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Amidst Monday’s secession drama, when seven MPs announced a split from Labour and the formation of the Independent group, even those embedded in the Westminster bubble could be forgiven for having missed a series of publications on plastic pollution.

The last 18 months has seen the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs move into the spotlight. Under the stewardship of Environment Secretary Michael Gove this once backwater department has become relevant, a driving force for domestic policy development in a Government otherwise consumed by Brexit. Sustainability and recycling, once topics cared for by few beyond a core group of green warriors or local government types, have become issues of national political and media significance.

Monday saw the next step on this journey, with the publication of a series of consultations on single-use plastic waste, building on announcements made at the last Budget – of a tax on plastic packaging which does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled content from April 2022 – and December’s more detailed Resources and Waste Strategy. Speaking to The Times, Chancellor Philip Hammond credited David Attenborough and Blue Planet for shaping the Government’s agenda on this issue, saying the series had had ‘a seminal effect on the nation’s consciousness’. Meanwhile Gove reiterated the lofty ambition of being ‘the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it’.

The consultations themselves focus largely on the more technical aspects of this agenda, with one looking at the scope of the proposed packaging tax, another on ensuring consistency across recycling collections in England, and a third asking for views on reforming the UK producer responsibility system for packaging under which producers will pay the full cost of dealing with their waste.

 

The final consultation is likely to prove the most divisive, looking as it does at the implementation of the long-promised deposit return scheme for bottles and cans, initially announced to much fanfare nearly a year ago. The Government is seeking views on whether to make this  ‘all in’ – covering bottles and containers of all sizes  – or ‘on-the-go’ and focused on those less than 750ml and sold in single format containers.

On this, battle lines have already been drawn, with the British Retail Consortium advocating the latter as a targeted scheme that will avoid undermining existing household collection schemes, but groups including Marine Conservation Society, Surfers Against Sewage and Friends of the Earth making clear their support for the former and stressing that Gove ‘must not capitulate to pressure from industry and manufacturers’. Given the many challenges facing the food and drink industry at present, it will be interesting to see which side comes up trumps on this.

Meanwhile, the next skirmish in the environmental war is looming, with fast fashion in the firing line. Today Mary Creagh’s Environmental Audit Committee releases a report into clothing consumption and sustainability, advocating amongst other things a penny producer responsibility charge on each item of clothing sold to fund improved clothing collection and recycling. Brands as diverse as Burberry and Boohoo come in for criticism; the suggestion is that this is a market failure rather than simply an issue for those selling the cheapest items. As Creagh notes, Britain’s ‘insatiable appetite for clothes comes with a huge social and environmental price tag: carbon emissions, water use, chemical and plastic pollution are all destroying our environment’.

 

The committee’s calls may seem fanciful to some – mandatory environmental targets for retailers with a turnover above £36 million, and calls for taxes that shift the balance of incentives in favour of reuse, repair and recycling – but this group was instrumental in securing policy change last year on plastics, campaigning for a DRS and a ‘latte levy’.

Single-use plastic went from being a fringe concern to the forefront of the debate in a matter of months; it’s not far-fetched to see this as the next issue to cause a stir, particularly if prominent influencers like Stacey Dooley lend their weight.

If that is case we may see a flurry of announcements from the fashion industry, in a similar vein to the corporate plastic targets that were announced last year in the wake of Blue Planet II. Companies that are already in a leading position will want to publicly distance themselves from the criticism aimed at the industry as a whole, and we can expect that those further behind will want to quickly catch up. Whether the EAC report leads to policy changes or not, brands will want to get ahead of the game to secure the reputational benefits and much-needed competitive advantage on the high street, made possible by taking real action on fashion’s environmental footprint.

With the main parties increasingly on an election footing, seeking out policies that will appeal to the all-important millennial cohort, it may well be a case of: watch this space.

Lexington’s Responsible Business team helps clients move from compliance to leadership on a range of sustainability issues. Drawing on our in-depth knowledge of social and environmental policy, we work with clients to develop their responsible business strategy in line with their commercial objectives, and create innovative programmes and partnerships that deliver demonstrable social and environmental impact. We are also experienced in developing strong narratives and creative thought leadership strategies to maximise the reputational benefits of responsible business programmes.

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