The government's failure to act on fashion waste is damning evidence Ministers do not yet comprehend the environmental crisis, but businesses need to be aware reforms will come eventually
About a decade ago I was gently chastised by then Environment Secretary Hilary Benn for being unnecessarily negative.
The occasion was a summer reception hosted by Defra and the government was in a celebratory mood after it had just confirmed supermarkets had cut the number of plastic bags they were handing out by 48 per cent since 2006. It was the dog days of the Brown administration and the immediate aftermath of the financial crash - to be fair there wasn't exactly a surfeit of reasons to crack out the bunting.
The result meant the retail sector had narrowly missed a target agreed with the government to halve the number of bags dished out by 2009, but Benn was not about to let a few million bits of plastic undermine a success story of government and industry working together. After all, 718 million plastic bags were dished out in May 2006, and three years later the figure had fallen to 372 million.
"This is a great achievement by the seven supermarkets and their customers and it shows that by working together, we really can change our bag habits," Benn told the BBC. The threat of a plastic bag levy was quietly shelved.
Back at the reception, Benn was talking to assorted journalists about the industry's progress and the merits of a successful voluntary approach to waste reduction when I somewhat nervously piped up: "But they did *miss* the target, no? And the implication was you would legislate if they missed the target. And they missed the target, right?"
Benn responded with his customary charm (he was definitely across his brief and a far better Environment Secretary than many of his successors), but I was left in no doubt that he would not be acting on my suggestion the government should now follow through on its previous threats and legislate. The industry had cut plastic bag use by a massive 48 per cent, he argued, there was every reason to think progress would continue, the voluntary and co-operative approach had demonstrably worked, so what if the 50 per cent target had been narrowly missed, should we not celebrate success when we see it?
You all know how this story ends. Six years later the coalition government introduced a plastic bag levy in England after the number of plastic bags being handed out rose for the fifth year in a row. The number of disposable bags handed out by the seven largest supermarkets subsequently plummeted 86 per cent. Protests at the imposition and iniquities of a bag levy, came there none. Indeed, the move was deemed so popular the Conservatives and Lib Dems were left arguing about who should get the credit for introducing the levy.
I was reminded of this little vignette by today's news the government has rejected pretty much out of hand the Environmental Audit Committee's (EAC) recommendations to tackle the fashion industry's out-sized environmental impacts.
The first thing to note is there is nothing particularly radical about the EAC's proposals. It is a cross party committee that has produced an eminently sensible package of proposals following extensive evidence-gathering.
The headline proposal for a penny levy on each item of clothing sold in order to help fund recycling initiatives simply builds on the extended producer responsibility principle the government is already expanding for plastic packaging. It is also a remarkably small sum that would impose a cost on the multi-billion pound fashion industry of - wait for it - £35m. It would not cover even half the estimated £82m a year cost of landfilling waste clothes and textiles, but it would help fund new recycling infrastructure and collection schemes.
The proposed ban on clothing manufacturers incinerating or landfilling unwanted stock also seems entirely reasonable when you consider the sheer wastefulness of the practice and the public uproar that greeted the news last summer that some high profile brands were burning or cutting up perfectly good surplus stock.
The EAC's recommendation that all larger retailers be required to join the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan is nothing more than a firmer nudge to make the online fast fashion specialists emulate their high street competitors and embrace some fairly basic sustainability best practices.
If the government is on slightly firmer ground in arguing Sweden's decision to reduce VAT for repair services is yet to deliver conclusive results, where is the British government's plan to incentivise the wider adoption of circular economy and material re-use principles on this side of the North Sea? Short answer: there isn't one.
Defra's insistence it would prefer to "encourage" firms to embrace best practices and deploy "positive approaches" to ensure clothes are recycled and re-used feels like a remarkably dated attempt to justify an unthinking laissez faire ideological agenda that is utterly out of step with the scale of the challenge, not to mention the government's wider waste strategy.
If the concern is the cost of living impact of that extra penny, why did the government increase the plastic bag levy and why is it working to increase extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging? If the net zero target and the government's environment plan are urgent, why wait another five years to review whether an EPR is suitable for textiles? If the concern is the competitiveness of retailers, why not listen to the fashion sector itself, which according to a recent survey from industry bible Drapers is hugely supportive of the EAC's proposals, is well aware of the consumer pressure to act, and wants to see the government do more.
The opposition from the proposals seems to be mainly coming from an online fast fashion sector that is under-cutting more responsible operators, ratcheting up its environmental impacts, failing to deliver the most basic of sustainability measures, and loading disposal costs onto the taxpayer, while often deploying some pretty questionable tax practices themselves. Exhibit A: Missguided launched a £1 bikini made from plastic-based textiles this week. It is the very antithesis of sustainable, responsible consumption. A 1p charge to help cover the costs we all bear when the bikini is thrown away after a few wears or the plastic microfibres make it into all our waters is the very least we should be demanding.
Writing on Twitter yesterday, New Economics Foundation's David Powell noted that in some ways the government's refusal to embrace the EAC's proposals was more frustrating and more symbolic of the failure to properly engage with the scale of the climate crisis than the decision to back Heathrow's newly unveiled expansion plans.
For me the Government's expansion on Heathrow in the light of the climate crisis isn't the biggest illustration that they're not serious about it.— David Powell (@powellds) June 18, 2019
It's their refusal to put 1p - ONE PENNY - on the price of fast fashion to help pay for its mess.
What sort of dogma is that?
He's right, of course. It is easy to disagree with the government's stance on Heathrow, but it is possible to see how it is a politically difficult decision with competing interests and significant economic implications whatever you do. In contrast, the modest proposals put forward by the EAC are an entirely sensible first step towards tackling a massive environmental problem. If presented right the new policies would command public and business support, while having negligible short term economic impacts. Indeed, those businesses that are striving to do the right thing and develop more sustainable practices would likely welcome the emergence of a more level playing field. Moreover, enhanced resource efficiency and more circular business models are simply a non-negotiable component of the net zero economy the government has said it wants to build.
Instead of adopting these measures, a government that has just agreed to an epoch-shaping net zero target and is about to be granted the honour of hosting the most crucial climate summit since the Paris Agreement has rejected a modest package of reforms while offering a barely plausible defence of an approach that is demonstrably failing to make a dent in the fashion waste mountain.
There is one piece of silver lining to this otherwise dreary collection of developments. The corollary with the debate a decade ago over the plastic bag levy is obvious. Then the government pointed to the apparent success of voluntary measures that were clearly struggling to deliver the scale of change required and used the progress that had been made to justify deferring a more interventionist approach. But public opinion was changing. It couldn't last, and it didn't.
Any environment minister or fashion retailer tempted to celebrate today's decision to reject the EAC's recommendations should ask themselves if that position is sustainable, or whether they should start preparing now for a point in the not too distant future when a new government demands the industry starts paying for its environmental impacts and embracing more circular principles. The fast fashion industry might think it has got itself off the hook, but that judgement could yet prove premature. Or to put it another way, the message for any unsustainable retailer that thinks they can ignore environmental concerns for a few more years has to be, 'not so fast'.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.