Over the past two weeks, the retail industry has rallied together in support of M&S’ Say Pants to the Tax Campaign, which calls on the Government to slash VAT on period pants. In 2021, the Government made the decision to abolish the ‘Tampon Tax’ – but the current VAT rules mean that period pants are classified as clothing, and therefore still taxed at 20 per cent. The Say Pants to the Tax campaign is on a mission to change this.
Victoria McKenzie-Gould, Director Corporate Affairs at M&S, spoke to us about the campaign. “It actually started with our colleagues,” she told us when we caught up this week. “Most of our colleagues are women, and we’re always thinking of ways to support and engage our team. Last summer, we sent all of the women in our business a pair of period pants, and a note about why people might want to try them.”
The response, Vic told us, was phenomenal. “It really started a conversation. We had people telling us that they’d used them for the first time and loved them, older women telling us that they’d given them to their daughters who were already fans, and others who had donated them to women’s refuge centres.”
As all this was happening, leaders in the M&S lingerie team pointed out that period pants were still taxed at 20 per cent. “It was a bit of a ‘huh’ moment for us,” said Vic, “and we decided to do something about it.”
What followed was a true community effort, with involvement from period pants brand WUKA and Bloody Good Period, the period poverty charity. “It felt like a no-brainer,” Vic reflected, “20 per cent is nothing to the treasury, but goes a long way for people struggling to buy sanitary products and we just want to level the playing field with other period products.”
The UK is, after all, still in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. This July, consumer prices were recorded as nearly 7% more than what they were last year, and the number of people falling into period poverty is growing: a recent poll from ActionAid found that 21% of women and people who menstruate (that’s one in five) are now struggling to afford period products. Worryingly, this figure has increased from 12% last year. There are also environmental benefits to period pants, which can be worn, washed, and worn again, month after month. Period charity WUKA estimates that one pair of period pants can save 200 single-use plastic disposables from going to landfill.
“Period pants are comfortable, subtle and secure, and much better for the environment than single-use products,” said Katie Bickerstaffe, co-CEO at M&S when we spoke with her this week. “In modern society, no woman of any age should be taxed on an essential item.”
“In modern society, no woman of any age should be taxed on an essential item.” – Katie Bickerstaffe, co-CEO, Marks & Spencer.
After months of collaboration, the Say Pants to the Tax campaign launched formally two weeks ago, bringing together an influential mix of more than 50 business people, politicians and peers as signatories to an open letter which urges the government to take their ruling on period tax that one step further. There’s also a public petition, which amassed more than 10,000 signatures in 24 hours and is currently over a quarter of the way to the 100,000 signatures it needs to be debated in parliament in just a week.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Vic, “there’s been a real groundswell of support, from small period charities to major media outlets. Organisations who don’t normally work together are collaborating on this, and there’s a real sense of this being a campaign for women, by women.”
In the past week, Tesco, Primark, Sainsbury’s and Mountain Warehouse have all got behind the cause, and since the campaign began, charities including Freedom4Girls, Wellbeing of Women and Bloody Good Period have put their name to the letter, as well as MPs and peers across all parties.
On Thursday, M&S announced that it will be taking the initiative and covering the cost of VAT from across its period pants range as it awaits for action from the Government. The entirety of the cost saving will be passed onto customers, with the new lower prices reflected at checkout in store and online. Tesco have also announced plans to cover the cost of the VAT on its F&F period pants.
The impact is testament to the impact and power of retailers, and to M&S’ purpose-driven, straight-talking approach. “We don’t want to put our weight behind something unless we can stack it up,” Vic considered. “But we’re a major employer of women, a majority of our customer base are women, and we’re the biggest seller of knickers in the UK. It makes sense for us to be speaking about this, and to lend our voice to this issue.”
In a reply to signing the petition, a government response said that while period pants are currently not yet covered under the zero rate of tax on sanitary products, they are keeping the campaign under review.
What rings clear, is the incredible power of an iconic brand like M&S to be able to create a community, taking the baton and leading the charge to amplify the voices of people, across all walks of life, helping to make our society a fairer place to live. Please do sign the petition and help to get this through parliament: