Now that we’re getting a grip on food waste and plastic waste, we really need to make a start on fashion waste – and end this fad of “fast fashion”. The MPs on the environment select committee suggest we could start small, with a tax of one penny per clothing item, which would yield about £35m a year, something that could fund better clothing collection – for charity, reuse or recycling.
It should work. Yet we can go further. As the now well-developed understanding of “nudge” incentives predicts, the public has a disproportionate tendency to react to relatively small taxes. Or can do. In recent times we have seen it most dramatically in the sugar tax, first in Scotland then across the UK, which will yield huge benefits to the NHS as children in particular move to lower-sugar substitutes.
Before long they stop noticing the difference in taste. New generations of kids won’t even know that their Cokes, Irn Brus and San Pellegrino fruit drinks were once even more laden with sugar, and won’t even care.
The early signs are that this particular nudge policy is working. The same is true, with a longer track record, of the plastic bag tax, another small charge that, rationally, wouldn’t even be noticed ordinarily – few people would stop and stoop to pick up a 10p coin these days – but instinctively they want to avoid paying for the bag.
We should start doing something similar with fashion. We could, at its simplest, add a tiny amount to the VAT on adult’s clothing, and reduce the VAT on clothing repairs.
Perhaps that would also make us think twice about the modern habit of ultra-disposable clothing, a trend which is down to three factors.
First, the availability of much cheaper clothing generally, often derived from low or poverty-wage economies in Asia, specifically countries such as Bangladesh, where many of the fast fashion manufacturing factories are based.
Second, our incomes are higher than they were, and clothing is a comparatively smaller item in household budgets, so we’re less inclined to be careful about our purchases.
Third, and this pains me more than anything, the very idea of good quality, value for money and above all durable clothes has, so to speak, gone out of fashion, and become hopelessly fuddy duddy.
Marks & Spencer’s entire reputation was based on selling clothes that didn’t wear out – that was supposed to be a plus. It seems an alien, dated concept nowadays.
To start you off, you can do what I often do. Without embarrassing yourself, and with no necessary requirement to disclose it to anyone but your conscience, conduct a little audit of what you have on. Think about how long you’ve had it, and what it cost.
One day you, like me, may take especial pride and delight in wearing a tie or a jacket from some decades ago. I can roughly date some of mine because they still have “St Michael” on them, the M&S brand (and guarantee of hard-wearing quality) that was discontinued in 2000 (which originated with the fine Corah’s textile company in Leicester).
The next step is to start maintaining your clothes, not chucking them out. If there’s a bit of tearing on the lining, why not have it repaired by a tailor or seamstress. Holes in socks can be darned; elbow pads added to elderly tweed jackets; buttons replaced.
One day, wearing timeless, classic lines season-in, season-out will be the fashionable thing to do and we will stop throwing away perfectly serviceable clothing. It will be, I hope, socially unacceptable and ridiculous to wear “designer” labels. Slow fashion; make do and mend; clothes made to last: these are excellent mottos for the post-Brexit, or any other, era.
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