Call for more action to tackle unsustainable clothing consumption

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MORE Government support is vital to address the growing alarm at environmentally unsustainable clothing consumption, according to a University of Leeds academic.

Elizabeth Morgan, from the Leeds School of Earth and Environment, says that while Marks and Spencer has encouraged more sustainable consumption of clothing, such successes are unlikely to be replicated without more Government action.

M&S launched its Plan A in 2007, aiming to increase the environmental sustainability of its business. It has been credited with changing the behaviour of customers, through schemes such as its Shwopping clothing recycling scheme, run in conjunction with Oxfam.

A new paper by Ms Morgan, a former director of Boots and Carlsberg, published in The Journal of Corporate Citizenship, says innovations in the clothing sector have rarely been scrutinised by academics.

“The clothing sector has been identified as having huge environmental impacts, but the big players are under-explored in terms of innovation and sustainability.”

She analysed seven years of M&S reports relating to Plan A to assess whether it had increased environmental sustainability among its clothing customers, and said there were positive outcomes.

“NGOs and activists expect big companies to get it right from the start, but the M&S approach refreshingly shows they were prepared to learn by doing and by experiment, and could be given credit for doing so transparently.”

But she questioned how much an individual business could be expected to drive innovation when it comes to sustainability.

“M&S’s competitive advantages make it less valuable for companies to imitate the initiatives, serving as barriers to those competitors participating in system change. For wider system change, it would be beneficial if these barriers could be overcome.”

In the UK, £41bn was spent on clothing in 2011.

Ms Morgan said: “The average UK household owns some £4,000-worth of clothes, but almost a third of clothing in the average wardrobe has not been worn for at least a year.”