By Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive

Fast fashion is currently in the media limelight as consumers, retailers and journalists seek to better understand the social and environmental impact of our sartorial choices.

Such scrutiny is a key part of encouraging transparency among retailers and manufacturers in both the UK and abroad.

Retailers in the UK are embracing greater openness by providing more information about where our clothes come from, the ethical standards they adhere to and how they are tackling the challenge of providing affordable clothing in a sustainable manner.

Retailers must walk a careful line between providing fashion that is affordable to all income brackets while also taking seriously their social responsibilities for sustainable production.

Articles about £5 dresses bring up important questions about sustainability, but also about how we reduce the cost of living for those who have experienced years of minimal real wage growth.

All clothing has an environmental cost and we all have a duty to mitigate its impact.

The carbon, water and waste impact of clothing supplied and used in the UK is rising as the sector meets the demand of a growing population. Natural fibres such as cotton must be grown, requiring land and water; synthetic fibres such as polyester, while more easily recyclable, require fossil fuels to make.

However, there is progress. From 2012 to 2016 the amount of water and carbon required to make each tonne of clothing fell by 6.5% and 8% respectively. Our efforts, working with retailers, manufacturers, consumers and government, aim to create, foster and disseminate good practice across the industry.

Better Retail Better World

The BRC’s ‘Better Retail, Better World’ initiative builds on a framework set out by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to drive greater industry cooperation. For years we have been working with WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan and pushing for better government enforcement of legal working practices.

Retailers who have signed up to Better Retail, Better World are committing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting deforestation, improving recycling and eliminating modern slavery. Together, these commitments can help consumers navigate the challenge of buying ethically sourced, ethically produced clothing on the high street.

Concerns about fast fashion have also focused on microplastics, specifically microfibres, which are microscopic pieces of plastic shed from clothing and textiles that enter water systems and harm ecosystems and marine life.

To build on our current knowledge, more research needs to be undertaken to truly understand the scale and the impact of the problem, as well as to identify all origins of microplastics such as from the automotive, shipping and fishing industries.

There are many points when such microfibres could be filtered out of the system, which is why waste water treatment facilities and washing machine manufacturers also have a part to play.

International effort

Earlier this month, the BRC hosted a microfibre workshop for retailers, NGOs and academics to come together to better understand the issue and collaborate. Responsible retailers know that effective solutions need input and action from a broad range of stakeholders across the supply chain.

The BRC will be continuing to address the issue of microfibre pollution by convening members and expert stakeholders in discussions and further workshops.

This is just one issue where the coordination of many stakeholders is vital to a successful outcome. In truth, the global nature of the fashion supply chain means effective action will often require international collaboration.

Fashion is incredibly important not just to the retail sector but to the UK economy as a whole. It is vital retailers work together to build consumer trust in their vision of a sustainable and ethical future for fashion.

This piece was originally published at Retail Week.

Learn more about Better Retail Better World here.