UK fast fashion retailers Primark, ASOS, Missguided and Boohoo faced MPs this week over the sustainability of the UK fashion industry and the vast amount of associated waste that is channeled to landfills.

Retailers defended their pricing policies to MPs, with few solutions offered for the growing environmental problems their practices are fuelling.

According to data submitted to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), 235 million items of clothing are sent to landfills a year in the UK and 1.3 billion tons of carbon emissions are produced by the global fashion industry.

As consumer awareness starts to increase and this year has seen an unpreceded war on single-use plastic with most companies ditching plastic straws and plans announced by many to reduce waste, the fashion industry might have to change its tune of denial.

Low prices fuelling waste culture

According to MarketLine data, the UK apparel retail market reached a value of $52.2bn in 2017. Primark is the leading fast fashion retailer in this market, having honed the low-cost, fast-fashion business model.

Rock-bottom prices by UK fast fashion retailers are leading to a throwaway culture. Consumers can buy a T-shirt from Primark for as little as £2 or a dress from Boohoo for £5, as pointed out by the MPs.

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None of the brands questioned by the committee were willing to admit that their business models are contributing to this huge environmental problem, justifying their low prices by pointing to low advertising spend, keeping costs low and margins tight.

A Boohoo representative told the committee that the company does not make money off £5 dresses but uses them as a marketing tool to attract people to the website.

When the MPs pointed to the durability and quality of such garments, Primark defended their items as quality-made and durable.

Waste in the fashion industry: take-back schemes are not enough

When questioned about waste, Primark’s head of ethical trade and environmental sustainability Paul Lister stated that the company is planning on launching a ‘take-back’ scheme next year, whereby clothes can be returned once they are no longer wanted and used by overseas charities.

While this scheme is a step in the right direction, it is not enough and presents the industry with the problem of what to do with all the garments returned as the UK lacks an industry that deals with these materials, according to M&S head of sustainable business Mike Barry. 

Who will change first – consumers or retailers?

There is no doubt that the low prices of fast fashion attract consumers, but as environmental awareness grows is the industry ready for a potential consumer shift?

This year has seen consumers turn on single-use plastic after several campaigns brought the ocean plastic problem into public consciousness. The EU has made sweeping reforms on the matter and most restaurants have made a shift away from plastic straws as the nation starts to embrace re-usable cups and bottles.

Not to mention the rise of veganism in the UK and globally, with 3.5 million British people identifying as vegan this year, according to research.

The focus on the environment and climate change is only likely to grow and the fashion industry needs to be prepared to be the target. With the UK high-street already struggling, retailers may have to consider being drivers of change rather than risk being branded as unethical by consumers down the line.