Ethical and Sustainable Fashion — Question for Short Debate

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

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Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 8:19 pm, 19th March 2013

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for initiating this debate on the promotion of ethical and sustainable fashion. I have enjoyed the contributions of all noble Lords and I will try to respond in a moment to relevant comments raised during the debate.

Although I make no claim to be a fashion expert, I should declare a vicarious interest by virtue of having a wife who runs a small but, she tells me, successful business retailing fashion accessories. Her range includes, I am relieved to say, sustainable products, notably some in the shape of handbags made from recycled offcuts of leather. She tells me that they are highly desirable. Of course, I am very interested in the range of economic, ethical and environmental issues associated with the fashion industry, which have been so well covered this evening.

As several noble Lords have said, fashion is a vital part not only of our national but of the global economy. In 2009, the United Kingdom fashion industry was estimated to contribute more than £20 billion to our economy and to support more than 800,000 jobs, so this is indeed an industry worth talking about. About 90% of the clothing consumed in the UK is imported. Our consumption has positive economic effects in developing countries, but there are also a wide range of environmental and ethical implications to take into account. We need to consider the water, fertiliser and pesticides used when fibres are grown and the emissions generated when synthetic fibres are made. There are issues associated with access to markets and trade terms for producer farmers. There are concerns about labour conditions in clothing factories, sweatshop conditions and child labour.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said, there are significant water as well as greenhouse gas impacts associated with washing and drying clothes and waste at end of life. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, we landfill around a third of a million tonnes of clothing every year. There are complex global supply chains. Although the issues are different, the recent and ongoing horsemeat saga has shown that we need to be able to trust all our supply chains, including, of course, the fashion ones. I will return to this in a moment.

We want to ensure that the fashion sector continues to grow. Several noble Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in particular, spoke about small businesses, and I agree with her. I will return to that point in a moment. Last October, the Government hosted the UK fashion and textile manufacturing showcase. This was part of the Government's Make it in Great Britain initiative, designed to dispel the myth that the UK does not make anything any more. UK Trade & Investment is promoting UK products and services to customers abroad and encouraging foreign investment in the UK through its GREAT campaign. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, will be pleased to hear that Creative Skillset, the sector skills council for the creative industries, recently launched its first higher level apprenticeship in fashion and textiles and is planning to deliver 500 apprenticeships. My noble friend Lord Razzall and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, both spoke about higher education, and I will return to that, too, time permitting.

As for environmental improvements, my department, with WRAP, co-ordinated the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, which several noble Lords referred to. This is a collaborative effort with businesses and third sector organisations to reduce the environmental impacts of the UK clothing supply chain. The organisations involved include high-street names such as Nike, Sainsbury's, M&S, John Lewis and Primark, as well as clothing reuse and recycling organisations such as Oxfam and the Salvation Army.

This is a world-leading initiative, which has been recognised internationally. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, Defra and WRAP have just received the 2013 global leadership award in sustainable apparel from the Sustainable Fashion Academy in Stockholm. I am proud about that and pleased that the noble Baroness was able to be there.

Government action to improve ethical standards in the fashion sector includes the creation of the Responsible and Accountable Garments Sector-RAGS-Challenge Fund. This fund helps projects that improve the conditions of vulnerable garment production workers. It is aimed at workers in low-income countries in Asia that supply the UK market.

DfID has also provided support to the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance that brings together businesses, trade unions and voluntary organisations and has developed a base code to define the minimum standards that member companies should reach. The nine provisions of the base code include that child labour shall not be used.

The Government, of course, need to look to their own procurement, too. The government buying standard for textiles was published in December 2010. It limits the levels of hazardous chemicals and encourages the consideration of durability, the use of recycled fibres, ethical standards and end of life disposal. We are now starting a review of this standard and plan to strengthen it and cover additional issues such as demand management, recyling and repair, and we will work with the Government Procurement Service to embed the new standard in the framework contracts for use across government. We are working hard to ensure that the climate is right for growth in the UK fashion industry, and at the same time are encouraging businesses to move UK consumption on to a more ethical and sustainable footing.

