LONDON — As the discussion around the fashion industry’s environmental impact heats up, the U.K. parliament is putting more pressure on retailers and brands to rethink their ways of doing business.
On Tuesday at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the environmental and audit committee gathered designers, sustainability experts and members of parliament to discuss how the British fashion industry has been keeping up with sustainability standards and how the government can intervene and guide companies to reevaluate their business models, with the necessary legislation.
Mary Creagh, the committee’s chair who called the hearing, noted that it was the largest public select committee hearing ever held and plans to hold one more, where the committee will question online and off-line retailers.
Her aim is to gather evidence about where the industry stands in order for the committee to bring forward a set of recommendations to the government.
Among the speakers were Claire Bergkamp, sustainability and innovation director at Stella McCartney; Dilys Williams, London College of Fashion’s professor of fashion design for sustainability; designers Phoebe English and Graeme Raeburn and Clare Hieatt, who runs the denim label Hiut Denim.
They talked about issues such as waste and finding new ways of utilizing off-cut fabrics, unhealthy consumer attitudes and the pressing need to rethink the fashion system and work with new business models.
“Young designers are finding ways to bring in their own values and looking at lifestyle questions, like what it means to feel well today. The answer could be a less consumerist model, where you are selling less,” said Williams.
English and Hiutt pointed to the direct-to-consumer model as a means of controlling quantities and price points and creating a profitable business from the get-go.
Hieattt, whose denim label Hiut is being produced at a factory in her hometown of Cardigan, Wales, said by cutting any middlemen and only selling what the workers can produce — about 100 pairs a week — she was able to sustain the brand’s growth from the beginning.
“It’s an interesting way forward for a lot of young companies starting out,” she said, adding that to develop this business model further and maintain the ability to operate locally, there’s also a need to encourage the younger generation to go back to the factories and show them the skills and progression such a career can offer.
For Phoebe English, who has been championing U.K. manufacturing and the use of high-quality, organic fabrics, selling directly to the customer has enabled her to have better control of her price points.
“I don’t produce in the U.K. because I love the Union Jack; it just makes sense to me to use the resources around me. There are many valuable manufacturing facilities in the U.K. that aren’t being used and there’s also value in seeing the faces that produce your clothes,” she said. “But using better fabrics and U.K manufacturing can push the prices up. Selling directly to the customer offers a way around that.”
English also pointed to the hiring model as a new way forward.
“If you buy a special piece, you might wear it once or twice for special occasions, then it goes away in the closet. That’s me talking about my own work,” said the designer. “By renting an item, people can take more risks with design and get the endorphin high of a new purchase. We need to explore new ways of perpetuating the excitement of the purchase.”
She added that a rental model could offer an alternative, less destructive solution to high-street retailers. “They know their time is up and are looking for new models. The younger generation won’t be shopping the same way, they won’t be going to Primark and coming out with five bags, they are taking care of their clothes and selling them on Depop.”
Bergkamp pointed out that hiring or consignment models offer customers the opportunity to access luxury, high-quality products at lower price points, referring to Stella McCartney’s collaboration with the secondhand outlet The Real Real.
Embracing rental models or secondhand retail is vital in encouraging the consumer to reassess their buying habits — another vital step toward building a more sustainable industry.
Williams spoke of the downside of fashion’s “democratization through lower pricing” and the need to change the consumer psyche.
“Studies show that mental well-being is diminished through the continuous accumulation of goods, so we need to change our culture and consumerist attitude of more is better,” she said, also stressing the importance of making repair services more easily accessible and economically viable. “You need to be incentivized to buy something you are proud of, keep it and repair it, rather than feeling that the only way to be socially accepted is by buying new stuff.”
According to recent data, British consumers are buying 400 percent more product than they were in the past, but they are investing in clothing they throw away after a few wares.
To change this pattern, customers need to understand the difference between a higher price tag and “value for money,” according to Raeburn, who runs the East London-based label Christoper Raeburn with his brother. The biggest challenge lies in education and getting the broader consumer base to understand the “unseen values” of a garment, such as its durability and the provenance of its fibers.
Christopher Raeburn has long been using recycled materials to produce its sporty collections and is working toward becoming a zero-waste business, by using off-cut fabrics in workshops or turning them into installations.
English also spoke about the challenges of reducing fabric waste, as it incurs time and space. She said manufacturers are often not willing to put in the extra effort, to return waste fabric back to the designer.
“There’s a need for legislation and guidance from the government to dissuade companies from producing waste and encourage new ones to spring up and offer solutions,” added the designer, citing the tax imposed on New York companies producing more than 10 percent waste as an example.
For Stella McCartney, whose supply chain is more spread out across Europe, a solution to minimizing waste lies in ensuring that the brand goes to the right source from the beginning of the process, before a fiber is even developed into a fabric.
“We are far removed from what it takes to create a product but 50 to 60 percent of our brand’s impact is in the raw material choice,” said Bergkamp.
“We know that the industry’s impact is outsized, but it doesn’t have to be so large. We can all remember a time when the industry didn’t operate like this.”
Williams seconded her thoughts: “We need to see this stage as a bleep in the fashion industry and help businesses transition into a different stage.”