'Fast fashion' is damaging the environment, Leeds City councillors told

The UK needs to undergo a “cultural shift” when it comes to its relationship with buying clothes, a meeting of Leeds city councillors has heard.

By Richard Beecham
Tuesday, 18th January 2022, 4:45 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th January 2022, 10:54 am

A meeting of Leeds City Council’s climate emergency committee heard how “fast fashion” was driving huge amounts of clothing consumption that was bad for the environment.

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He said: “The textile and fashion industry is more far-reaching than many of us often appreciate. The impacts are enormous.

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“A lot of the impacts we create are felt elsewhere in the world, and there is a need for real solutions which we are generating in the Future Fashion Factory.”

He added that the UK was the largest consumer of fashion in Europe, with the average person buying 27 kg of clothes per year, compared to 16 kg in Germany and 9 kg in France.

The Future Fashion Factory is a research and development partnership between fashion retailers and academics at Leeds University, which aims to help develop technology to allow more environmentally friendly forms of clothes manufacturing.

Among the proposals was replacing some crude oil by-products in clothing with plant extracts, and moving to a more “just-in-time” model of manufacturing, rather than creating masses of stock at once.

Coun Neil Buckley (Con) said: “We are producing three times as many garments as France? We are a similar-sized country, and the French do not strike me as being particularly scruffy.

“Ten years ago, people said globalisation is the way to go, and we were all going to be better off, and this is what globalisation is – so things have changed a bit.

“The item about goods not being made for stock – if you speak to marketing or sales people, the worst thing on earth is someone giving you an order and the office saying ‘ooh, we’ve no stock’, and so it goes to your competitor who does have stock.

“In the real world, people do want it there and then. They want to walk into Primark and Next and buy it there and then. Even if they order it online, they want it to come that week.

“On the high-quality garments, including ethical points, that’s great – I am all in favour of this – but I can afford it. I am wondering, people who need to buy tee shirts at £4.99, we all know they are made in Bangladesh and that they are made of strange material which came from oil.”

Prof Russell responded that one of the biggest drivers in the UK’s clothing consumption was the culture of “fast fashion” – where retailers respond to trends by producing large amounts of cheap clothes in the latest styles – and that this was not so prevalent in other countries.

He added: “I totally agree that the worst thing you can do is not have any stock, but this is an important point in the way we design and manufacture. The traditional way we designed and manufacture wasn’t agile, and it wasn’t possible to design and make within the same week.

“This idea of smart, digitally-connected factories. An order comes in, it is manufactured on demand, and then shipped within the same week. This is a different way of thinking about how we manufacture.

“The benefit for us is that it means we can shorten our supply chains and bring manufacturing back to the UK.

“The main concern around global supply chains is exactly for those cheap low cost products, to make sure they are not cheap and low cost because they are being treated wrongly. It is a major concern to big retailers.”

Coun Buckley suggested the costs of producing individual items of clothing to order would be “astronomical”, but it was suggested to him that technological developments could offset some of the costs.

Speaking about her own experiences using clothes retail websites, Coun Helen Hayden (Lab) said: “We have to have that cultural shift. For my generation, shopping is a social occasion, and getting a new outfit for every single event.

“I don’t want people in Bangladesh to not have a job because we have decided to weave our own yarn. It needs to be ethically driven, and I want people to have good, decent jobs.”

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