April 10, 2024

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Green move or penalty for the poor?

Green move or penalty for the poor?

In a bid to combat the “fast-fashion” and “ultra-fast-fashion” brands that have taken France by storm, a young lawmaker from the conservative Les Républicains party has proposed slapping an extra €5 on every fast-fashion purchase in the name of the environment and the French textile industry. But criticism of the bill has been fierce, especially on social media, where some have slammed the draft bill as unfair, saying it will only serve to punish the poor.  

“So gorgeous, so classy!,” 31-year-old conservative lawmaker Antoine Vermorel-Marques exclaims as he films himself pulling out a pair of shoes from a box purportedly ordered from the hugely popular Chinese fast-fashion online giant Shein. “Treated with phthalate, a substance which is an endocrine disruptor that can make us sterile,” he adds as an ironic kicker.

In the parody-like video posted on TikTok in mid-February, Vermorel-Marques unpacks and shows off his great “hauls” in much the same way many of the platform’s fashion and beauty influencers do to promote new products they have purchased or been “gifted” by the brand.

But Vermorel-Marques’s video is hardly meant to promote Shein’s products. It is intended to accompany his draft of a fast-fashion “kill bill” he recently proposed to the National Assembly.

@antoinevermorel42 🛑 Les vêtements à 2€ qui arrivent en avion, contiennent des substances nocives pour la santé et finissent sur les plages en Afrique, c’est non ! Je dépose à l’Assemblée nationale une proposition de loi pour instaurer un bonus-malus afin de pénaliser les marques et pour encourager les démarches plus vertueuses ♻️ #shein#sheinhaul#ecologie#fastfashion#stopshein#pourtoi#fyp @lookbookaly @menezangel_ @loufitlove @lila_drila @cilia.ghass @tifanywallemacq @veronika_cln @lia__toutcourt @iamm_mae.e@IAMM_MAE.E ♬ son original – antoinevermorel


The bill is expected to be debated in the lower house of parliament in the next few months and was drafted to support France’s ailing textile industry which has been hard hit by the country’s growing fast fashion consumption. The bill calls for a €5 penalty for any fast-fashion purchase.

Fast fashion, or the high-speed, low-cost production of the latest trends, has grown so strong in France in recent years that it is threatening the future of many traditional and domestic fashion manufacturers. The average price tag for a piece of Shein clothing is estimated at just €7. Oxfam France describes fast fashion as “disposable”, warning on its website that it has “disastrous social and environmental consequences”.

Although a host of brands fall under the fast-fashion category, Vermorel-Marques is particularly targeting the “ultra-fast-fashion” online retailer Shein. The China-founded but Singapore-based company is estimated to add between 6,000 and 11,000 new offerings to its catalogue every single day. The brand has frequently come under fire for the environmental and social consequences of its throw-away business model, and according to Vermorel-Marques, for “destroying France’s textile industry”.

But it did not take long for the draft bill to whip up a storm, with some likening the €5 penalty to yet another tax primarily penalising the poor as well as restricting their access to affordable and trendy clothes.

‘Another step towards injustice’

Shein, and peers like Temu and Boohoo, have found an appreciative audience among consumers who rarely have to spend more than €10 to fill their wardrobes with the latest trending skirts, tops, trousers or accessories.

“In France, there’s a gap between our convictions, the awareness that we need to make an effort, and acceptance of the measures to combat these issues,” said Cécile Désaunay, director of studies at Futuribles, a consultancy firm that analyses transformative societal, lifestyle and consumption trends.

Désaunay said that this €5 penalty is particularly sensitive “because it touches on what is considered the freedom to consume”.

However, she emphasised that the law is not just meant to punish but also to reward, and would work as a bonus-penalty system that would make sustainable fashion more accessible to everyone.

In an interview with the quarterly narrative journalism publication Usbek&Rica, Vermorel-Marques explained how the system is meant to work: While a fast-fashion shopper would be slapped with a €5 penalty for every purchase, a person buying an environmentally friendly and domestically-produced piece of clothing would instead receive a €5 bonus.

“What is key here is that it’s not another tax,” he said. “We’re not here to take money from you. We’re just saying: ‘If you pollute, you pay. And if you don’t pollute, you win’. It’s a win-win for both the consumer and the planet.”

A supporter of the bill took to the social media platform X to expand on the lawmaker’s argument:

“This isn’t a ‘tax’. Shein, Ali[Express], etc. are already taxed, but what we’re talking about here is a penalty punishing those who participate in fast fashion, and by extension, in the exploitation of people and the increase in waste.”

Green move or penalty for the poor?
A worker makes clothes at a garment factory that supplies fast fashion e-commerce company Shein in Guangzhou, China, on July 18, 2022. © Jade Gao, AFP

Désaunay noted it was not the first time the bonus-penalty system has been used to draw up new legislation to encourage more responsible and sustainable consumption behaviour, pointing to, among other things, the bonus offered to French car buyers who opt for less-polluting vehicles, and Sweden’s initiative to reduce the value-added tax on used item repairs.

Although Désaunay said she completely understands peoples’ need to dress themselves, many, and especially younger shoppers, now over-consume thanks to low-cost brands like Shein.

‘I’m poor, but I have values’

“Before, the norm was to have fewer clothes, but that lasted longer. We paid more for them, but we made them last,” Désaunay explained. “Today, we’ve moved away from that mentality. We have clothes that are not as strong, that don’t last as long, and we’re getting used to always having more of them because they cost less.”

On social media, the draft bill has divided users. “Fast fashion for some, the only way to dress for others,” one user wrote, while another stated: “I’m poor, but I have values, I don’t order from these sites! You can be poor and have values!”

Désaunay said that many get trapped in the mindset “that in order to dress cheaply, you have to buy clothes ‘Made in China’, as if there are no other alternatives”. One sustainable alternative, she noted, is simply to turn to second-hand shopping.

“The challenge for the textile industry is that charities and other recycling centres are bursting at the seams with [used] clothes,” she said. “Given the amount of clothes already on this planet, we could still dress humanity for another 100 years even if we stopped making them.”

But despite the many positives related to second-hand shopping, Désaunay said it is still often frowned upon “and even rejected by the poorest in society”, due to the stigma attached to wearing “hand-me-downs”.

According to a report by shopping application Joko, Shein had a 13 percent French market share in value terms at the end of 2023, making it France’s second-favourite online fashion brand. The No. 1 spot, however, was claimed by Vinted, a rapidly growing second-hand clothing platform.

“The fast-fashion mentality is coming to an end,” Désaunay said.

Although the proposed bill has not even been debated yet, she said it will serve as a “pretext to rethink the value of the items we buy”: “If it’s not expensive, it’s because there’s a trade-off. In this case, an environmental trade-off.”  

The fast fashion industry has regularly been shamed for how its business model damages the environment (the cheap and toxic chemical pollutants used in the dyes, as well as the consumption of water and fossil fuels), negatively impacts climate change (CO2 emissions) and how it exploits human rights (forced labour). In a recent report, the French chapter of the environmental grassroots network Friends of the Earth (FoE) estimated that Shein alone produces some 1 million garments per day, which corresponds to between 15,000 and 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

But, the group pointed out, brick-and-mortar fast-fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M, Primark and Uniqlo are hardly better. “[What they] don’t do in terms of quantity of new offerings, they make up for in quantity produced, as well disrespect of human rights,” FoE said, noting that these brands have all been accused of either profiting from, or having profited from, forced labour by China’s Uighur population.

In 2022, Shein recorded roughly $23 billion in sales, according to the Wall Street Journal. For 2023, its sales are estimated at nearly $32 billion.

This article was adapted from the original in French.