At the time of writing, the least expensive but still brand-new t-shirt available for sale from a high-street retailer sells for around £2. The average price of a flat white is, on the other hand, about £2.30. It is small wonder that the Government has opened an inquiry into “the social and environmental impact of disposable ‘fast fashion’ and the wider clothing industry.” This news could be as good for luxury retailers as it is bad for fast fashion: longer-lasting, high-end garments are by their nature sustainable, and the upper reaches of the market are already well-placed to take advantage of the inquiry’s findings.
The Environmental Audit Committee, which is handling the inquiry, is concerned that the way clothes are designed, made and disposed of has a serious environmental impact. The production of clothing consumes natural resources; it may use toxic chemicals; and when clothing is thrown away, durable man-made fibres can pollute for decades.
In the crosshairs is so-called ‘fast fashion,’ or cheaply made clothes which are bought without much thought and worn on only a handful of occasions. This problem could be significant: some industry commentators estimate that up to a third of the nation’s clothing has not been worn in over a year.
The inquiry may be unwelcomed for some – the UK fashion industry has, in only the last decade, increased its contribution to the nation’s GDP by more than a third. The figure now sits at a healthy £28.1bn, and a large part of that increase is suspected to be attributable to fast fashion.
The Committee is yet to publish any findings. What, realistically, can be done about the scourge of fast fashion remains unclear – as is who will bear the cost of the remedial action. Perhaps the government will risk a tax on man-made fibres, to accompany that on sugar; or perhaps this generation will see its own ‘make do and mend’ campaign.
High-end clothiers, who are perhaps more likely to make use of high-quality, sustainably sourced natural products, manufactured closer to home, may stand to benefit. Consumers could be urged (by their own Government) to choose wisely, invest once, keep forever, and save the planet.
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© Farrer & Co LLP, February 2019