As the months rolled by the revelations tumbled in: Starbucks, Amazon, Google UK, Facebook. Some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world had avoided, through cloudily legitimate means, paying significant chunks of their UK corporation tax – collectively contributing only £30m over four years despite profits of £3.1bn in Britain.
I’ll admit straight away that my understanding of the processes used to avoid tax is hazy. I don’t feel I can talk with authority on the financial ins and outs. However, despite my economic ignorance, what I do feel licensed to discuss is the ethical quagmire this leaves me, as a consumer, facing.
It’s not a new problem. I took the decision to stop buying clothes in Topshop after finding out about the now infamous £1.2bn cheque Philip Green (CEO of Arcadia Group) gave to his Monaco-based wife in 2005. There is no income tax in Monaco; meaning Green avoided paying an estimated £285m to the British government – a figure that could hypothetically fund 20,000 NHS nurses’ wages. To me that single statistic sums up the immorality of that action. The concept of one individual owning that much wealth, more wealth than can ever be spent, seems deeply wrong. This is a man who thinks nothing of throwing a £6 million birthday celebration (for himself) or buying a £32 million yacht. A few less millions wouldn’t have dented either Philip Green’s wallet or his lifestyle.
Of course, I’m opening myself up here to accusations of naivety, idealism or a failure to understand the way that the world is. I’m fully aware that there will always be a scale of wealth in which some are richer than others. I have no problem with that, or with the entrepreneurial concept of starting a business, building it up and earning a fantastic wage from it. What I cannot stand though is the unwillingness of certain companies and individuals to pay a sum to the country they are living or trading in, so that those who are not as well off as themselves can be supported. With privilege should come awareness and acknowledgment of being fortunate in comparison to others. Avoiding tax is a demonstration of selfishness, of retreating inwards and not giving a damn about others. Taxes are used for public good and public necessities. For example, mundane as it is, the upkeep of roads is only made possible through taxes. Many companies whose branded vans are seen throughout the country could not trade without these roads. But they still feed, vampire-like, off infrastructures they do not help to support.
Also, in the UK taxes fund healthcare, education, the police and other public services. Call me a liberal lefty, but to me these are the cornerstones of society – public goods that are absolutely vital. But in the UK we are now living in a time where libraries are being closed, where the budget for the NHS has been reduced, where cuts are slicing into the most vulnerable first. And yet some global companies continue to duck and dive around the taxman – legally, but not morally, in the clear.
To return to my own personal conundrum though, the query is this: are my values strong enough for me to resist shopping in and thus supporting these businesses? To not buy books online? To throw away the Mac I am typing on? There are also other issues aside from finance, such as Amazon’s throttling of independent bookshops or Apple’s appalling working conditions on construction lines. Despite being aware of all of this though, my response as a consumer is tricky. In an ideal world I would only support ethical businesses, but living rurally and having a minimal budget means that the ease of online ordering is seductive – particularly for second hand items on eBay (who paid just £1.2m on £800m of sales in 2010.) Also, it vastly reduces the number of products that can be bought.
As mentioned before though, I don’t give my money to Topshop (or any other member of the Arcadia group), but this is easy as my main hunting ground for clothes are charity shops, vintage and independent businesses and markets. I’m using Topshop as an example because my blog is primarily known for its fashion content. I know that to speak against a brand with such huge sway in the industry is not the done thing, but I'm not judging anyone who buys or enjoys their clothes – I'm only expressing my personal opinion. I can also appreciate the support that Topshop has extended to new designers through NewGen, particularly in a time when corporate funding is one of the only ways fledgling brands can fly. But this good work doesn’t negate or blank out the fact that Philip Green, despite huge earnings, avoided paying the fully taxable amount. It was money sorely missed, now desperately needed. With these companies it's not a few thousand lost here and there, but massive sums – bigger than most of us could comprehend owning – that should be invested in the country, not sitting in some business bank account.
I don’t know where this leaves me. Writing this piece won’t convince any business to pay their tax or any government minister to shut the loopholes that allow this to happen. But it feels important to state, even if I know that as an individual my power only extends to what I buy.
Statistics and facts taken from The Guardian, The Telegraph and UK Uncut.
Now how to explain the so-tenuous- it’s-almost-invisible link between the photos and the subject matter of the post? Two reasons. Firstly, the fifties swimsuit is handmade – no high street brand has brushed its hands across the ruched elastic. But secondly, and this is meant fully tongue in cheek, it’s a well known advertising cliché that adding a female in a swimsuit supposedly sells a product. Nothing for sale here though, just images of a summer May afternoon, 'swimming' in a field crop of flowers - photos taken by the fantastic Flo.