Plastic fashion: if you can’t beat it, tax it

The world is questioning the need to decarbonise the economy, while synthetic fibres continue to be produced in large quantities from virgin plastic for fashion consumption. But a taboo is falling: if the price is what makes them so competitive, a surcharge can reduce their success

by Roberto Procaccini


The pleasant fact is that, in many fields, the expression ‘plastic’ means ephemeral things. In linguistics, for example, ‘plastic words’ (plastisms) are those that do not belong to the usual language but quickly enter it (to the point of becoming clichés) because they are suddenly successful in the media. In politics, a party is plastic when its strength depends not on identity roots or territory but on sponsors. The fashion system, however, is an exception: ‘plastic fashion’ is anything but ephemeral precisely because of its concreteness. There are repercussions today when they produce and consume it, and tomorrow when it is disposed of, as long as the degradation time of plastic is met.

Prevalent materials

Polyester, acrylic, nylon, elastane, gore-tex. Synthetic fibres account for the bulk of materials used in the fashion of all segments from the bottom up. Of course, there are projects (large and small) for their recycling and reuse: every brand has its own collection of accessories made from materials derived from ‘disused fishing nets’, ‘plastics floating in the ocean’, ‘old scrapped clothing’, or whatever. Then, of course, there are also start-ups working on ‘biosynthetic’ fabrics, new frontiers in yarns, and the re-functionalisation of secondary raw materials.

But it is little stuff. It is time to recognise the truth, and Business of Fashion is not backing down. Nothing is as competitive in ‘price, efficiency and volume’ as virgin plastic. So there is little to rely on the idea that a ‘new and better plastic’ will come onto the market to undermine the traditional one. It still takes years and huge investments. In the meantime, the public and ‘the great of the earth’ are racking their brains over the decarbonisation of our economies and societies.

A tax on plastic fashion

Tax. BoF advocates the adoption of a tax regime that would burden the plastic supply chain and make products less attractive to the consumer. The reference model is the French one, where a bill is under discussion that provides for surcharges of up to EUR 10 (as long as they do not exceed 50% of the sale value to the end consumer) on fast fashion garments. The idea is to replicate the type of excise duty placed on tobacco, sugar, or alcohol to protect the health of the consumer. We will see if these bills go ahead because taxes are always unpopular. And we will see if they work: there are already those who complain that it would be a customs barrier (since it mostly affects imported products) in disguise and sharpen the blades of appeals. (rp)

Photo Shutterstock

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