LONDON — The U.K.’s environmental and audit committee is continuing its investigation into the British fashion industry’s environmental impact.
On Tuesday morning a group of fast-fashion and mass market retailers, both online and offline, were present in the House of Commons to provide the committee with evidence of their current working practices — but they did not seem to have many clear answers to the issues the committee was inquiring about.
The hearing centered on the need for retailers to vigorously audit factories and ensure that manufacturers are adhering to workers’ rights and fair pay regulations; the importance of educating users via social media about rewearing garments; partnering with other companies to encourage recycling schemes and working toward increasing traceability in the supply chain.
However, the committee didn’t come out of the hearing satisfied. For the most part, the evidence provided by the retailers highlighted that they don’t have real clarity on how to tackle key sustainability issues.
“Evidence we heard today justifies our concerns that the current system allows fashion retailers to mark their own homework when it comes to workers’ rights, fair pay and sustainability,” said Mary Creagh, the committee’s chair. “Marks & Spencer are supposed to be a leading light in corporate responsibility, but even they pulled out of a scheme seeking to achieve living wages for garment workers through collective bargaining. Boohoo did not convince us that it had a grip on the potential illegal underpayment of their Leicester-based workers. We were unimpressed that the ceo of Missguided, Nitin Passi, the self-styled ‘King of Fast Fashion’, refused to attend Parliament in person to answer questions about his supply chain.”
According to Parliament, Passi wrote that he found it unfair to be called in, given that Missguided is a small, privately owned business — it has only been contract manufacturing for six years — whose scale cannot be compared to the other retailers taking part in the inquiry.
Paul Smith, Missguided’s head of product quality and supply, spoke on Passi’s behalf, highlighting that the company manufactures 30 percent of its product in the British town of Leicester — whose manufacturing facilities are often referred to as the “Dark Factories” — and has been working toward increasing its presence on each site, to ensure that workers’ rights are being respected.
“We went from 35 suppliers representing 80 factories to 12 suppliers representing 20 factories, in order to get around on a more regular basis. You need to be there constantly and maintain a presence,” said Smith.
He added that during audits, factory owners had physically assaulted Missguided employees when they didn’t feel comfortable with the questions they had been asking.
When asked what could they have had to hide, Smith admitted to “issues of underpayment of workers” at play.
He also pointed to the company’s free 24-hour help line, which is available to all workers at the factories Missguided works with. The line has yet to receive any calls but the retailer’s staff have in the past gotten direct calls, with workers flagging issues of bullying and intimidation in their workspaces.
Boohoo, another fast-fashion e-tailer that uses factories in Leicester, said that it has been relying on both in-house and third-party audits. If a supplier does not adhere to its standards, then the company will either work with the supplier to help them make changes or “make the difficult decision of ending the relationship.”
When quizzed about how Boohoo can ensure fair pay when some of its dresses cost less than 5 pounds, Carol Kane, the company’s joint chief executive officer, could not provide details of the prices of such items but described them as “loss leaders.”
“It’s a marketing tool; not everything is profitable in the online model. We look at the overall profitability of the basket,” Kane added.
Even though the fast-fashion model is based on frequent purchasing, all retailers said that they are trying to use their wide social reach to “empower” customers and are working with influencers and brand ambassadors to create content that shares advice on how to rewear garments.
“We have over 23 million followers and there’s a lot more we can do to inform the consumer. We want to do it because it’s business-critical, the consumer is holding brands accountable and we need to lead that space,” said Asos ceo Nick Beighton, also pointing to the company’s target of working with 100 percent recycled denim and experimenting with new materials, such as recycled fishing nets, to create swim suits.
When it came to suggestions about how the government can help improve industry standards, the general consensus was that there is a need to do more research on new, innovative fibers, as well as put into place recycling schemes that are easy to access and use “incentives rather than penalties.”