Fast Fashion Retailers Defend Themselves Before UK Parliament

by: Lucy Jones | 9 months ago | News

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Fast fashion retailers have a lot to answer for and thanks to the UK government they are finally being held accountable for their actions. As part of its investigation into the sustainability of the fast fashion industry, the UK government's Environmental Audit Committee asked six major brands to appear before parliament this week. Representatives from Primark, Boohoo, Missguided, Asos, Burberry and Marks and Spencer were quizzed about their low price points, the quality of their products, clothing waste and the working conditions in their factories. These companies staunchly defended their production processes and the quality of their products, with Primark's Paul Lister insisting that the company's £2 t-shirts are made to last. 

The chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh, told BBC News that the evidence given on the day proved the government's concerns about the fast fashion industry are valid.

"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," she said after the hearing. 

"Marks and 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."

During the proceedings, Creagh asked Primark's head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability, Paul Lister, "How can you justify selling T-shirts in your stores for as little as £2 or £3, and how can you be making a profit on those?"

"Primark has never done any significant advertising at all, and that can save us in any year £100m to £150m, compared to some of our larger rivals. That goes straight into price. That keeps our pricing low," he replied.

"It's our business model that takes us to a £2 t-shirt."

Lister also claimed that Primark doesn't produce much excess stock and said that the company is planning to launch a take-back scheme for customers next year. When pressed about the throwaway culture cheap products create, Lister insisted that all of Primark's products are durable. 

"Every item that we make, we're looking at durability," he said. "We are proud of the quality and durability of our garments, they're not built to throw away."

Jamie Beck from the Arcadia group, which owns Topshop, also defended the quality of fast fashion products. "These garments aren't designed to be a disposable item, to be bought for [just] a holiday,” he said. ‘They're designed to be long-lasting." 

The CEO of online fast fashion retailer Boohoo, Carol Kane, was asked how the company can sell dresses for £5 when the minimum wage is £7.83. Kane admitted that Boohoo sells these dresses at a loss to attract customers to their site. When asked if consumers have become used to cheap, disposable clothes, she said: "I believe this all comes back to consumer demand. I've been in the industry for 32 years, and in that time I've seen prices decline."

The Committee also asked Burberry's Leanne Wood to explain why the company burned $50 million worth of excess stock in 2017 alone. She said that while Burberry is "committed" to stopping the practice, it is still common among other luxury brands.

"It is an industry practice," she explained. "We're the only luxury business that's reported it in their accounts… but it is something that happens in the industry."

Online retailers Boohoo, Missguided and Asos were all questioned about working with British suppliers that have been accused of exploitation. The head of product quality and supply at Missguided, Paul Smith, said the company has stopped working with 15 British factories because of poor working conditions and pay at those sites. Other brands hadn't taken any action to protect workers at these locations.

"Boohoo did not convince us that it had a grip on the potential illegal underpayment of their Leicester-based workers," Creagh said.

She also said it was "shocking" to learn that Missguided staff members had allegedly been assaulted during a factory audit. "[It] begs the question - what on Earth was going on inside?" she added. 

The Environmental Audit Committee will be recommending new policies aimed at reducing the environmental and social impact of the fast fashion industry based on the findings of this investigation. The evidence given in this hearing proves that these reforms are absolutely crucial for people and the planet.

You can watch the entire 10-hour video of the parliamentary proceedings here.

Via BBC News.

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