UK Ministers Slammed for Rejecting 1p ‘Fast Fashion’ Tax
Shock. Disappointment. Sadness. Just a few of the reactions felt across the United Kingdom this week after ministers rejected all recommendations from a cross-political committee to improve the fashion industry’s social and ecological impact, including a proposed one-penny charge per garment that would be used to fund a national clothing-recycling scheme.
Earlier this year the Environmental Audit Committee, led by labour MP Mary Creagh, had called on the Government to make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create. The proposed one-penny producer responsibility charge on each item of clothing could have paid for better clothing collection and recycling.
The Environmental Cost of Our Clothes
Essentially, the report outlined that the way we make, use and throw away our clothes is unsustainable. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, consumes lake-sized volumes of fresh water and creates chemical and plastic pollution. Synthetic fibres are being found in the deep sea, in Arctic sea ice, in fish and shellfish.
On top of that, we buy more clothes per person in the UK than in any other country in Europe. An overabundance of second-hand clothing swamping the market is depressing prices for used textiles and what can’t be sold is shredded and turned into insulation and mattress stuffing.
Worse still, around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in household black bins every year, sent to landfill or incinerators. Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life. Meanwhile, retailers are burning new unsold stock merely to preserve their brand.
The Social Cost of Our Clothes
Beyond the environmental impact, there’s also the social cost of our clothing to think about, too. Some of the biggest retailers have ‘chased the cheap needle around the planet’, moving production to countries with low pay, little trade union representation and weak environmental protection. In many of these countries, poverty pay and conditions are standard for garment workers, most of whom are women.
That’s before you even admit the possibility of child labour, prison labour, forced labour and bonded labour in factories and within the garment supply chain. Fast fashions’ overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is based on the globalisation of indifference towards these workers.
Forced labour is used to pick cotton in two of the world’s biggest cotton producing countries, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. While labour exploitation is also shockingly taking place in the UK. In times gone by, ‘Made in the UK’ would stand for craftsmanship and quality, along with the very basics of workers being paid at least the minimum wage. Yet, the report has revealed that it’s an open secret that some garment factories in places like Leicester are not paying the minimum wage.
Of course, this needs to stop. However, if the risk of being caught is low, then the incentive to cut corners is high. The same fast fashion retailers sourcing from Leicester are also selling clothes so cheaply that they are being treated as single-use items.
These findings should have been reason enough to move forward, but unfortunately, the government has rejected the proposed ‘fast fashion tax’ and other initiatives. Instead, ministers said they have developed their own initiatives – some based on voluntary efforts by the industry.
In response, committee chairman Mary Creagh said: ‘Fashion producers should be forced to clear up the mountains of waste they create. The Government has rejected our call, demonstrating that it is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment … despite having just committed to net zero emission targets.’
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The Labour MP added: ‘The Government is out of step with the public who are shocked by the fact that we send 300,000 tons of clothes a year to incineration or landfill. Ministers have failed to recognise that urgent action must be taken to change the fast fashion business model which produces cheap clothes that cost the Earth.’
Online retailers selling dresses for £5 or less have helped fuel the idea that clothes are disposable. At the same time, much of the fast fashion is made from plastic which sheds billions of polluting particles into the seas when they are washed.
The MPs said a 1p charge could raise £35million a year to deal with waste. They also called for a legal ban on incinerating unsold stock or sending it to be buried in landfill. This too was rejected by the Government, which wants the industry to do more to use waste textiles.
We need a new economic model for fashion as business as usual no longer works. The Government should change the law to require companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains.
Clearly, the government needs to provide clear economic incentives for retailers to do the right thing as they cannot be relied on to do so voluntarily.
Moreover, YouGov data shows that 39 per cent of Brits think fashion companies should pay for the costs of recycling old clothes, as opposed to the government (eight per cent) or consumers (16 per cent), indicating that fashion companies and government are on a different page to consumers by rejecting this levy.
In the absence of this, try not to feel disheartened or powerless. As consumers, you can vote with your wallet. Choose to invest in brands you respect, who are creating beautiful, desirable pieces, all the while with respect to the people making these garments and accessories and the planet.