New report calls for plastics tax and ban on marketing as consumers look to splurge after the pandemic

Press release

Consumers are planning to spend big on fashion post-lockdown — but are unaware of how much plastic goes into their clothes, new research finds.

‘Turning the Tide’ from the RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) digs in to public attitudes on fast fashion and plastics, and also looks at how we’ve changed our buying habits during the pandemic.

It calls for action from the government, fashion industry and consumers to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment, as the public is set to splurge on new clothing post-pandemic. 

The public does want action on plastics: 76% of us would like to see less plastics and petrochemicals in clothing. But we don’t think that we’re the problem – only 33% say that we regularly buy clothing containing synthetic materials, in spite of synthetic fibres accounting for 69% of all textile production. Just under half of fast fashion consumers say they often buy clothes containing plastics – despite websites like Boohoo and Asos being awash with synthetic materials.

Plastic microfibres are a growing problem for our rivers, ecosystems and food chains, having recently been found as far afield as the Arctic. In 2015, polyester production was responsible for 700 million tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of all the annual carbon emissions for the whole of Germany. Recent research has found that an average 6kg wash releases more than 700,000 microfibres.

The report also shows that we have been changing our buying habits during the pandemic, warning that a post-pandemic ‘splurge’ may be on the way once the lockdown lifts:

·    62% of us say that we have bought less clothing since the start of the first lockdown.

·    A small number of us have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to change how we treat our clothes – 17% say they have mended more clothing than usual, and 19% of us intend to repair our clothes more after the lockdown ends.

·    But 29% are looking forward to buying new clothes when shops open up again – including 49% of those who regularly shop at fast fashion websites, compared to 25% among those who do not. Another 29% of the public say that they have bought new clothing as a treat during lockdown. The report's authors warn that we need to avoid a fast fashion binge when restrictions on socialising end.

In response, the RSA is calling for:

  1. A marketing ban on clothing made from plastics and petrochemicals, in a similar vein to successful bans on fast-food, cigarettes and alcohol.
  2. A tax on clothing imported into or produced in the UK which contain virgin plastics, in order to disincentivise the extraction of fossil-fuels destined to become clothing. Income from this tax would be used to invest in new innovations in biomaterials and recycling.
  3. An independent commission for the future of fashion: focused on dealing with the environmental impacts of fashion and working towards a circular and regenerative system, through innovation in biomaterials, regional supply chains and the creation of high-quality jobs in the UK.

The report is part of the RSA's Living Change Approach, which helps changemakers around the world to understand the challenges of our time and effectively realise lasting change.

Josie Warden, Head of Regenerative Design at the RSA, said:

“The enormous tide of plastics used in the clothes we wear is one of the great environmental scandals of our generation. While we have been quicker to act on issues like plastic packaging and moving towards renewables, the fossil fuel industry has begun to pivot to new areas – including cheaply-made synthetic textiles.

“This has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of fast fashion. Our findings suggest that the public is less aware of the use of plastics in fashion than in other parts of their lives. Greater transparency, awareness and action is required – top-down measures like new taxes should be matched by commitments from the fashion industry, and more scrutiny from consumers about the clothes they’re buying.

“If you’re planning on buying new clothes when restrictions on work and socialising lift, think carefully about how your clothes have been made, what materials they contain, and whether they will last.

"And if you’re planning on treating yourself, try to buy less and buy better.”


Will Grimond  |  Media and Communications Officer  |  RSA  |  [email protected]   07795 660 353


This research used data drawn from a bespoke survey with Yonder (formerly Populus), who polled a nationally representative online sample of 2,120 people in February 2021. Yonder is a member of the British Polling Council.


The RSA (from August 2020, the royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) is an independent charity, committed to a future that works for everyone. A future where we can all participate in its creation.

The RSA has been at the forefront of significant social impact for over 260 years. Our proven change process, rigorous research, innovative ideas platform and diverse global community of over 30,000 problem solvers, deliver solutions for lasting change.

Legally, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (‘RSA’) is a Royal Charter Company and registered charity in England and Wales (charity number 212424) and in Scotland (charity number SC037784).