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Why Fashion Should Have a Plastic Tax

The fashion industry continues to advance voluntary and unlikely solutions to its plastic problem. Only higher prices will flip the script, writes Kenneth P. Pucker.
A woman lies submerged in plastic waste with only her face visible.
Plastic materials like polyester are now the fashion industry's most commonly used textiles. (Shutterstock)
By
  • Kenneth Pucker
BoF PROFESSIONAL

Over the last two weeks, leaders from 175 countries gathered in Ottawa, Canada to hash out the details of a global treaty to end plastic pollution which is expected to be finalised in a last round of negotiations set to be held in Korea in November.

The issue is urgent. A new study by the US-funded research and development centre, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found that plastics have grown by more than any other bulk material on earth over the past decade, with significant and damaging consequences for human health and the environment.

Carbon pollution created by plastic production is responsible for 2.24 gigatons of CO2 per year, or nearly five percent of all global emissions. Microplastics, some of which shed from synthetic fashion, are entering our bodies through the food we eat and the air we breathe, with dangerous health implications. According to the UN, more than 2,400 chemicals that are associated with plastics are of concern to our health or the planet. And because they do not biodegrade, products like nylon tights and polyester sneakers can remain in landfills for generations. Incinerated plastics release heavy metals and toxins.

According to Ecuador’s chief negotiator, Walter Schuldt, the talks on global plastics treaty are “about the survival of the future of life, not only human life but all sorts of life on this planet.”

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Big stakes. And ones in which fashion is complicit.

Plastic Fashion

Plastic, in the form of polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane, has fused with fashion. Cheap, durable, functional and plentiful polyester is now the world’s most used textile, accounting for more than half of global production. This was not always the case; before 2000, natural fibres dominated the fashion industry.

The most contentious element of the ongoing negotiations over a plastic pollution treaty could help redress that balance. Some “high ambition” countries are pushing for targets to reduce global plastic production, similar to the agreement to keep a cap on global warming reached under the UN Paris Agreement in 2015.

But reduction is not a focus of the fashion industry. Instead, big brands, industry trade groups and NGO-backed consortia that are still dominated by corporate interests are focused on the promise of recycling and reuse, leaning into technologies that have yet to be proven at scale, aren’t cost competitive and fail to tackle the root issue of overproduction.

A recent Lululemon-sponsored report published by trade group Textile Exchange highlighted this view. The report, titled “The Future of Synthetics” said that the industry must shift away from the use of virgin fossil fuel-based plastics to meet its climate goals, recommending a switch instead to alternatives that include textile-to-textile recycling, biosynthetics and materials made from captured carbon.

Unfortunately, these steps won’t come anywhere close to delivering on Textile Exchange’s stated ambitions.

Why not?

None of these emerging technologies can compete with virgin polyester on price, efficacy or volume. All preferred solutions require decades and billions of dollars of investment to scale — capital which will not flow to financially bootless options. It’s also not yet proven which, if any of these options will meaningfully reduce the industry’s carbon emissions, or curb the toxic levels of chemicals and microplastics released by today’s plastic fashion.

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What Can Be Done

While the first step of Textile Exchange’s plan to reduce the fashion industry’s growing dependence on plastics is fanciful, the report proposes a second step: to reduce the overall volume of stuff produced and sold.

Adoption of this recommendation would have a profound and immediate impact. Unfortunately, the report does not make any suggestions for how to accomplish this dramatic turn.

Just as other big fossil-fuel producing countries are pushing back against any proposal to cap global plastic production, the fashion industry is unwilling to entertain ideas that would restrain growth. After all, for brands like report sponsor Lululemon, their valuation depends on growing output.

But, if caps on fashion sales are inconceivable, a sufficiently high tax on plastic inputs would represent a step in the right direction. Such a measure would discourage the use of plastics by increasing their cost and make less damaging natural alternatives more attractive. It would simultaneously create a pool of funds to address the negative environmental and health impacts caused by plastic pollution.

Consider, for example, that taxes on cigarettes have caused prices to balloon and consumption to plummet.

For those who nonetheless insist that such a proposal is fantasy, look to France, which is already considering a sin-style tax on fashion. Rather than recommend dubious “solutions,” the fashion industry ought to support credible paths to reduce its negative impacts, thus restoring its standing as a creative and constructive force for good.

Further Reading

Are New Materials Ready to Go Mainstream?

A wave of high-profile failures has dampened the hype around biofabricated materials and ingredients, making this year a critical one for start-ups in the space to execute on scale-up plans.

Can Fashion Live Without Plastic? It’s Complicated

Last month, Boss’s runway show in Milan featured a trio of limited-edition jackets made using a new fibre designed to replace polyester. But untangling the industry from a material that has played a central role in its growth will be a tricky business.

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