Tag: environment policy

For many goods and services, economists argue that relatively unregulated markets often do a pretty good job in delivering desirable outcomes from society’s view point.

However, for these desirable outcomes to occur, certain conditions need to be present. One of these is that all the benefits and costs of consuming and producing the good/service must be experienced/incurred by the buyers and sellers directly involved in the transaction: i.e. there are no externalities. The market can still work effectively if people outside of the transaction are affected (i.e. third parties) but the impact occurs through the price mechanism.

The fast fashion industry

Fast fashion refers to designs and trends that rapidly pass from catwalks and designers to retailers. The clothes sell for low prices and in high quantities. The business model relies on regular purchases and impulse buying. It is particularly popular in the UK where annual clothing consumption per capita is significantly greater than in other European countries – 26.7kg vs 16.7kg in Germany and 14.5kg in Italy. On average, people in the UK have 115 items of clothing. Unsurprisingly, 30 per cent of these garments have not been worn for at least 12 months.

Externalities in fast fashion

There is lots of evidence that the fast fashion market fails to meet the condition of no externalities. Instead, it generates lots of external costs across its whole supply chain that do not affect third parties through the price mechanism. For example:

  • Growing cotton requires large amounts of water. Some estimates suggest that on average it takes 10 000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of cotton. As water is a common resource (rival and non-excludable), its use in cotton production can exceed socially desirable levels. This can have serious consequences for both the quantity of drinking and ground water and can lead to previously fertile land being transformed into arid regions that are too dry to support vegetation.
  • Growing cotton also uses large amounts of pesticide. Some estimates suggest that 6 per cent of global pesticide production is applied to cotton crops. Extended contact with these chemicals can cause illness and infertility. It also has a negative impact on the long-term productivity of the soil. For example, the chemicals destroy microorganisms, plants and insects and so decrease biodiversity.
  • The manufacture of synthetic fibres such as polyester has a smaller negative impact on the use of water and land than the cultivation of a natural fibre such as cotton. However, because it is derived from oil, its manufacture generates more CO2 emissions. One study compared the CO2 emissions from producing the same shirt using polyester and cotton. The former generated 5.5kg whereas the latter produced 2.1kg.
  • The waste water from the use of solvents, bleaches and synthetic dyes in the manufacture of textiles/garments often flows untreated into local rivers and water systems. This is especially the case in developing countries. Estimates suggest that this is responsible for between 17 and 20 per cent of industrial global water pollution.
  • There are excessive levels of textile waste. This can be split into producer waste and consumer waste. Producer waste consists of 10–15 per cent of the fabric used in the manufacture of garments that ends up on the cutting room floor. It also includes deadstock – unsold and returned garments. For example, Burberry admitted that in 2017 it incinerated £28.6 million of unsold stock. In the same year, UK consumers disposed of 530 000 tonnes of unwanted clothing, shoes, bags and belts. This all went for landfill and incineration.
  • Textiles are one of the major sources of microplastic pollution and contribute 35 per cent (190 000 tonnes) of microplastic pollution in the oceans. A 6kg domestic wash can release as many as 700 000 synthetic fibres.

Addressing the externalities

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on the fashion industry in February 2019. One of its key recommendations was that the tax system should be reformed so that it rewards fashion companies that design products with lower environmental impacts.

The UK government has tended to focus on the use of plastic rather than textiles. For example, it introduced a charge for single use carrier bags as well as banning the use of microbeads in rinse-off personal products and plastic straws/stirrers.

In April 2022, a new tax is being introduced in the UK on the plastic packaging of finished goods that is either manufactured in the UK or imported from abroad. The rate, set at £200 per metric tonne, will apply to packaging that contains less than 30 per cent of recycled plastic.

One specific proposal made by the Environmental Audit Committee was for the government to consider extending this new tax to textiles that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester. A recent study found that just under 50 per cent of clothes for sale on leading online websites were made entirely from new plastics.

The committee also called for the introduction of an extended producer responsibility scheme. This would make textile businesses responsible for the environmental impact of their products: i.e. they would have to contribute towards the cost of collecting, moving, recycling and disposing of their garments. It could involve the payment of an up-front fee, the size of which would depend on the environmental impact of the product.

