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UK Lawmakers Could Tax New Clothes to Improve Recycling

British lawmakers are proposing a one-penny tax on every new skirt, dress and trouser to fund better clothing sorting and recycling in the United Kingdom.

Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of the House of Commons warned in a report on Tuesday. Yet less than 1 percent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.

Levying a one-penny charge per garment would make fashion retailers take responsibility for the waste they create while raising 35 million pounds to develop and fund a national clothing-collection scheme, the report argued.

Britain, it noted, must move away from its “throwaway society” toward a model that promotes sharing, swapping, renting and repairing over buying and throwing away.

“We recognize that fast fashion has made it affordable for everyone to experience the pleasure of style, design and the latest trends,” the committee wrote. “We were told, however, that the most sustainable garment is the one we already own.”

To that end, the EAC recommends “clear economic incentives” for companies that offer repair services for clothes and urges schools not to neglect textile skills such as designing and mending. To “stimulate the market” for recycled fibers, it suggests extending a tax on virgin plastics, set to come into force in 2022, to textile products containing less than 50 percent recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

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The United Kingdom consumes more new clothing than any other European country—26.7 kilograms (58.9 pounds) per capita versus 16.7 kg (36.8 pounds) in Germany, 16.0 kg (35.2 pounds) in Denmark, 14.5 kg (31.9 pounds) in Italy, 14.0 kg (30.8 pounds) in the Netherlands and 12.6 kg (27.7 pounds) in Sweden, according to the Textiles Recycling Association—causing a glut of secondhand clothing to oversaturate the market and depress prices for used textiles, the report said. At the same time, Britons send 300,000 metric tons of textiles—or roughly 140 million pounds’ ($183 million) worth—to landfills and incinerators every year.

The cross-party committee is calling upon a new economic model for fashion because “business as usual no longer works.”

“Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth, but the fashion industry has marked its own homework for too long,” it wrote. “Voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives have failed significantly to reduce waste. The government should change the law to require companies to perform due diligence checks across their supply chains.”

The report is a culmination of an eight-month inquiry into how the 32 billion pound ($42 billion) British fashion industry can remodel itself to be more sustainable. Led by committee chair Mary Creagh, the investigation gathered evidence from dozens of retailers, nonprofits, academic experts and campaigners and included hearings with representatives from Asos, Boohoo, Burberry, Primark, Marks & Spencer and Topshop before Parliament.

The committee also condemned the social cost of clothing, citing fast fashion’s systemic abuses in particular. Britain’s biggest retailers, it said, have “chased the cheap needle around the planet” by commissioning products in countries where poverty wages, no freedom of association and scant environmental oversight are par for the course.

“We are also concerned about the use of child labor, prison labor, forced labor and bonded labor in factories and the garment supply chain,” it wrote. “Fast fashion’s overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is based on the globalization of indifference towards these manual workers.”