The government has rejected an additional tax on retail, news that might normally be welcomed, so over-burdened with levies is this industry.

However, this particular tax was not designed to raise money for the Treasury or level the playing field between online giants and those with high street stores to pay rates on.

It was a penny tax that would have levied 1p on every item of clothing sold by online and bricks-and-mortar retailers with the £35m raised to be invested in better recycling. The initiative was proposed by Mary Creagh MP, who led a cross-party inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry.

For an industry that is more polluting than aviation and shipping combined, a penny tax does not appear a radical, or even particularly onerous, solution.

But the government has rejected the idea wholesale, saying instead it will look at making producers financially responsible for their product at the end of its life sometime between 2022 and 2025.

“The government seems content with the measures that fail to prevent the UK consuming more clothing than any other European country”

That’s between three and six years away, and there is no indication of when any resulting proposal might be implemented. In the meantime, the government seems content to stick with the measures that currently fail to prevent the UK consuming more clothing than any other European country.

The government roundly rejected almost every idea put forward by Creagh and co, pointing instead to voluntary measures already undertaken by some in the fashion industry.

Instead of supporting the committee’s plan for mandatory environmental targets for fashion retailers with a turnover of more than £36m, it “aims to encourage the industry” to take part. It also rejected a proposed ban on landfill and incineration, saying instead it wanted to find “positive alternatives”, though failed to specify what they might be.


This lackadaisical approach was not limited to ecological concerns. Proposals concerning modern slavery – of which there have been allegations in Leicester factories – were also rejected.

Instead, the government pointed to current measures despite them evidently – see Leicester – not being fit for purpose. It pointed to initiatives such as the Home Office’s whizzy new Modern Slavery Assessment Tool and insisted senior business leaders were “more focused than ever before” on stamping out slavery. That may well be true, but it’s hardly a problem solved.

“Ministers have failed to recognise that urgent action must be taken to change the fast-fashion business model that produces cheap clothes that cost the earth”

Mary Creagh MP

Creagh today rubbished the government’s response to the committee’s proposal.

“Fashion producers should be forced to clear up the mountains of waste they create,” she said. “The government has rejected our call, demonstrating that it is content to tolerate practices that trash the environment and exploit workers.

“The government is out of step with the public who are shocked by the fact that we are sending 300,000 tonnes 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 that produces cheap clothes that cost the earth.”

For its part, the government said that it “simply isn’t true” to say it had not accepted the committee’s recommendations and that it would examine producer responsibility between 2022 and 2025.

However, this does not explain its refusal to examine the issue now and its decision not to take recommendations on modern slavery seriously.

Changing behaviour

Why the government has taken this approach is not clear. It has just become the first major economy to commit to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but you would not think it from reading its half-hearted defence. If the government is serious about that target it needs to begin work now, not in six years’ time.

This is especially pertinent when you consider that just this week Missguided began selling a £1 bikini – a publicity stunt that quickly backfired with many on social media questioning how such a product could be produced sustainably and ethically for that price. 

However, for every negative headline, there was a flurry of tweets about snapping up the item. With a daily drop of 1,000 per day, customers had to sign up to mailing lists to be notified and demand was so great on the first day that Missguided’s website crashed. Expecting consumers to change their behaviour overnight is not realistic. Nor is expecting margin-pressured retailers to collectively clean up their acts without a mandate from the government.

If retailers’ fiercest criticism on these issues comes from Twitter rather than elected representatives, the net-zero commitment is not worth the (hopefully recycled) paper it is written on.