Last week Morrisons became the third supermarket chain to back the highly successful ‘tampon tax’ campaign. But why has it taken us until 2017 for us to do something about ‘period poverty’, and for brands to take action? The answer is that,
Last week Morrisons became the third supermarket chain to back the highly successful ‘tampon tax’ campaign by agreeing to cover the 5% VAT on all sanitary products for its customers. Following in the footsteps of Tesco and Waitrose, Morrisons explained that ‘cancelling the effect of VAT on what is an essential product for many women and girls is the right thing to do’.
But why has it taken us until 2017 for us to do something about ‘period poverty’, and for brands to take action? The answer is that, actually, it hasn’t. The ‘tampon tax’ campaign has been going for decades.
Twenty years ago Asda led a campaign – headed by our very own Phil Reed – to remove the VAT on female sanitary products, which at that point stood at 17.5%. The campaign focused on the products being regarded as ‘luxury’ items. It attract much publicity and Parliamentary support, leading to the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, cutting the VAT rate to 5% - the lowest currently permissible under EU law.
The latest campaign has gained over 250,000 signatures via a Change.org petition and, while current EU law won’t allow the government to zero-rate sanitary products, it has led to UK MPs pledging to stop the tax. In the meantime, it has influenced the big supermarket brands to make a stand.
However, in an article for the Telegraph, columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer argues that tampon tax is ‘one of the silliest campaigns the sisterhood has ever mounted’. While I don’t agree with her fully, she does make an interesting point: if campaigners have a problem with the VAT on certain products, why the concern about tampons (which have a reduced tax rate) rather than other necessities, such as soap and toothpaste, facing the full 20% VAT rate? Or the fact that VAT is charged on child-safe car seats but not on bike or motorbike helmets?
So why, despite it being a 20-year crusade and not necessarily top of the VAT agenda, has the campaign been so successful this time around?
Julia Hartley-Brewer may raise some valid questions, but ultimately it’s an important issue for women. Many are without basic sanitary products because they cannot afford them or don’t have access with girls across the world regularly missing school as a result.
But other serious issues have also fuelled the campaign this year. After failing to honour a pledge to scrap the 5% VAT, former chancellor George Osborne announced that £10m a year would be redistributed from the tax on sanitary products to women’s charities. However, in April it was reported that a quarter of a million pounds from the VAT revenues would be given to Life – an anti-abortion organisation – offering another extremely sensitive and controversial reason to campaign.
The campaign’s timing has been spot on. Current international politics – the rise of Trump and his anti-feminist rhetoric – has put women’s issues high on the agenda worldwide, with millions joining the Women’s March, not just in Washington but in London, too. Making a stand for women’s rights is the zeitgeist, and the tampon tax campaign captures that.
The ‘Stop Taxing Periods’ campaign was started not by a brand but by an individual: Laura Coryton, a recent graduate in international relations from Goldsmiths, University of London. Laura began her campaign while studying. She created the online petition, which quickly gained support and attention, engaged the media and kept her community of followers up to date with campaign developments. She featured in the BBC's 100 Women series of 2016 and also won one of the Guardian's New Radical Thinker awards. She was also named 2015's top unknown world change maker by the Independent. Who could resist that?
Laura’s efforts saw her petitioning on the streets and delivered the campaign straight to Downing Street. However, the online petition element of the campaign played a huge part in capturing and uniting people across the world and, as Laura herself explained in a recent interview, helped “centralise the campaign”.
Finally, let’s not forget that while we all hail Tesco, Waitrose and Morrisons for paying the VAT on these products, it benefits them, too. The supermarkets have gained media attention, which inevitably works as a competitive tactic to get more women shopping with them.
All in all, the result is a good one. Well done Laura Coryton!