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This report aims to understand the social and environmental impacts of the Fashion and textile industry, and the Sustainability challenges in the industry. The main focus of our work is on finding innovative solutions. However, first it is important to understand the issues.
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We have observed that there has been a lot of commotion revolving around fair trade fashion and new niche clothing labels emerging. We need to make sustainable clothing mainstream, for which there are some aspects of the industry that need to be tackled.
Key issues in this regard are:
Consumption – the increasing number of fashion goods being purchased and disposed of
Cotton production requires lots of energy, water and pesticides.
Working conditions across the supply chain from cotton production to factories.
Unsustainable man-made fibres can take longer to degrade
Throughout this report we focus on ways for moving towards sustainable fashion.
The sustainable garment should be designed carefully and made from renewable material. It would be pesticide free and produced by workers in decent working conditions.
It would be washed at low temperatures and have fashion upgrades to extend its life.
Recycle, Reuse or Compost.
To make this vision a reality, the headline issues are:
Raising awareness among the key industry players. There needs to be a common understanding within the industry of the scenario- the sustainability issues that need to be focussed on.
Transparent supply chains should be developed. Brands and retailers should be able to trace the origins of their stock. This will ensure they can enforce high standards of sustainability.
International standards need to be reviewed and developed. This will help in creating a common ground so that brands and retailers can differentiate on other issues – for example fabrics used, design etc.
Training and support should be provided along the supply chain. As well as a fair price and terms of trade, suppliers need support, time, encouragement and incentives to convert to sustainable practices.
Empowering consumer – An important driving demand for sustainable clothing. Research shows that most of the carbon footprint of an item of clothing tends to be in its washing, ironing and tumble-drying. Raising awareness to change behaviour will make a big impact.
Designers are crucial in the success of sustainable fashion. They play a key role in coming up with innovative solutions for clothing, and making ethical fashion appeal to the target consumer ensuring it is in vogue, functional and stylish.
This report aims to draw a line in the sand for Primark to be able to move forward and seize opportunities.
Primark and (un)sustainability
Primark, the clothing industry, is challenged with the cycle of unsustainability. The relationship between productivity and resource use has entered into a lasting and unsustainable pattern.
The lifecycle of any common item of clothing are shown below. There are social, environmental and economic impacts at every stage. Research shows that energy use at the ‘usage’ phase overlaps that of any other stage so focusing on how we care for our clothes will have a significant impact. Having said that, impacts can be reduced at every stage.
Why is Primark clothing unsustainable?
The social and environmental factors are poorly considered in clothing and this becomes very complicated.
But there are two main factors that have mainly pushed the sector towards ‘unsustainability’.
One is the high street dynamic. High competition has been blamed on driving costs and standards down. And fast fashion changes means that clothing has become more disposable.
The other is the complex and opaque global supply chain. Primark has different stages of production, often taking place in different parts of the world. Retailers can either purchase clothing directly from known suppliers or through agents and vendors. Before doing that, most fabrics (wool, cotton etc.) are bought on global commodity markets. Keeping track of items can be difficult in high stock turnover.
To identify and ensure standards of sustainability throughout the supply chain, Primark should know the origins of their materials or stock.
These challenges hold the key to creating a more sustainable industry. We are seeing some mainstream that primark embrace more sustainable options such as organic or fair trade products- and reap the benefits. Better traceability of the supply chain will allow Primark to procure more ethically and will allow customers to make more informed choices.
Fashion fabrics: producing natural fabrics sustainably
â- Pesticide use in growing cotton
â- GM- Genetic modification
â- Water use
â- Fair conditions and prices for growers
Clothes these days are made with a combination of wide range of Natural, man-made and synthetic fabrics.
The sustainable impact of all types of fabric need to be managed and, where harmful to people and planet, should be reduced. Cotton as is by far the largest single fibre in production. The global demand for this amount of cotton, cheaply, encourages large scale, intensive production.
Cotton fibres are blended from different origins around the world and sold on commodity markets and hence tracing the origins is very difficult. This complexity in the supply chain makes the incorporation of sustainability more of a challenge.
Pesticides cause serious health problems to the cotton workers, and degrades the soil and also Biodiversity loss.
Cotton needs a lot of water to be grown which is why it is called a Thirsty crop. This is made even worse by poor agricultural practices, where in some cases over 10 tonnes of water are used to grow enough cotton to make 1 pair of jeans – The impact of this level of water use can be gigantic. Also cotton provides significant employment to local population and has a lot of economic benefits to the developing countries that produce it.
What are the solutions?
Naturally grown raw materials: They should be produced to the highest standards. While organic cotton production is still less than 1 percent of total cotton production, it is in increasing demand in the many developed countries.
Water efficiency: Special reference to cotton production (including organic), is important. When Water havesting and drip irrigation are combined, Irrigated cotton can be very efficient.
