Will a 1p tax solve the problems caused by that £5 dress?

By Melissa Wheeler

4 years ago

Is there a quick fix to fast fashion waste or do we need to take a long, slow look at the way we live, the way we think and the way we shop?

Much like the global addiction to sugar and fast food, we now know we’ve become addicted to fast fashion. And both have toxic consequences on the planet and on our health. With the normalisation of a £5 dress and a t-shirt costing £1.50, so-called fast fashion has ushered disposable clothing into the fabric of our lives, with items so cheap that many become single-use purchases. Fast fashion giant Boohoo regularly carries between 40-50 dresses under £5; purchases made without a second thought neither to the price tag nor to its environmental impact, which will likely arrive in landfill after one wear.

The UK buys more clothes per person than any other European country, with the average consumer buying 26.7kg of fashion items per year, compared with 16.7kg in Germany, 14.5kg in Italy and 12.6kg in Sweden.

Mary Creagh MP, chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) which has recently been reporting on the fashion industry’s need to take action, has revealed that less than 1% of clothing in the UK is recycled and the average item is worn just seven times.

These throwaway garments contribute more to climate change than air and sea travel. Clothing retailers are now bracing for a backlash as public feeling and shoppers are guiding their hands.

This is no longer a niche or an avoidable concern. According to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry’s current “take-make-dispose” system creates greenhouse gas emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year—that’s “more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”

Short of turning our backs on capitalism entirely, what exactly is the solution to this affluenza and the cynical production of fast fashion at rock bottom prices? The wider question has been studied for many years by author and campaigner George Monbiot while the columnist and academic Will Hutton identified that we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’ long before fast fashion became the clothing industry’s dirty secret. But ultimately, what’s the subtle difference between materialism and consumerism and how can we gravitate from a linear ‘throwaway’ culture to a circular ‘re-use; re-wear; re-cycle’ model?

Loved clothes last. If we stop for a moment, step away from the computer, put away the credit card and let the dopamine rush of buying something new subside for a minute, we know this is intrinsically true. And it’s also true that we value things more if we know the price tag’s justified. But this justification requires an understanding of provenance which we’ve lost. The question of ‘who made my clothes?’ has parallels in the fast food analogy too where our alienation from nature has left many unaware of where the food on their plates came from and thus its true value. Again, it’s the price-tag versus value conundrum. If something is discounted, barrel-scrapingly cheap or even free, the question is: do we value it? Answer: not so much. Right?

Crucially, clothing is no longer valued at the till and the rock bottom price tags determine this. The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago.  Moreover, according to WRAP, 30% of clothing in the average UK wardrobe has not been worn in the past year or so. This equates to around 1.7 billion items of clothing not been worn for at least a year.

Taxing throwaway fashion

Whether they’ve had their hands forced by consumers or whether the sheer scale of environmental damage has become too costly to ignore, as it has been with the war on sugar, Parliament has committed to “end the era of throwaway fashion”. The proposal is to make retailers take responsibility for fashion waste by introducing a 1p charge on each item of clothing to pay for better clothing collection and recycling.

MPs have suggested a 1p charge per item of clothing in the UK to help fund better waste collection and recycling systems, following an eight-month investigation by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) into the sustainability of the fast fashion sector.

The penny tax was suggested as part of a new extended producer responsibility scheme, in which retailers would have to consider and pay for the end-of-life process of their products. The suggestion is that taxation should be reformed to reward companies that offer clothing repairs and reduce the environmental footprint of their products. It said the charge, which would form part of a new extended producer responsibility scheme, could raise £35m for investment in better clothing collection and recycling in the UK.

Retailers, trade bodies and the fashion industry as a whole have all welcomed the report and restated their commitment to acting on the recommendations, though consumer culture will be tougher challenge to address.

Speaking at the inaugural Drapers Sustainable Fashion conference in London, Creagh, who is chair of the EAC, called on retailers to take responsibility for their waste and stop promoting “throwaway fashion”.

“Being sustainable should be part of a business’s licence to operate,” she said. “Turning a blind eye is problematic. Retailers need to be responsible – they shouldn’t promote throwaway fashion.

We want ‘made in the UK’ to be something to be proud of […] Bad practice thrives in the dark. Fashion has been marking its own homework for too long. Retailers need to make sure they are environmentally and socially sustainable, not just abroad but at home as well. A change in law is required.”

What does the industry think?

This sense of responsibility, and pride, in the upholding the value of British manufacturing is a pertinent point. Retailers and manufacturers want transparency and awareness about the true value of clothing as much as awoke consumers need this education to change the way they shop.

As the entire industry reconsiders its business model, I wonder whether a tax is the definitive answer to changing the way businesses produce clothing and reducing fashion landfill? Or do consumers and our entire consumer culture both need revising? Do we need to re-learn how to live and how to shop?

