Should Australia introduce a fast fashion tax?

Words by Bianca O’Neill

Image via Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Following the UK’s rejection of such a policy, how would the legislation impact here?

Members of the UK Parliament this month voted on a ‘fast fashion tax’ targeting major apparel producers. The proposed legislation outlined a number of environmental targets for clothing companies including a ban on sending waste to landfill, levies of one pence per item and incentives for reuse and recycling.

The intention was to prevent high turnover of products, reduce the impact of fast fashion on the environment, and deter wastage and incineration of excess stock.

Yet the tax didn’t pass. Instead, ministers pointed toward voluntary targets already operating under an existing sustainable target agreement.

It was an interesting decision from the UK government considering public opinion has swelled in recent years in favour of environmental targets. Focus has broadened even to include luxury labels, particularly after a story last year – detailing Burberry’s admission to destroying £30 million worth of old stock – generated widespread outrage.

UK Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Labour MP Mary Creagh neatly summarised the public response.

“It is out of step,” she said. “[The public] are shocked by the fact that we are sending 300,000 tonnes of clothes a year to incineration or landfill.”

So should Australia consider a similar tax and succeed where the UK has failed?

In Australia, a ‘fast fashion tax’ proposal is bolstered by economic imperatives, not just environmental. Endless news of label closures march across our pages; the local crisis becoming so bad that it even caught the eye of the BBC. The well-documented decline in Australian retail sales has often been attributed to the influx of international fast fashion chains like Zara and H&M, as well as the rise in online shopping destinations.

Yes, there is a problem here. Our local retail is dying. But would a ‘fast fashion tax’ actually fix it?

On one side of the discussion is the problematic manufacturing practices of fast fashion outlets. For clothing made in Australia, ethical manufacturing is covered by our stringent workplace law. There isn’t, however, any law that currently restricts businesses from importing goods made in countries where slave labour, pitiful pay and dangerous conditions are rife.

Only companies who rake in more than $100m in annual revenue have to show transparency in terms of their supply chain, leaving a lot of small local retailers shielded by this loophole. In fact, it was estimated last year that Australia imports $12 billion worth of goods at risk of being made by slave labour.

How could mirroring the UK’s proposed fast fashion tax hope to curb this disturbing behaviour?

The answer is, it can’t. A single pence-per-item does not a slave labour deterrent make.

On the other side of the coin, from the consumer standpoint, it’s hard not to see a fast fashion tax as anything but a tax on those who are economically challenged.

And no matter which way you spin it, ethically manufactured and sustainable products cost more, a luxury some unfortunately can’t afford. After all, if you have limited funds, you can’t survive on vintage bargains alone.

If international governments are serious about fixing supply chain issues, eradicating slave labour, and enforcing ethical and sustainable manufacturing processes they need to do it via more stringent legislation. Clearly more supply-chain transparency is required for imported items, as well as serious wastage legislation to promote sustainable behaviours.

A fast fashion tax sounds like a good idea on the surface, until you dive into the bigger structural problems at the heart of the industry. It’s not about simply pitting high-street retailers against against luxury fashion houses and catching the consumer in the crossfire.

And like the sugar tax debate before it all this policy does is push the price of products up, punishing the user for their choices. It doesn’t fix the problematic choices available to them in the first place.

Follow Bianca’s fashion writing over at @bianca.oneill

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