Ethical and Sustainable Fashion — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 19th March 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat 7:45 pm, 19th March 2013

My Lords, on entering this House in 2010 I wore fur-free "non-ermine ermine". However, I am not just passionate about cruelty-free fashion, so I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for securing this debate and for chairing with such pizzazz the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, of which I am proud to be an officer.

Sustainability, green, eco, organic and ethical are increasingly a part of the fashion conversation. That is to be welcomed although I am not sure everyone has the same view of sustainable fashion. Is it a timeless, classic handbag I can pass on to my daughter-the opposite of the cheap, disposal fashion epitomised by Primark? Is it a dress made from locally sourced materials, with limited transport and a light carbon footprint, or is it a Fairtrade cotton t-shirt produced in a factory where the needs of employees are taken into account?

The London College of Fashion defines "sustainable" as,

"harnessing resources ethically and responsibly without destroying social and ecological balance".

I like that definition; it does not go so far as to pin it down but allows the creativity of individuals to flourish as they interpret what it could mean for their business. As the impacts of climate change hit harder, with resource constraints and more severe weather, we need the clothing industry to develop the necessary resilience to satisfy the colossal appetite for clothing sustainably. The commitments from the Business Secretary in support of the UK textile manufacturing industry are very welcome but more needs to be done to future-proof the industry and to support sustainable and ethical fashion.

Sadly, 20 years after the first child labour and labour standards scandals in our high street fashion chains, we still face the same problems. Clearly, current audit approaches are failing. They rely too much on cheap, bribable inspectors. It is analogous with food supply chain issues, reflecting huge pressures to reduce costs combined with an "unlikely to be found out so don't worry" mentality. Some companies are trying hard to address these issues. One is BBC Worldwide, which refuses to rely on third-party certification and makes its own unannounced checks of its suppliers, has credible and enforced sanctions and promotes its speak-up line to managers and workers in supplying factories.

However, spot checks alone will not address all issues. The fires in a number of Bangladesh factories just before Christmas highlight a problem of ethical culture. During the audits the fire doors were open but when the fires happened they were locked. We need companies such as the GoodCorporation, which argues powerfully to encourage debate about ethics and culture in factories, to move away from blame, to push managers and to take more responsibility for standards.

We also need more opportunities to showcase best practice, such as the Estethica at London Fashion Week and the RSPCA's Good Business Awards, which have supported the development of animal-friendly clothing policies. Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to address this and to help give companies advice and support as they develop the standards to take on the ethical and sustainability issues, and to provide more platforms to share best practice?

We need also to focus on clothing, from creation right through to disposal. With around £140 million-worth of used clothing going to landfill each year, we urgently need to address the issue of reuse, exchange and disposal of clothes. I was therefore very pleased to see that the Government's consultation on waste prevention, launched last week, identifies clothing as one of the priority areas for action. We have come a long way with compassionate fashion, largely thanks to powerful campaigning by organisations such as PETA. Opinion polls show that 95% of Britons would never wear real fur and top designers including Vivienne Westwood, Ralph Lauren and Stella McCartney leave fur out of their designs. Even on the high street, icons such as Topshop, H&M and New Look are fur and exotic-free.

Green is not the new black; it is not just another trend to come in and go out with the seasons. I applaud the work of the all-party group with partners in industry and government to develop a new space for fashion which respects the need for social and ecological balance and can help create more British jobs.