DEFRA proposes green league table for clothiers

Plans to raise public awareness of the sustainability issues surrounding the clothing industry have been revealed by the government. It is also exploring how it might divert textiles from landfill.

The government plans to rank clothing firms according to their environmental impacts and has announced new research into end-of-life options for textiles. The plans emerged at a mid-December Environment Department (DEFRA) briefing, held in advance of the planned launch of its "sustainable clothing roadmap" during London Fashion Week in February.

Roadmaps are being developed for ten product areas where the government believes environmental impacts can be reduced (ENDS Report 391, pp 51-52 ). Each aims to capture evidence of life-cycle impacts, develop a "sustainable vision for the future" and chart short, medium and long-term actions to help steer products towards it.

Clothing was chosen after a 2006 EU study showed four product groups accounted for 70-80% of all environmental impacts and 60% of consumer expenditure. Clothing accounted for 5-10% of environmental impacts.

The proposal to develop a responsible clothing retailer league table follows evidence, published by DEFRA in November, that consumers have a low awareness of sustainability issues surrounding clothing.1 Research found consumers continue to judge ‘good clothes’ on price, quality, fashion and longevity. Few could articulate the sustainability issues associated with the sector.

DEFRA believes this poses a barrier to increased competition between retailers and manufacturers on sustainability grounds, a sentiment repeated by those in the industry. "How can you try and be a leader if there isn’t the awareness out there of the key issues and what a leader would look like?" said Rowland Hill, sustainable development manager at Marks and Spencer.

DEFRA hopes that by defining and educating the public on what sustainable clothing comprises, more pressure will be placed on the sector to act on sustainability issues. It believes a "responsible retailer league table" could be a way to achieve this.

Consumer Focus, previously the National Consumer Council, will develop and produce the league table, which will supplant an earlier ranking of supermarket performance last published in 2006 (ENDS Report 380, p 9 ). Work on a methodology is planned to start this year and is likely to "take into account social, energy and environmental issues and develop indicators that reflect issues at different stages of the clothing life cycle," it said.

There is likely to be much debate within the industry over how this should evolve, not least because there is minimal environmental reporting in the sector. DEFRA admitted "it would take some time to get something in place which is robust".

"What are the desirable outputs? What are the things you would want from the industry?" said Mr Hill. "There is very little in the way of measurable and comparable indicators out there."

The issue is complicated, not only because environmental reporting across the sector is minimal, but also, according to Phil Patterson, chairman of the working group Reducing Impacts of Textiles on the Environment, because few firms have a grasp of their impacts across the supply chain.

"The key thing is forcing retailers to take responsibility for the impact of their supply chain," he said. "Nice touches such as installing low-energy light bulbs are of little relevance if you are buying millions of t-shirts from an unknown factory."

Research is also under way to assess how to deal with clothing at the end of its life. It will try to map out material flows, collection and sorting infrastructure and consider the mechanisms or standards which could be used to improve end-of-life recovery.

In March 2008, a stakeholder meeting for the roadmap saw much discussion about the possibility of introducing a system of producer responsibility for end-of-life textiles. The research will consider the approach, its feasibility, the pros and cons and whether it could put the UK at a competitive disadvantage.

Trials are to be carried out initially to assess the quality of textiles currently being disposed of. Evidence indicates a large amount is being landfilled, but it is not clear whether it is the type of material recyclers could use.

"Profitability is currently at the reuse stage. Recycling has much more difficult profitability issues. If we were to load up recyclers or charities with too much low-quality material, it could have a strong negative impact on the economics of textile recycling," said Nick Morley, director of sustainable innovations at consultancy Oakdene Hollins, which is carrying out the research.

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