Accused of ‘Fat Tax,’ British Retailer Will Review Clothing Prices

Posted May 16, 2018 7:08 p.m. EDT

LONDON — Size is a sensitive subject in the clothing business. So when one of Britain’s most popular and affordable clothing giants was found to charge more for plus-size clothing, it was accused of imposing a “fat tax” on women.

The pricing by the store, New Look, revived a debate over whether the use of more fabric for the same outfit should logically cost more.

The controversy erupted when a New Look customer, Maria Wassell, said she discovered that a pair of green-striped trousers cost 15 percent more in all sizes above 16 (the equivalent of a size 12 in the United States), which are considered plus sizes in Britain. (Even the phrase “plus size” is problematic to some, who argue that the industry’s labels are unrealistic.)

Wassell, 43, a retail supervisor from Kent, in southeast England, also discovered that a T-shirt and dress in standard sizes were cheaper than identical versions in the plus-size section, according to the local news media.

“It’s like being discriminated against for being plus size when I’m only slightly bigger than average,” she told The Sun newspaper. “The average size for a British woman is now a size 16.”

She declared that the retailer was enforcing a “fat tax.”

Outraged social media users tossed in all sorts of comparisons: Should people with bigger feet be charged more for shoes? And, perhaps more to the point: Should petite people be charged less?

Amanda Bowes, a British fashion designer for plus-size online retail outlets, called New Look’s pricing criteria “harsh,” and said that the more-fabric argument did not hold water.

“Obviously it costs more to make plus-size clothing because of the amount of fabric used, but if the pricing metric is going to be based on size, then every size should be priced differently,” she said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

“If smaller-sized people aren’t getting discounts, then plus-sized people shouldn’t have to pay a surplus,” she added. “We rarely see ‘tall’ and ‘maternity’ editions of clothing being priced differently. It’s cruel and unfair to single out one body type.”

But Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, a charity that raises awareness about obesity, said it was reasonable to charge more money for larger clothing.

“People should pay for the material/time required to manufacture sizes,” he said in an email. He added that many smaller people “felt they should have discounts and asked why they should subsidize” people who wear bigger sizes. “A size 10 should pay for a size 10.”

Wassell said that when she contacted New Look — which is owned by the investment company Brait SE and has 393 stores in the United Kingdom — to ask about the different prices, she was told that while “some products appear similar, they may be slightly different.”

However, the company said in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday that it was reviewing the pricing structure of its plus-size collection “in a way which works best for our customers and our business.”

In one New Look store in South London, most shoppers said they wouldn’t have noticed the price differences if they hadn’t been highlighted in the news media.

“It’s not a huge price difference, but I guess it’s about the principle,” said Madeline Moll, who said she used to shop from the plus-size section when she was larger. “Dressing in bigger sizes can be a sensitive issue for women. It’s almost like the shops are trying to make a point by putting up the price. It’s like they are saying, ‘Lose some weight, love.’ And that’s just mean.”

New Look is not the only retailer to come under fire for pricing clothes according to size. In 2014, Old Navy was criticized for charging higher prices for plus-size clothing for women, but not for men.

An online petition against the practice, which drew more than 95,000 signatures, pointed out that “Old Navy’s Rockstar Super Skinny Jeans cost $27 in a size 6. The same jeans in a size 26 cost $40.”

Old Navy refused to lower its prices, arguing that women’s clothing had contoured waist bands that cost more to produce. Its parent company, Gap, relaxed the rules for the return of plus-size clothing and said it would create a customer panel to gather more insight.