Will a $5 Fast-Fashion Surcharge Save the Planet?

Will a $5 Fast-Fashion Surcharge Save the Planet?

Some politicians have decided not to embrace a “laissez faire” attitude when it comes to the legislation of fast fashion.

French Parliament member Antoine Vermorel-Marques of the Les Républicains (LR) party, proposed a bill aimed at decreasing the prevalence of fast fashion in France

Legislative details

The bill, titled “Demodernizing fast fashion with a bonus-malus system,” proposes “a penalty of 5 Euros [($5.42)] per product for producers who put more than a thousand new models on the market every day.” 

The bill takes aim at Shein, the fast-fashion mogul that adds thousands of products to its assortment daily. 

But other brands, particularly those in fast fashion, could also be affected. Sheng Lu, an associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, said though the bill could have some promise, its details need to be hashed out. 

He noted that it could be difficult to define “new models,” since that could mean 1,000 SKUs or 1,000 styles—two very different measurements. Nonetheless, Lu said, it may be difficult to enforce.

“Who’s going to count that? How is [France] going to enforce this issue? This is very important,” he said. “Do you just manually count each [item] on a company’s website? Or do you just assume you know some companies, like Shein, would [qualify]?” 

One thing about the bill is clear: Vermorel-Marques has an interest in protecting items made in France, rather than allowing products made in China to grab market share in the country. 

“It’s a question of combating unfair competition against companies that opt for more sustainable textile production that respects people and the environment,” Vermorel-Marques wrote in the explanatory memorandum for the bill. “Our regions are full of such companies, and combating fast fashion also means helping them to develop.” 

The bill notes that the 5 Euro penalties paid out will be put toward bonuses for companies manufacturing sustainably in France, though the bill makes no mention of what a brand would need to do to qualify for the bonus. 

The bill does not immediately make clear whether that 5 Euro penalty will be passed on to consumers, though a decision like that might be left up to the fast-fashion purveyors themselves. 

Vermorel-Marques explained the bill’s goal in an interview with Usbek & Rica. 

“The idea is simple: you buy a T-shirt from ultra-fast fashion online, you have a maximum penalty of 5 Euros per item. On the contrary, [if] you buy a T-shirt that respects our environment, produced in France or in Europe, you have a bonus of 5 Euros maximum. The key is that it’s not an additional tax. We’re not coming to take your money. We just come to tell you: ‘If you pollute, you pay. If you don’t pollute, you win.’ As a result, it’s a win-win for both the consumer and the planet,” he told Usbek & Rica. 

Critics have said that if consumers are required to pay some, or all, of the 5 Euros, it could impact lower-income consumers’ abilities to purchase clothing at all, if they rely on fast fashion.

Carolyn Mair, a behavioral psychologist who specializes in the fashion industry, noted that two of the driving factors behind consumers’ interest in fast fashion are accessibility and affordability.

Mair said if consumers are required to pay the penalty, she doesn’t anticipate that it would change their purchasing patterns much. 

“Consumers need to be educated. They need to be told the things they can do, rather than the things they cannot do. Rather than making them feel guilty, they need to feel empowered. If they’re empowered to make good decisions about their fashion purchases, that will not only be good for them, but good for the environment as well,” Mair told Sourcing Journal. 

A spokesperson for Fashion Revolution France said the organization will propose multiple amendments to the bill on March 5, though it did not disclose what the amendments would entail. 

Elizabeth Cline, author and lecturer of fashion policy at Columbia University, said regardless of whether the bill has legs in the French Parliament, it could start a broader discussion among consumers and legislators alike. 

“Even these kinds of symbolic policy moves, they can have benefits. Whether this moves forward or not, it can start the conversation or elevate the coordination among lawmakers and inspire other legislation that is more practical or more feasible to pass,” she said.

Legislation beyond France

The proposal by Vermorel-Marques is just one of many pieces of proposed legislation that would impact fast fashion’s ability to continue with the status quo. 

Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standard Institute, said the New York Fashion Act, which spans both environmental concerns and labor concerns, is an example of legislation that could lead the way for other jurisdictions.

Part of the reason it could be a model piece of legislation comes from the fact that it has engaged a number of stakeholders in the process.

“There is a lot of momentum building on the Fashion Act. So when that passes, that will that will certainly be comprehensive,” she noted. “What the coalition behind the Fashion Act is really doing is…inviting people into the political process and [demonstrating] that we can have a much bigger say than we think we can on the politics and the policies of the day.”

Other state governments, like California and Washington, have also been working to implement legislation that would impose tighter restrictions on fashion retailers.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) has been negotiating on legislation like the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), which would require companies to pinpoint and work to mitigate practices in their supply chains that would cause social or environmental harm.

Cline said that kind of specific, comprehensive legislation could prove more valuable than one-off initiatives like the one Vermorel-Marques has proposed.

“Something like the EU CSDDD is going to be a lot more effective at addressing some of the issues that we’re all concerned with, including waste. If you take an ultra-fast-fashion company like Shein or Temu, or any of the slower fast-fashion companies like Boohoo or Pretty Little Thing, part of why their products are so cheap is because they’re currently not doing any real due diligence into their supply chain,” Cline told Sourcing Journal. “They’re not fully aware of everyone they’re working with. They’re not making an effort to partner with responsible supply chains.”

The European Council is currently slated to vote on the CSDDD on Feb. 28.

And as the EU continues to consider legislation on the fashion industry, Australia‘s Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, recently warned that fast fashion will need to change its ways or risk a levy from the Australian government.

Lu, who has expertise in trade policy, said that while legislation will be paramount in bettering fashion’s impact on social and environmental issues, tariffs and trade incentives could also be a key way forward.

“Trade tools actually can play a very important role in incentivizing companies to do good things or to discourage them to do something that may have a more negative impact on the environmental or social aspects,” Lu told Sourcing Journal.

Bédat said the pending pieces of legislation could affect consumers’ purchasing patterns when enacted, especially if the regulations disrupt consumers’ normal habits and purchase patterns in a tangible way.

“The reality is that Shein and its competitors are on the upswing. At the same time, there is huge momentum—probably because of that—to create real, impactful policy that will address address the Sheins [of the industry],” she said. “It was the same with cigarettes; young people in the 80s were saying, ‘Yeah, I know it’s really bad for me, but, but, but…’ And people were still smoking until cigarettes got regulated, and that has had a significant impact on smoking rates.”

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