However, there is doubt as to whether such a tax would have any meaningful impact on the actions of the apparel industry. The subject of waste is a huge one, spreading into every aspect of the manufacturing and retail of apparel, but by drilling down to a single example of what can go wrong, it is possible to show why this is so.
One issue in the matrix of problems that plague fashion today is that of garment fit. e-Commerce customer returns are running at an unsustainable rate, with online retailers often seeing 20% of their garments being sent back for a refund, and many return rates topping a whopping 50%. Over two-thirds of these retail returns are reported by consumers to be ‘fit related’, meaning that sizing is a huge problem.
Most of the garments that are returned as unsatisfactory are placed back in the inventory (adding processing and often postal costs to their engorged carbon footprint) awaiting resale. Some, having already gone through this process before, are damaged or have deteriorated due to the caustic ‘sale and return’ journey, and consequently can no longer be re-stocked. In addition, after a series of aborted transactions, the fit of certain items will be flagged up as faulty and they are withdrawn, or reduced in price in the hope of a quick disposal. Of these failed items, some newly manufactured fashion even finds its way into landfill.
The whole process (manufacturing, distributing, promoting, retailing, taking payment, packaging, consignment, delivery, collection, processing, re-stocking) does not happen for free. All the costs are ultimately added on to the price of those garments that end up being sold to customers, meaning that as if the ecological crime was not bad enough, this process also victimises the consumer.
But, of course, brands suffer also. Nothing could be more financially punitive than creating a piece of stock whose lifecycle consists of a litany of expense, ending in a total waste. Loading the price for their failures on to the rest of their range is highly damaging in a market that is super-competitive. This is a tax on failure that is paid every minute of every day.
There are many on to whom this extra ‘tax bill’ is being pressed. The added reduction of margin is one reason why fashion production is often exported to countries where low wages and staff welfare keep costs down.
That the fit problem still endures despite the substantial monetary penalty, is evidence that expense alone hasn’t delivered enough motivation to find a solution, so it’s doubtful that adding an extra penny on to the price of each garment will make any difference.
Part of the problem is that is difficult for brands to understand what needs to be done to help them develop the range of stock and the tech suited to their fashion consumers. Today (much more than when the first standardised sizing was developed in the 1950s), UK consumers range in size extensively, and there is also a wide age range, a broad racial mix, and width of differing preferences. The diversity of people who now have the right to expect material gratification has seen social justice meld with commercial interest to create a lucrative but highly complex potential customer base.
These discrete groups have diverse sizing and fit needs, as their body shapes and preferences range widely. As yet, from a sizing and grading point of view, much of the fashion industry has been trying to pretend this diversity doesn't exist, and has adopted the technique of throwing mud at a wall and hoping it will stick. A mass of clothing is sent out to consumers in the hope that it will be ‘all right’, with what ‘doesn’t stick’ possibly ending up as waste. The returns evidence suggests that not nearly enough has been achieved in fit tools and appropriate choices of grading, meaning that hundreds of thousands of wrongly sized and/or graded garments are being sent out to ultimately disappointed customers. It looks very much as if the fashion industry is floundering on this issue.
When it comes to fashion fit, it’s my belief that we should look at history to think about how government intervention can work successfully. In the mid-twentieth century, during the development of the first mass-produced fashion, national governments in the developed world worked with their respective industries to develop standardized sizing.
Fashion is facing a similar challenge today: starting with the advent of the Internet there has been a complete change in the apparel business, with the new consumers making the old sizing systems increasingly obsolete, and retailers needing to develop techniques of selling garments without the use of a changing room. It’s time to see the fashion industry as a whole internationally and with the assistance (or at least encouragement) of all interested governments take up the challenge of developing the sizing solutions and fit tech that are suitable for today’s apparel commerce.
I am not talking about regulation or compulsion here; the suggestion is for leadership and co-operation, perhaps backed-up with academic and business expertise and positive tax incentives. Tech solutions can be found to the fit problem, and, if this particular source of waste in the fashion industry can be solved in this way, it will serve as a template for politicians and industry to work together to help tackle other preventable environmentally damaging practices.
This approach would be much more constructive than just putting another tax on an already financially stressed industry, knowing who will ultimately pay that levy.