Page last updated at 15:48 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Bid to buck 'fast fashion' trend

Women shopping
The plan aims to make fashion more environmentally sound and ethical

The government has launched a campaign to tackle the environmental impact of a "fast fashion" culture.

About two million tonnes of clothing end up in landfill every year.

More than 300 retailers, producers and designers are part of the "sustainable clothing action plan", launched at the start of London Fashion Week.

Ministers say customers should be sure clothing is made, sold and disposed of "without damaging the environment or using poor labour practices".

The initiative outlines commitments to make fashion more sustainable throughout its lifecycle: from design and manufacture to retail and disposal.

It hopes to draw attention to the environmental impact of cheap, throwaway clothes, which have become hugely popular on the High Street but are adding to the UK's landfill.

Why do they end up in landfill? I lived in Africa for many years and there's millions of people literally living in rags
Paul, UK

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says the clothing and textiles sector in the UK produces around 3.1m tonnes of carbon dioxide, 2m tonnes of waste and 70m tonnes of waste water per year.

Gases such as CO2, emitted by fossil fuel burning, and methane, released from landfill sites, are widely believed to be contributing to global warming.

As part of the action plan:

  • Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury's have pledged to increase their ranges of Fairtrade and organic clothing, and support fabrics which can be recycled more easily
  • Tesco is banning cotton from countries known to use child labour
  • Charities such as Oxfam and the Salvation Army will open more sustainable clothing boutiques featuring high quality second-hand clothing and new designs made from recycled garments
  • The Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion will be resourced to provide practical support to the clothing sector
  • The Fairtrade Foundation will aim for at least 10% of cotton clothing in the UK to be Fairtrade material by 2012.

The Minister for Sustainability, Lord Hunt, announced the plan at the launch of the sixth season of estethica, the world's leading showcase of ethical designer fashion, at London Fashion Week.

He said climate change was a bigger problem than the economy, and the clothing industry was "responsible for lots and lots of greenhouse gas emissions".

Launching the action plan, he said: "It's going to be great for the fashion industry, great for the climate and for anyone who's in the supply industry in developing countries to those working in retail.

"We believe customers want sustainable clothing and we want to give them as much as possible."

Complex challenges

Jane Milne, business environment director of the British Retail Consortium, said retailers should be "applauded, not criticised, for providing customers with affordable clothing, particularly during these tough economic times".

"They're raising standards for overseas workers, offering clothes made from organic and Fairtrade cotton and encouraging the re-use and recycling of unwanted clothes," she added.

The challenge is to reduce the amount of damage we are doing now, while a revised, sustainable model of consumption is created
Malcolm Ball, ASBCI chairman

The ASBCI, the forum for clothing and textiles, said the industry was "very cognisant" of the environmental issues it faced and "highly motivated" to find solutions.

Chairman Malcolm Ball said the challenges facing the industry and the consumer were "complex".

Taking cotton as an example, he said organic cotton was highly desirable but represented only a fraction of world production, adding that growing it "requires vast amounts of the most precious resource on earth - water".

"There are many voices who argue the current Western model of fast and cheap fashion is totally unsustainable in the medium to long term," he said.

"The challenge is to reduce the amount of damage we are doing now, while a revised, sustainable model of consumption is created."

Shoppers in London's Oxford Street
Cheap, throwaway clothes are adding to the UK's landfill
Allana McAspurn, of ethical fashion campaign body Made-By, said change would be gradual: "It's about continuous improvement - a step-by-step approach.

"We've created a situation where we've got really cheap clothes and that's not going to re-addressed overnight."

London Fashion Week runs from Friday until Wednesday.

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