In its Waste Prevention Programme for England published in March 2021, the government announced plans to consult with stakeholders about the possibility of introducing an ‘extended producer responsibility scheme’ in the textile industry. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is also carrying out a follow-up inquiry to its 2019 report.

Articles

Government and Parliament documents and reports

Questions

  1. Using the concepts of rivalry and excludability, define the concept of a common resource.
  2. Explain the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and how it might apply to the use of water in the cultivation of cotton.
  3. Draw a diagram to illustrate how negative externalities in consumption and production lead to inefficient levels of output in an unregulated competitive market.
  4. Using a diagram, explain how imposing a tax on producers of textile products that contain less than 50 per cent recycled polyester could reduce economic inefficiency.
  5. Explain the potential limitations of using taxation/regulation to address the pollution issues created by the fast fashion sector.

The environment has been a growing part of government policy for many years. With the Kyoto Protocol and Europe’s carbon trading system, effort has been made to reduce carbon emissions. Part of UK policy to meet its emission’s target requires substantial investment in infrastructure to provide efficient energy.

Details of the government’s Energy Bill sets out plans that will potentially increase average household energy bills by about £100 per annum, although estimates of this vary from about £90 to £170. This money will be used to finance much needed investment in infrastructure that will allow the UK to meet its carbon emissions target. With this extra cost on bills, energy companies will increase bring in something like £7.6bn. The benefit of this higher cost is that investment today will lead to lower energy bills tomorrow. Essentially, we’re looking at a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

The Energy Bill also delayed setting a carbon emission target until 2016. Crucially, this will come after the next election. Environmentalists have naturally criticised this omission. John Sauven of Greenpeace said:

’By failing to agree to any carbon target for the power sector until after the next election, David Cameron has allowed a militant tendency within his own ranks to derail the Energy Bill … It’s a blatant assault on the greening of the UK economy that leaves consumers vulnerable to rising gas prices, and sends billions of pounds of clean-tech investment to our economic rivals.’

One further problem that this lack of a target creates is uncertainty. The energy sector requires significant investment and in order to be encouraged to invest, firms need assurances. Without knowing the target and hence facing a degree of uncertainty, firms may be less likely to invest in building new power plants. And this investment is crucial. The Government has committed to replacing most coal-fired power stations across Britain with low carbon technology at a cost of hundreds of billions of pounds. However, the Chancellor has said “he would not allow saving the planet to come at the cost of ‘putting our country out of business.’”

When this Energy Bill is published, it is claimed that £110bn of spending on different aspects of the National Grid will occur. The suggestion is that this will generate a further 250,000 jobs by 2030 and will be a big step in the right direction towards creating an economy that is more reliant on clean energy.

The following articles consider the wide range of issues surrounding the Energy Bill.

’It’s reasonable to hike energy bills to build wind farms’ says Tim Yeo The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (23/11/12)
Energy Bill to increase prices to fund cleaner fuel BBC News (23/11/12)
Energy deal means bills will rise to pay for green power The Guardian, Juliette Jowit and Fiona Harvey (23/11/12)
Energy Bill Q&A BBC News (23/11/12)
Energy bills to rise by £170 a year to fund wind farms Independent, Andrew Woodcock and Emily Beament (23/11/12)
Energy deal – but no target to cut Britain’s carbon emissions Independent, Nigel Morris (22/11/12)
Davey defends contentious energy agreement Financial Times, Jim Pickard, Pilita Clark and Hannah Kuchler (23/11/12)
Energy bill lacks emissions target Channel 4 News (23/11/12)

Questions

  1. Why does the environment require so much government intervention? Think about the different ways in which the environment as a market fails.
  2. If household bills rise, is there likely to be an income and substitution effect between consumption of ‘energy’ and other goods? Which direction will each effect move in and which do you think would be the largest?
  3. Why is uncertainty such a deterrent for investment? Why does a lack of a carbon emissions target represent uncertainty?
  4. The higher cost of bills today may enable future bills to fall. Why is this? For a household, explain why discount factors could be important here.
  5. Why do some argue that the extra cost to households set out by the government are likely to under-estimate the actual increase households will face?
  6. Is the Chancellor right to say that he will not put our country out of business to save the planet?