Will environmental progress go into reverse?

Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash

A number of years ago, I shared a stage with designer Katharine Hamnett and journalist Miranda Sawyer, talking about cotton, the environment and greener alternatives.

This was made possible by financing from the European Union’s DG Development, the type of funding that no British donor then did. Our job? Raising awareness among consumers and businesses about the environmental impacts of cotton, and how to increase the use of more sustainable alternatives. There were events in London and Hamburg and Bologna, a postcard campaign, a documentary film and a cinema advert shown in Germany. We also took a group of businesses out to West Africa, to meet African farmers who sold their cotton to a French company for processing in Sweden and sale in medical products across the EU.

The project had an impact. It still does. If you’ve bought organic or sustainable cotton in garments, you can likely trace it back to this project.

We activists got to sit in meetings with Pascal Lamy in Brussels alongside African farmers. We talked to Syngenta and got blanked by Monsanto, who definitely did not speak to environmental activists. Pesticides use on cotton has declined dramatically.

Refashion Panel Katherine Hamnett, Miranda Sawyer, Simon Ferrigno

Not only is EU’s footprint improved but other countries have to pay attention to what this large market does, or risk losing potential trade with it.

So what happens now? Britain is no longer a member of the EU but 80% of its environmental regulations come from EU laws.

The EU follows the precautionary principle on environmental and health rules (‘prove it’s safe’). Others don’t. In the US, those concerned about pollution have to actively prove wrongdoing, often in multi-million dollar lawsuits against companies who may be protected from releasing certain negative reports on grounds of commercial confidentiality. It’s a hamstrung and blind David against a hormone-boosted Goliath.

Any UK divergence is likely to damage trade but may be much more damaging to our environment and health. Already we are marginal in terms of meeting EU regulations on air pollution and water quality. For many of us, being the dirty man of Europe is a living memory, a time when the Thames was essentially a dead body of water.

Promises have been made of a level playing field and a green Brexit. There are provisions in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement on the environment;  however, these apply to trade and investment between the EU and UK. They may not prevent the UK downgrading its protections, either in areas where no EU trade is concerned or where losing it may be deemed advantageous and/or the UK thinks it can get away with it. This is why existing food standards have not been protected by law, as they are in play in potential trade negotiations with others, such as the US and Australia. In which case, claimed benefits of post-Brexit agricultural support for agriculture are worth nothing.

How easy would it be for the EU to prove the UK had downgraded its protections to give its businesses an advantage? For example, lower water quality requirements would work as a hidden subsidy for those UK businesses that can still afford to export. The UK Human Rights Blog claims that the protections consist of little more than the threat to Britain’s international reputation, something the present government has already happily thrown under the big red bus over violations of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The proposed UK Environment Bill is also vague, with an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) with few of the teeth of the European Court of Justice to enforce green law, while the Secretary of State can downgrade legislation without a vote.

The UK has not inserted a non-regression clause over EU environmental law into the Environment Bill. Understandably, the EU has concerns. Scotland has said it will continue to ‘dynamically align’ with EU regulations, but the UK Internal Market Bill seeks to impose Westminster decisions on the devolved regions.


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To use chemicals as an example, UK businesses will be under pressure to abide by EU rules. However, to do so they will need double registrations, in the EU with the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) under the Registration Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) system, while also within the new ‘UK REACH’. This is not good enough. Greener UK, a coalition of environmental groups including RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts’ has “real concerns that the UK will deregulate and become a dumping ground for chemicals outlawed elsewhere”. Tony Diver in the Telegraph on April 2 reported that the UK has only matched two of the EU’s 13 bans on harmful chemicals since Brexit. This is hardly reassuring.

The scope for divergence remains, and many Brexit fans continue to argue against high environmental standards. Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government is quoted as saying “The area of EU standards where the UK had the most infractions and was taken to the ECJ the most was environmental obligations”. Forthcoming Climate Change conference in Glasgow or not, the UK is not showing green leadership so far.

Meanwhile, the EU has a clear green agenda, and is also moving on new laws on corporate due diligence on both human rights and the environment.

My last visit to Brussels was in 2017, to present the findings of a study on traceability in garment value chains, for the European Commission at the behest of the European Parliament. But British staff and institutions were already in full retreat. Not bothered. Hardly attending.

With the government’s eyes fixed on trade deals rather than green promises (and with its poor record on keeping promises or respecting international law), our best hope for a green agenda at the moment is simply that the EU is a rule setter. As our biggest and closest market we will have to conform, even if we are dragged along, kicking and screaming.

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