Labelling Country of Origin: There are calls for labelling, so that consumers can make an informed choice, and this creates more awareness of the social and environmental issues in that country. This would also allow retailers to control their supply chain. This also requires direct relationship with suppliers.
Search for a substitute: Substitute cotton for other natural materials can be an overall solution
â- Working conditions
â- Human rights
â- Supplier audit fatigue
Just like major global cloth producers, primark clothing industry has re-located much to low-cost economies, where labour costs are lower. The working conditions and human rights have forced to show concerns that many trade unions and NGO’s may not have been maintained in some regions of the world, giving rise to what are referred to as ‘sweatshops’.
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The Textile workers in Bangladesh are working at as low as 5pence an hour for Primark, according to a recent study. This is largely due to workers being prevented from forming and joining trade unions. Poor treatment of labour can include people working for unreasonably low wages, excessive hours or overtime, in dangerous conditions and employing child workers.
Boycotts can upset the production cycle and can damage the brand, the staff morale, and retention of both cuonsumers and employees, and to a very large extent sales and share prices.
High street working conditions is a concern. Primark is a victim of ‘Audit fatigue’ as they get to asked to fill in multiple questionnaire from different retailers and brands. Even if supply chains can be traced, the auditing, monitoring and enforcement of standards is often weak. Just being compliant is complex for suppliers.
What are the solutions?
Raising standards: The UK government took a lead and has set up the Ethical Trading Initiative in 1998.This organisation includes trade unions, NGOs and companies who work together improve working conditions. Membership only shows a commitment to addressing the issues but not a proof of actual standards. In addition, some companies have adopted the SA8000 standard which covers many aspects of working conditions.
Many fashion retailers and brands have called to come together and draw up regulations to enforce minimum standards to draw a baseline for competition. This helps in real leaders to seize opportunities to seize more.To date 968 facilities have been certified worldwide.
Transparency: Transparency is very crucial. Retailers and brands now include information on how they assess and how many they have conducted and what actions they have taken in their annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) / sustainability reports.
Support for suppliers is the solution to help combat audit fatigue and improve conditions along the supply chain. There are various tools like the e-textile box are emerging that provide suppliers with the manual to be able to adhere with various different codes. The website provides guidance on setting up very basic management systems like how to measure water use. It explains the business benefits for improving social and environmental performance.
Retailers, at the top of the supply chain, often have the power to encourage social and environmental good practice through:
â- fair pricing policies – Ensuring fair prices for producers
â- lobbying – Encourage suppliers to clean up the acts by lobbying for other incentives
â- longer term commitments with suppliers – Remove barriers by working together
â- country of origin labelling- Support small suppliers by labelling country of origin on garments,
â- Auditing garment suppliers and reducing this approach down to fabric, dye house and component suppliers paying particular attention to key points of production including any outsourcing or home working
Global fashion markets and trade
â- Subsidies and quotas
â- Price pressures
â- Fair pay along the supply chain
The reason to issue subsidies and quotas is to protect the domestic players and also to limit economic impact. This is mainly to protect the players from Free Market that would over whelm them.
to prevent the sudden closure of critical industries in poor economies, ‘free-trade’ is introduced & it is clear that transitions need to be handled responsibly. As with most industries that involve long supply chains there are concerns over distribution of profits. The chart shows that besides production occurring mostly outside the UK, the largest gross profit throughout the clothing supply chain is for the retailer. This reflects the high costs of operating in the UK but also raises questions over fair pay further down the supply chain.
What are the solutions?
Lifting subsidies will help counter the downward pressure on price.
Incentives should be given to command higher prices that may come from improving fibre quality
Quality control in harvesting and efforts to improve the grade of cotton sent to market.
Reflect the terms of trade between buyer and seller through Fair Trade standards which exist through International Fair Trade Association (IFAT).
â- Unsustainable consumption
â- Recycle Clothes which are ending up in landfill
Clothing has become increasingly affordable for everyone, and especially over the last two decades. Retailers have cashed on this affordability by shifting away from seasonal collections to fresh collections throughout the year.
Because of much lower unit costs retailers have to sell significantly more product in order to maintain levels of turnover and market share.
The success of retailers and brands currently demands an increase in volumes of clothing and apparel.. Increasing amounts of clothing is ending up in landfill when it could be recycled or reused.
What are the solutions?
Raising awareness- show the impact of clothing disposal and making recycling as easy as possible.
Include promoting clothing hire and other entrepreneurial solutions.
Take care of the easy ways to win, by reusing coat hangers and carrier bags and reducing packaging waste.
In the longer term, government / industry could develop a ‘producer responsibility’ policy where customers can take used clothing back to where they bought it to be disposed of in the most appropriate way.
These issues are inter-related and need to be considered in the wider economic context. Integration of the clothing industry, regulators, designers, the recycling industry and consumers need to work together to deliver these improvements so that we can continue to enjoy fashion without damaging the environment and people; industry can thus be productive and gain economic sustainability.
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