Expert Opinion: The Autumn Statement should help us ditch the throwaway culture

Professor Tim Cooper, an expert in sustainable consumption, talks about how tax reform could help turn the tide against the throwaway culture.

Professor Tim Cooper, an expert in sustainable consumption, talks about how tax reform could help turn the tide against the throwaway culture.

In an age when global consumption is rising and pressure is mounting to use Earth's resources more efficiently, it's a serious concern for policymakers that the throwaway culture is as entrenched as ever.

In this context the deeply embedded trend of people buying new products rather than repairing old ones is one of the biggest challenges facing politicians and one to which there's no obvious, easy answer.

All too often it's cheaper to replace old products with new, rather than repair or upgrade them, because low wages in manufacturing heartlands such as China and the Far East can easily undercut repair workshops in Western Europe.

But it's an issue which stretches further than the rows of products on retailers' shelves. For instance, in the building sector, it can be cheaper to waste materials during construction than design waste out because purchasing materials can cost less than employing designers to create complex, but more resource-efficient, designs.

So to get around this difficult dilemma requires lateral thinking by our Government. Quite simply, the economics are the nettle which the policymakers must grasp.

One potential idea is to transfer taxes onto resources – raw materials that are often scarce or insecure due to geo-political factors - rather than labour. This is not to argue for additional tax revenue, but for a change in the kind of taxes used.

Often described as 'green fiscal reform', it's an approach viewed positively by many academics and long advocated by environmental campaigners, but never taken seriously by government, at least in Britain.

It makes perfect sense to reduce the cost of employing people and increase the relative cost of raw materials. Yet the trend, if anything, seems to be in the opposite direction.

If the Government is serious about tackling the throwaway culture, it should revisit the potential for green fiscal reform as soon as possible.

Professor Tim Cooper

Of course, any such reform results in winners and losers and raises the threat of inadvertent consequences. Not all business in relatively labour-intensive service sector companies need or deserve support, and without some level of international support the UK's manufacturing sector would be unfairly threatened by overseas competitors.

But if repairers and domestic manufacturers were to have their tax burdens on labour reduced and placed instead on materials, the unsustainable pattern of consumption that blights our environmental performance and threatens future generations could be reversed.

As research from the University of Leeds clearly demonstrates, Britain's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The Government claims the contrary but only by disregarding the fact that many of our goods are produced overseas.

This is not to suggest that green fiscal reform would be an all-encompassing answer to our throwaway culture. But it at least offers an economic means of incentivising people and businesses to do the right thing.

If the Government is serious about tackling the throwaway culture, it should revisit the potential for green fiscal reform as soon as possible.

Next June Nottingham Trent University will be hosting the first international conference on Product Lifetimes and the Environment, with more than 100 researchers attending. Let's hope that they have something positive to reflect on after the Chancellor has revealed what new policies are in his red briefcase on 3 December.

Tim Cooper is Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption at Nottingham Trent University's School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment.

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Expert Opinion: The Autumn Statement should help us ditch the throwaway culture

Published on 2 December 2014
  • Category: Press office

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