The conversation about sustainability in fashion often offloads responsibility onto consumers and their individual choices, missing structural change completely. We know brands don’t pull their weight, but what about change on the level of policy?
What kind of change could be possible if we looked at the system as a whole, and what are the little fixes that could get us there?
These questions prompted us to write our Ideas for a New Fashion Industry, a manifesto for structural change and practical demands.
To find out more, join our Patreon for campaigning materials, check out our YouTube discussion with co-authors Kalkidan Legesse and Zarina Muhammad, and see what we're doing to make these things a reality currently.
1. Rent controls for social enterprise or community groups. Subsidised high street space.
Rent control for social enterprises and community groups already exists, as an informal supportive solution. It’s great, because it eases the pressure; rather than being redirected back into running costs, it means money can get to where it needs to be, to fund the vital work community groups and social enterprises already do.
Turning this into a concrete policy would formalise an arrangement that is already casually in place, and make it a stable standard that groups can rely on for support. It would set a level of expectation and consistency. Groups would be less precarious and less reliant on the goodwill of the spaces being offered to them, and could focus their attention on doing the work they set out to do in the first place.
Subsidised high street space specifically could be a great way to solve a few problems in one go. We keep hearing that British high streets are dying: as well as easing the financial pressure on social enterprises, it would revitalise local high streets. Making space for social enterprises would inject some much needed activity and life into spaces that have been long abandoned. It would represent a significant offer of support from local councils, to the communities being served by the social enterprises. It would represent a supportive model for the social enterprises themselves, place them in direct proximity to local consumers, increasing their visibility, and making this casual arrangement of subsidised space much more scalable and stable.
2. Extend regulation of Environmental or Social claims to SEO and website meta data
Which brands are sustainable, what does sustainable really mean on an industry-wide scale, and what is actually just corporate greenwashing? When we’re making purchases, we trust the things that companies tell us about the thing they’re selling. But if you google sustainable fashion, you’re given some very vague answers to these questions.
The lack of clarity for consumers, around sustainability, is often a handy loophole for brands to jump through; they can (and do) use SEO and website meta data to implicitly market themselves as sustainable, while still not doing anything substantial to back up these claims. Regulation of the way brands use environmental and social claims already exists; it would be quite simple to extend this regulation to online marketing. This way, it would cover SEO and other more implicit tools companies can use to position themselves as sustainable, without actually being able to back it up with their actions.
3. Tax breaks for B corps/companies with proven positive social and environmental contributions.
For example: VAT decrease for stringent observations of human rights & NIC break for employing people facing barriers to work at Living Wages
A regressive tax is where the proportion of an individual’s income spent on that tax falls as they progress up the income scale.
VAT is a regressive tax. At a standard rate of 20%, it is applied universally, without adjustment based on what we earn. As a result, it is a higher tax for those with low wages, who spend a larger proportion of their income.
National Insurance is also a regressive tax. NI contributions are still paid by the lowest earners. If you earn between £166 and £962 a week then you pay the same rate of 12%. Someone earning £8,630 a year and someone earning £50,000 a year are paying the same rate of contribution, despite there being a huge disparity between those two levels of income.
Tax & NIC breaks for employing people facing barriers to work is a policy that already exists out in the world. In the US there’s the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), a Federal tax credit available to employers for hiring individuals from certain targeted groups who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment.
In the UK, a VAT decrease and NIC break for companies with proven positive social and environmental impact would make ethical sustainable fashion more inclusive and democratic, making better use of a wider pool of talent. It would also act as an incentive for companies to seriously do demonstrable good, as well as making positive social and environmental contributions economically beneficial.
4. Investment in fibre recycling and innovation: trash is our biggest resource
Anna Brismar defined Circular fashion as ‘clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use.’
We believe that the fashion industry should consider the longevity, resource efficiency, and wider ethics of the items it produces. The life cycle of products should bring no environmental or socio-economic harm, but instead contribute to the positive development and well-being of humans, ecosystems and societies at large.
While that is the world we would like to see, it isn’t completely possible under current conditions. One practical step to get there would be to invest in technology that makes fibre recycling easier and more accessible. Local councils at the current moment are woefully underfunded and not in a position to pilot innovative textile recycling schemes. We need more investment from government to recycle the textiles we have, instead of turning them over to landfill, exporting them to Ghana as part of a waste colonialism project, or downcycling into rag and insulation.
5. Investment for projects by women and POC
A 2020 report by Extend Ventures, looked into funding gaps along the lines of race, gender and educational background between 2009 and 2019. The report found that all-POC teams and female entrepreneurs receive just a fraction of available funding, compared to all-white teams and male founders.
There is a huge imbalance in where funding goes, and there are clearly large, systemic failures that have led to this imbalance. Correcting this balance would have to involve specific and targeted funding designated for those groups that have historically been excluded and under-served by current models. While it would not solve the systemic failures, or dismantle the system in any way; it would be a move in the right direction, and represent a significant show of support and willingness to do better.
6. Syndicalism over monopolies: openness to different economic models
We believe that the future of sustainable fashion, and indeed any industry, is small, local and co-operatively run enterprises that respond to the needs of the communities around them.
The corporate model cannot provide a solution for every problem. We need to support and invest in best practice fashion from seed to garment, from end to end of each company and every supply chain, through better regional textiles recycling facilities, to subsidised local high streets that give back to the economy, and tax breaks for social enterprises with ethical hiring practises.
We need to make it pay to do better. Whether that’s repairs, locally made garments with discounts for workers' families, organic luxury goods, school uniform exchanges, or entirely second hand high streets; there’s incredibly exciting policy potential if we open ourselves up to alternative economic models.