Professor Dilys Williams’ response to ‘Fixing Fashion: Clothing and Sustainability’

Image by Environmental Audit Committee

Image by Environmental Audit Committee

The Environmental Audit Committee on fashion and sustainability is publishing a hugely important report today.  It is unequivocal in its message, ‘the fashion industry’s current business model is clearly unsustainable,’ It is equally clear in its ambition, ‘we want to see a thriving fashion industry in the UK that employs people, inspires creativity and contributes to the overall economic success of the UK.’ Its call for action is one that involves us all, as designers, makers, sellers, buyers, wearers, investors, educators, communicators and legislators: ‘the current exploitative and environmentally damaging model for fashion must change.’

We believe that vital to prosperity is access to education and the development of research and industry practice that is based on the valuing of nature and human equality. At LCF, all students have access to education for sustainability and CSF is, to date, the only research centre in any university worldwide, dedicated to the exploration of fashion for sustainability. We work with students, tutors, researchers, industry practitioners, NGOs and governments to transform the fashion system through exalting good practice and no longer standing for fashion that jeopardizes our fellows or our futures. See our list of partners here.

The EAC chair, Mary Creagh MP shows great leadership in her statements,‘The Government must act to end the era of throwaway fashion by incentivising companies that offer sustainable designs and repair services. Children should be taught the joy of making and mending clothes in school as an antidote to anxiety and the mental health crisis in teenagers. Consumers must play their part by buying less, mending, renting and sharing more.” 

The report calls on businesses to show leadership, commitment and action in engaging with dissolving the current issues and for greater collaboration through engagement in sustainability initiatives.

It recognises that there is a culture of consumption of fashion in the UK which is higher than anywhere else in Europe is part of a system of overstimulation and built in obsolescence, a model that does not value the resources embedded in fashion in terms of labour and nature.

It busts the myth that low wages exist only in ‘other’ places through evidence of social injustice in the UK, whilst also calling out those retailers who place production in countries where practices including Illegally low pay, the use of child labour, prison labour, forced labour and bonded labour and little trade union representation are rife.  It also outlines the direct impact that fashion has on nature including CO2 emissions, water stress, chemical and plastic pollution.

The report makes vital and encouraging recommendations that can act as a great lever for change towards sustainability practices in the fashion sector. The recommendations also amplify the aims of our work at CSF and LCF and we are committed to furthering the extent of our ambitions in light of this report. The recommendations that the report make to the UK Government relating to our work include

Extending the responsibility of businesses for the clothes that they make through a one penny producer responsibility charge on each item of clothing to pay for better clothing collection and recycling and to incentivise design for sustainability.

Through our design for sustainability research, teaching and knowledge exchange work, we are developing ways to extend the value of nature and labour in fashion. This includes our partnership with ASOS, working with their design, technical and buying teams to develop new practices across all of their creative functions. The results of this research and knowledge exchange will be made open source, for others across the industry to gain insights into how they might change how they design. Working with BA students, we have also created a long-term project ‘clothes well lived’ which has included working with H&M and M&S in extending the value of fashion’s contents.

Taxation should also be reformed to reward companies that offer clothing repairs and reduce the environmental footprint of their products. The Government should follow Sweden’s lead and reduce VAT on repair services.

Through our research into the Craft of Use, we are exploring the myriad ways in which the wearer can activate sustainability in fashion. Through the Waltham Forest project, we are co-creating ways for fashion to contribute to place based prosperity in terms of community, employment and education.

Lessons on designing, creating, mending and repairing clothes should be in the school curriculum.

At LCF, our 5-year plan for transformation of education through sustainability includes radically reviewing teaching and learning, to include critical consideration of the social, cultural, economic and environmental context of fashion’s practices across courses at all levels. Our 1st year undergraduate students are introduced to this critical approach through the Better Lives unit, where they engage in learning and discussion in sustainability, social responsibility and diversity. The plan also includes exploring ways in which our tutors and students connect with schools and with employers, creating feedback loops between what happens before, during and after university education.

It recommends that the Government strengthens the Modern Slavery Act to require large companies to ensure forced labour is not in their supply chains. Companies must report or face a fine. 

Through our work with Baroness Lola Young, we have been exploring the impact on the Modern Day Slavery Act on buying practices in UK fashion companies, and to develop ways in which improvements can be strengthened. Working with buyers and tutors and students in LCF’s Business School, the results of this work will be coming out later this year.

The fashion industry must come together to set out their blueprint for a net zero emissions world, reducing their carbon consumption back to 1990 levels.  

Co-creation and collaboration are essential capabilities for all those involved in the fashion sector. Through a long term partnership with Kering, we have developed curriculum and mentored students on accredited courses and an awards programme where fashion is conceived and created to contribute to a thriving world. Each year our MA students get the opportunity to take part in the co-created curriculum with ourselves and Kering and also in the Kering Awards programme, where fashion is conceived and created to contribute to a thriving world. We have open sourced this curriculum, making it available digitally, with over 17,000 learners from 151 countries having signed up to take the course over its first two rounds.

The committee says that we need new economic models for fashion which are based on reducing the material consumption associated with growth. It recommends a reform in taxation to reward fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts and support a new sharing economy.

This is great news for us, as we have been working with sustainability led designers and fashion businesses for over ten years and one of the greatest challenges they face is that those companies who do not value nature and labour are held up as successful. Through Fostering Sustainable Practices, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded research project, we are exploring ways in which designers can create prosperity in social, cultural, environmental and economic terms. The results of this research will inform fashion business support practices in the UK and beyond to act as exemplars for a transformed fashion system.

We stand in support of this report and the voices and actions of those around the world who are standing up for the rights of all citizens to prosper on our precious planet. We would love to hear your thoughts and responses to the report, you can email us at sustainability@arts.ac.uk or get in touch on Twitter or Instagram @sustfash.

Find the full report here.