Ethical and Sustainable Fashion — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 19th March 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 8:15 pm, 19th March 2013

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for initiating the debate and echo the thanks for her enthusiastic leadership and for the fashion inspiration that she has given to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, of which I am also a member. I declare an interest as a board member of WRAP, which, among other things, as we have heard, manages the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan on behalf of the English, Scottish and Welsh Governments.

This is undoubtedly a complex area in which it is difficult to be an active and responsible consumer. In the short time that I have available, I will highlight a couple of ways in which government can make a difference at a UK level.

First, it remains surprising that the Government pay so little attention to the fashion sector, as it is a major player in our economy. As the recent WRAP report, Valuing our clothes, identifies, clothing accounts for around 5% of the UK's annual retail expenditure, with consumers spending £44 billion a year on buying clothes, or around £1,700 per household.

Many UK clothing producers, particularly small businesses, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh identified, are putting ethical and sustainable fashion at the heart of their business models. They are making a point of celebrating quality manufacturing, greater longevity, respected craft skills and locally sourced materials. However, to expand further they need greater investment in production skills, improved training and a higher status, which would encourage the next generation to believe that the sector has a future. Will the Minister update the House on the steps being taken by BIS and other departments to build up our UK textile capacity and attract the brightest and best young people into UK sustainable textile production and design for the future?

Secondly, a wholesale shift towards sustainable and ethical fashion means that all the major production and retail businesses in the sector have to commit to change. I am very proud of the work being done by WRAP in the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan to sign up a list of companies prepared to work towards ambitious targets on sustainability by 2020. Already, major retailers such as John Lewis, Primark and Marks & Spencer are involved. Together they are addressing a range of environmental challenges such as the overuse of scarce water in production, the fact that a third of discarded clothing goes straight to landfill and the short lifespan of most clothing with resulting demands, as we have heard, for endless new purchases to fill the wardrobe.

The Sustainable Clothing Action Plan is providing businesses with practical tools to deliver change, such as how to accurately measure the environmental footprint of the clothes they produce, how to design clothes with a longer active life, how to give consumers consistent information so that they can see the benefit of changing their behaviour and how sustainable business models can bring financial benefits as well. For example, it has worked out the financial advantages of retailers providing repair services for their own garments, extending clothing hire services, offering a buy-back and resale section within their stores and providing clothing exchange events among consumers.

I echo the congratulations of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to WRAP and Defra on being awarded the Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel in Sweden in January. Will the Minister confirm that this work continues to be a priority for Defra and that WRAP's work will continue to be funded? Will he reassure the House that, contrary to rumours, environmental sustainability will remain a key priority in Defra's current review of its priorities?