By Emma Batha
LONDON, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Britain's fashion industry is exploitative and unsustainable and leading brands must up their game to protect workers and cut waste, a group of parliamentarians said on Thursday.
They surveyed 16 major retailers as part of an inquiry into Britain's £32 billion ($42 billion) fashion industry amid concerns it encourages over-consumption, generates excessive waste, and underpays workers.
"The current exploitative and environmentally damaging model for fashion must change," they said in a report.
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Britain, which buys more clothes per person than any other country in Europe, has seen a boom in "fast fashion" — cheap clothing produced rapidly in response to the latest trends.
Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee quizzed retailers on issues such as worker protections, the use of organic or sustainable cotton, limiting the discharge of hazardous chemicals, and the re-use or recycling of unsold stock.
Only a third of the retailers surveyed had signed up to a global initiative to ensure a living wage for garment workers.
JD Sports, Sports Direct, TK Maxx, Amazon UK, and online retailers Boohoo and Missguided were deemed "least engaged" in improving sustainability, while luxury brand Kurt Geiger failed to reply to the survey.
ASOS, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Primark, and Burberry were seen as making the most effort.
Burberry sparked a furore last year when it admitted that it had destroyed almost $40 million worth of unsold goods, but the company has since promised to stop burning stock.
Greenpeace says 73% of textile fibres used to produce more than 100 billion garments each year end up in landfill or incinerators after they have been used.
The parliamentarians also said they had heard "worrying evidence" about practices in the English city of Leicester where 700 factories produce around one million items a week for retailers including Boohoo and Missguided.
They said some factories "side-stepped the law to maximise profits." One journalist told the inquiry that the going rate for a garment worker in many places was £3.50 an hour, less than half the national living wage.
The parliamentarians said they were concerned about evidence that Boohoo and Missguided were playing suppliers off against each other and hammering down prices.
They also criticised Boohoo for its attitude towards workers' unions.
But they noted Missguided had taken some positive steps including ending work with 60 factories, banning cash payments, and funding a whistleblowing helpline.
Boohoo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was committed to improving sustainability and was introducing recycled clothing lines, but it failed to respond to criticisms about labour protections.
Committee chairwoman Mary Creagh described the lack of action by major retailers as "shocking".
She said the report would help customers "choose whether they want to spend money with a company that is doing little to protect the environment or promote proper wages for garment workers."
The MPs will make recommendations to the government for policies to address the problems shortly.
($1 = 0.7650 pounds) (Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)