doubled from 2000-2015, and yet, the average number of times a garment is worn before it stops being used has decreased by 36%. An estimated 300,000 tonnes of clothing was sent to landfill sites in 2018.

With the likes of ASOS and Boohoo continuing to generate big sales – the demand for retailers to step up and help combat the negative effects of fast fashion is growing. But is the industry actually taking responsibility? And what are retailers doing to help the situation?

A growing demand for change

There is a growing recognition about the negative impact that fast fashion is having on the environment. As a result, many business in this sector are taking steps to reduce their carbon, water, and waste footprints.

Companies representing over 40% of UK clothing sales have now signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan – SCAP 2020 – commitment, run by the charity WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme).

The retailers involved in the scheme are rated on their commitment to implementing actions and initiatives relating to the environment. Those in the ‘most engaged’ group, for example, include Asos, Tesco, and Primark, for their commitment to using recycled materials and sustainable cotton in products, as well as offering take-back schemes.

Interestingly, a number of high-profile retailers (including Missguided, TK Maxx and JD Sports) have not yet signed up, recently leading MPs to ask the government for compliance to be mandatory for retailers (with a high turnover) rather than voluntary. This is also part of a wider government inquiry about sustainability in the fashion industry, which suggests that take-back schemes should be mandatory too.

Some of the ‘least engaged’ retailers have defended their business models. For instance, Boohoo has stated that it does not make any money from its £5 dresses, in defence of the allegation that the items contribute to underpaid workers and the promotion of non-environmental consumer buying patterns. However, other retailers have since suggested that they are willing to rethink. In response to criticism about transparency relating to its supply chain, Boohoo told Drapers: “We appreciate that signing up to specific industry initiatives demonstrates commitment, and are open to revisiting our stance on membership of those flagged in the report.”

Rewarding consumers for recycling

SCAP aside, one of the main ways fashion retailers are doing their bit is to encourage the recycling of goods. H&M is arguably the most prolific in this area, having partnered with global company I:CO to collect donated clothes from 4,500 H&M stores around the world. Customers receive a £5 voucher towards their next purchase for donating old clothes, giving them more than just an ethical incentive.

While a good few retailers offer their own recycling schemes, many of those that don’t have signed up to reGAIN – a new fashion recycling app. It offers a digital take-back scheme, meaning that users can drop off their unwanted clothes at any one of 20,000 points in the UK. This is in exchange for discount coupons for the partnering online retailers.

ReGAIN ensures that all clothes are either reused and reworn, recycled, upcycled or burned for energy production. So far, the likes of Missguided, Superdry, and Forever 21 have partnered with the app.

Interestingly, some have criticised ReGAIN as being a ‘bolt on’ method of sustainability, with certain retailers being called out as hypocritical – namely those that are among the ‘least engaged’ according to WRAP.

On the flip side, ReGAIN suggests that the app is not aiming to change consumer habits – or there to call out retailers. There will always be the demand for cheap clothing. However, what it is aiming to provide is a modern solution to the problem, and an easy and convenient way for the public to get involved with sustainable habits. The technology certainly enables this, and it is hard to criticise the retailers for using it (in comparison to doing nothing at all).

Advocating a change

When it comes to environmental responsibility, the FMCG industry has spearheaded a change in business practice, with many brands reducing or removing plastic in products and packaging. But while the fashion industry’s involvement might be less visible, it is foolish to think that there won’t eventually be a backlash in the same way that there has been again plastic bottles and coffee cups.

One notable indication is the rise of the ethical consumer – i.e. those that prefer to actively buy from companies that aim to reduce their impact on the environment. Indeed, fashion retailers seem to be taking notice of this, and taking steps to target and engage this growing market.

For some, like US brand Reformation, it means shouting a little louder about existing ethical practices. For others, it means introducing ethical clothing, such as H&M’s new range made from recycled shoreline waste.

Elsewear, M&S has launched a recycled polyester pack-away mac made with 50% recycled polyester, which has been sourced from used plastic bottles. Reebok (though not a ‘fast fashion’ retailer per se) has also created a plant-based shoe made from a bio-plastic sole; an alternative to the petroleum-based rubber and foam soles usually used in footwear.

These are small steps, of course, but they can make a big difference. There are encouraging signs from a consumer perspective too. According to Barclaycard, spending on clothing was down an average 2.7% year-on-year in October 2018. Of course, this is likely due to increased spending on the ‘experience economy’ (e.g. entertainment and events), however, it is positive in terms of the environmental impact of retail.

Perhaps we can also put this down to the growing trend of upcycling, especially from younger, more ethically-conscious consumers. Apps like Poshmark and Depop have an avid user base. The latter – a social media marketplace with 10 million users – taps into the desire for vintage or second-hand clothing, allowing users to buy and swap clothing and accessories.

Again, technology is giving us an advantage here, with apps like Depop allowing users to be more naturally sustainable  – as well as providing value in other ways (i.e. cheaper clothes, niche brands, and vintage style).

In conclusion…

As consumers continue to look for ethical alternatives (and hold more brands accountable), it is likely will see the conversation surrounding fashion retailers and sustainability ramp up in the near future.

Will it prompt real change from fast fashion retailers? This remains to be seen, but with the UK government actively investigating sustainability within the fashion industry, the worst culprits are now in plain sight.