Transparency is essential for change, but MPs have commented that inadequate commitments have been received from the likes of retail giants Boohoo, JD Sports, Sports Direct and Amazon UK. “The fashion industry is built on secrecy, elitism, closed doors and unavailability,” said Orsola de Castro, founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, at last year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “We need to make it as easy for us to see the clothes as it is to buy the clothes.” Conversations between customers and companies need to start happening, as opposed to government studies that are published as flashy headlines and then filed away.

Meanwhile, Adam Mansell, CEO of UK Fashion and Textiles Association (UKFT), also welcomed the report but warned against insinuating there are simple solutions to tackling sustainability: “Rather than say the voluntary approach to sustainability has failed, I’d argue that the report highlights how some of these issues are much bigger than any one brand, retailer or even country can tackle in isolation. It is time for collective action, but it is important that we stop trying to make out there are simplistic solutions.”

He added that although collaboration in the industry is required, consumer behaviour also needs to change: “We certainly agree that the fashion industry should come together to tackle these issues, but it is also worth noting that consumer behaviour will also play a significant part in a change.

”We actively encourage consumers to think very carefully about the volume and frequency of the clothing they buy, how they are made and what happens when they are no longer wanted. The consumer will need to accept that buying new clothes every few weeks or each season has an impact – in whatever conditions the goods are made.”

Hawthorn, a UK-based clothing manufacturer committed to improving sustainability in the industry, also welcomes these proposals, highlighting factory wastage as another priority.

Rob Williams, a director of the company, says “although this would be an improvement and certainly a step in the right direction, we would also like to see a tax imposed on factories themselves. 

“Although the scale of manufacturing of garments in the UK is still low, it’s estimated that 4 per cent of a factory’s output is rejected during the quality check process. 

“Besides a tax on clothing, it would be good to see measures that encourage manufacturers to recycle that 4 per cent of clothing, rather than add to the textiles sent to landfill.”

Fashion has always reflected something about the times in which we live. Brands respond to demand as much as consumers respond to what’s on offer and consumer behaviour reflects this.

British designers, themselves dependent on responsible suppliers and all too aware of their responsibility to live up to their customers’ expectations on ethics, are wholly supportive of the initiative. Basma Alshather, designer and founder of Basma Design, an emerging British luxury designer producing digitally printed silk scarves, each hand-rolled using a traditional technique, is encouraged by the proposal but still has reservations:

To charge 1p tax per clothing to help fund waste and recycling system is a good idea for the short term but I don’t believe it’s the ultimate answer for the bigger picture. It’s a great incentive to improve recycling methods, but the business model needs to change. The rise of fast fashion has leached key skills from the UK, from sewing to pattern cutting to repairing, besides the enormous environmental damage.

I feel there’s an urgent need to educate the consumer while also reintroducing basic manufacturing and clothes making skills at a grassroots level. Above all, the fashion industry needs to look deep within and adapt its processes”. 

Meanwhile, Deryane Tadd, founder and owner of the multi-award winning womenswear boutique the Dressing Room, St Albans, takes a philosophical view of the situation from a premium retailer’s standpoint and says:

In principle this is a good idea, however I don’t really think that it will make much difference to the end consumer as the items will still be cheap.  We need to tackle the issue of throwaway fashion in general and address the demand for it.  If we ensure the manufacturing and design process is correct then in principle the costs will rise in line with this – but I suppose that would be all too easy!

I do think that awareness is rising on sustainability and the need to buy more carefully, documentaries like the one from Stacey Dooley on the dangers of fast fashion help to educate the target audience which can only be a positive”.

Doing good is good business

We live a world increasingly driven by consumerism, competition and price; one in which we’re led to believe that buying ‘stuff’ will make us happy, raise our status, define our identity and where a £5 dress takes little or no consideration to buy, and even less to consider its environmental impact.

Responding to climate change is not only the right thing to do – it also makes good business sense, as Richard Branson has often said – “Taking bold action on climate change simply makes good business sense. It’s also the right thing to do for people and the planet” –

Sustainable manufacturing is efficient manufacturing and all businesses seek profitability.

It seems the industry is ready to take a stance on this and put its PR friendly soundbites into action, but how long will it take for consumers to re-learn their relationship with clothing and reconsider the true cost of a dress priced at £5? One of my favourite quotes which comes from John David Stanhope (but often attributed to others) is this, and retailers and consumers alike would do well to have plaque mounted on their walls or inscribed on their wallet:

“The Bitterness of Poor Quality Remains Long after the Sweetness of Low Price is Forgotten”

We must continue to ask questions. Who made your clothes? Where were they made? Where does the dead stock go? And demand answers – especially to the most glaring one: why are we throwing fashion in the bin? We know it goes somewhere; it doesn’t simply disappear

After all, as the sustainable fashion writer Lucy Siegle reminds us, “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying”.