Skip to main content

Trade Tuesday: Focus on fashion for Earth Day

Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
trade tuesday

As well as being Earth Day, Saturday marked the start of Fashion Revolution Week, a campaigning organisation turned growing global movement, founded ten years ago following the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka to hold the fashion industry to account on issues of human and environmental sustainability. To mark these two events coinciding, SEC Newgate UK hosted a panel event (Re)engineering the Future of Fashion.  

For Trade Tuesday, former journalist and footwear brand founder Imogen O’Rorke from SEC Newgate’s Green & Good team reflects on comments from Paul Alger MBE, international business director at the UK Fashion and Textiles Association (UKFT) from the event on how international trade must support the fashion industry and its drive on sustainability. 

There is a fundamental disconnect between the future of sustainable fashion in Britain and the government’s current policy on international trade. While the UK fashion industry - primarily characterised by premium products and brands - is making best efforts to pivot towards more climate-positive and transparent models of production, our current trade agreements (or rather, lack of them) prohibit wholesale exports to our biggest and nearest market (the EU) and make it more difficult to compete in our home market. 

At last week’s event, Paul Alger MBE touched on the multiple challenges to growth that its members are facing in the post-Brexit world. Despite 15 years of collaborative industry efforts to drive reshoring and near-shoring and promote Britain’s capabilities in flexible “just-in-time”, high quality production, says Alger, “Brexit has driven a coach and two horses through that… And we’re now being advised to tilt towards Asia.” The government’s enthusiastic promotion of the free trade model (encouraging British firms to offshore production to countries like Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, for example) feels like a regressive move and a potential environmental write-off that will drive up our carbon footprint. 

Furthermore, instead of the “level playing field” in trading with Europe that we were promised, we have seen numerous UK brands (such as Joules) being forced to pull out of the EU, unable to compete with import tariffs, or navigate the bureaucratic complexities. According to the UKFT’s Brexit Survey published last year, 74% of UK fashion and textile companies are experiencing increased costs generally associated with Brexit and 53% are experiencing cancelled orders as a direct result. That situation is not going away because there are no workarounds or backdoors. As a result, many British SMEs are now faced with having to set up an EU office to survive. 

On home ground, British brands have a hard time competing against the fast fashion behemoth. The vast majority of cheap, disposable clothing is imported, increasingly online, and therefore doesn’t meet trading and quality standards required of goods made in the UK or the EU.  

Our fashion industry is known the world-over for innovation and design ingenuity, but it won’t be able maintain its lead without government support and policy change. That might mean empowering the consumer to make more informed decisions by bringing in mandatory and more transparent labelling, especially in online marketplaces.  Government is considering extending Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requirements – including labelling and recyclability – to fashion items. This is something the Environmental Audit Committee has been calling for since 2019. 

As to how international trade measures can support this, government may consider tariffs on fast fashion, meaning import costs levied on clothing which does not adhere to sustainability criteria. “On a policy level we have to have some interesting conversations about what sort of an industry we want and how government can make the situation right for those things to happen and for progress,” Alger concludes.  

Watch the (Re)engineering the Future of Fashion Event in full here:  

Please feel free to email if you have any questions on this.