I will now address questions the noble Lords have asked. The noble Lord, Lord Young, referred to the number of government departments involved. Ethical and sustainable fashion is a complicated topic, and there are roles here for more than one government department. DCMS leads on the UK fashion industry, BIS on UK business, Defra on environmental policy aspects, and DfID on poverty reduction aspects. We work together to ensure that appropriate links are made without duplicating or generating unnecessary bureaucracy. There are cross linkages between the initiatives. For example, Fairtrade, the ethical trading initiative, and DfID are all members of the sustainable clothing action plan steering group. Many of the businesses involved in the Ethical Trading Initiative are also involved in sustainable clothing action plan, and there is a joint BIS-DfID trade unit. In many cases it makes sense to take a wider geographical approach. We look at the broad range of issues in a particular country and identify opportunities for reducing poverty and improving working conditions.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Prosser, raised the issue of child labour in Uzbekistan in particular, I think. In negotiations about eligibility for the EU's generalised system of preferences, we understand that there are legitimate concerns about the use of forced labour during the cotton harvest season in Uzbekistan. There remains much to do, but we welcome this year's progress; enforcing a ban outlawing the use of children aged under 15 in this year's cotton harvest is a step in the right direction. We continue to monitor the situation and encourage further efforts towards full implementation of Uzbekistan's obligation under the ILO conventions.

My noble friend Lord Patten asked about child labour, and other noble Lords have also referred to this matter. The Government are committed to ensuring that children are not engaged in work that is harmful or detrimental to them. We know that this is an ethical issue-perhaps the issue on which, as the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, said, UK businesses already take action. I also agree with my noble friend Lord Razzall, who has congratulated several businesses that he has named. We help by supporting organisations that enable companies to demonstrate their commitment. I have referred already to several initiatives. Let me add to the Ethical Trading Initiative and Fairtrade the UN Global Compact, which is a call to companies everywhere to align their operations and strategies with 10 universally accepted principles, including abolishing child labour.

We are working towards long-lasting changes that tackle the poverty we identify as being at the root of the problem of child labour. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, referred to the launch of the UK business and human rights strategy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has led a successful process across government to agree the UK's first strategy on business and human rights. Arrangements are being finalised for the launch in the near future. The UK has played a leading role in supporting the UN guiding principles on business and human rights.

My noble friend Lady Parminter asked about government advice to UK business on ethical issues relating to specific countries. I have already mentioned the strategy on business and human rights. This includes clear signposting to advice provided by different government departments responding to business feedback during extensive consultations when business requested clearer guidance on how to approach the Government for advice. The Government also provide guidance to businesses on how to carry out corporate social responsibility reporting on environmental and ethical issues. I think it is fair to say that UK companies lead the world on corporate and social responsibility reporting.

My noble friend also asked about audit and checks on the supply chains. Textile supply chains can be complicated, with many intermediaries, and UK businesses often do not have visibility along their whole supply chains or even beyond their tier 1 suppliers. That said, many businesses are working to improve this, and even without full transparency they can still influence the practices of their suppliers through their product specifications.

The noble Lord, Lord Stone, spoke about the role of consumers. I agree with him. Further action that consumers can take include buying pre-owned clothing, choosing fair trade products, washing at lower temperatures and recycling textiles. He also asked whether the Government would introduce compulsory reporting on corporate social responsibility for all UK companies, particularly in this area. UK companies, as I have said already, lead the world in choosing to report on their contribution to social, ethical and environmental sustainability. We support mechanisms that help them to improve their reporting and are keeping a watching brief on current trends towards more mandatory reporting in some countries.

My noble friend Lord Razzall raised the issue of encouraging universities to support ethical fashion. London is seen as a global centre of fashion, with our universities attracting students from around the world. In 2011, almost 18,000 students were registered on fashion and textile courses, and there were 190 apprenticeship starts in the fashion and textile framework.

I will write to noble Lords if I have not answered all their questions. To finish, there is no simple answer to the many economic, environmental and ethical issues associated with the global fashion industry. However, I hope noble Lords will agree that we are taking action and are making progress.