M&S, Burberry, Topshop, Boohoo, Missguided, Primark & Asos defend practices in parliament

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Some of the UK’s biggest high street and online retailers defended their practices to MPs yesterday during the second evidence hearing on the sustainability of the fashion industry.

In separate panels, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee questioned executives from Marks & Spencer, Burberry, Missguided, Primark, Asos, Topshop parent company Arcadia, and Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing parent company Boohoo Group.

Led by committee chair Mary Creagh MP, the retailers were grilled about the transparency of their supply chain models and demanded justifications on the cheap prices of their products.

One panel consisted of online fashion retailers Asos chief executive Nick Beighton, Boohoo joint chief executive Carol Kane, and Missguided head of product quality and supply Paul Smith being questioned.

The committee grilled the three retailers on their manufacturing presence in Leicester in the wake of evidence from another hearing last month about illegal wages and unethical conditions for local garment workers.

Smith said Missguided sources from Leicester only but it had reduced its presence from 35 suppliers to 12 because of an inability to satisfactorily audit the factories it used.

Beighton said he was happy with the factories Asos used and was working with Leicester council for assistance in checking standards.

He added that Asos has pulled out of 23 factories in Leicester due to poor standards, and that the retailer does not have a fast-fashion business model.

Meanwhile, Kane was asked how Boohoo could pay a living wage of £7.83 per hour while producing £5 dresses.

She hit back allegations that Boohoo was responsible for underpaid workers and promoting unsustainable and non-environmental consumer buying patterns.

She said the online retailer did “not make a profit on a £5 dress”, that they make up “a tiny, tiny amount” of their fashion range and are used as a marketing tool to drive visitors to the website.

The three online retailers also detailed their plans on how they use their social media reach to educate consumers on re-using and recycling clothes.

The other panel consisted of M&S sustainable business director Mike Barry, Primark head of ethical trade Paul Lister, Arcadia head of supplier management Jamie Beck, and Burberry chief of corporate affairs Leanne Wood.

Like Boohoo, Primark was grilled by the committee of MPs about selling £2 t-shirts, how it was making profit on them, and whether producing clothes so cheaply degraded its value for shoppers.

Lister said Primark has “never done any significant advertising at all”, therefore it has been able to save up to £150 million a year and that cost saving “goes straight into price”.

He added that Primark was going to launch a clothing returns scheme next year after trialling it three years ago.

Meanwhile, Wood expressed the need for government support to “stimulate investment in innovation for recycling technology”.

Barry called for better access to the Modern Slavery Act and, like Wood, called on the government to stimulate investment in an initiative for fibre transparency to help make recycling solutions easier.

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