Decarbonisation goals for fashion, taxes for pollutants from apparel, accountability for wage theft from garment workers. The fashion industry’s green, clean future may not be too far away
Agents of change are demanding environmental justice from fashion
In an age of doom-scrolling, consumers are both alarmed and armed with knowledge on climate change and the fashion industry’s contribution to it. These consumers constitute largely of millennial and Gen Z voters, empowered by digital platforms and cancel culture. As voters, advocating for environmental and social justice, they make a compelling case to policy makers. In the past, NGOs have taken initiative and company CSR activities have ticked required checkboxes. However the legal landscape remained limited. Greenwashing terms like organic, ethical and conscious lacked clear definition and their certifications were voluntary for too long.
With the turn of the decade, there has been slow development. Albeit sure-footed, legislature that aims to clean up the fashion industry’s tainted reputation by mandating accountability. However, in the difference between accountability and responsibility, there is a gray space where fashion can no longer hide. This is since a «code red for humanity» issued by the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2021. From fast fashion tax to carbon labelling, some bills have been rejected whilst some passed. It seems as though the jury is set and the verdict is out. Administrative mandates and governmental regulations are decidedly the sole means to elicit responsible sustainable action from the fashion industry.
What’s shaping the legal landscape in early 2022?
2020 was the year of ASAP (As Sustainable As Possible), before it launched the on-going Covid-19 trilogy. In its own devious way, the pandemic has emphasized large issues pertaining to sustainability and ethics within the fashion industry. From highlighting socio-economic disparity in the supply chain to wastage in overproduction, the ugly truth is exposed. Enraged social activists lobbied for penalizing companies that didn’t pay garment workers and cancelled brands for unethical disposal of excess inventory. All while marketers continued to pursue greenwashing tactics. The bills proposed and laws passed this year embody a combat blueprint to tackle these issues.
The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, proposed in New York on January 7th, recommends that brands selling within the state should set science-based targets across their supply chains to measure impacts on sustainable development. If passed, the law would mandate that companies map at least fifty per cent of the lifecycle of their products. The sourcing of raw materials, chemical management in textiles, carbon emissions across production units and wages paid to garment workers.
The bill sets itself apart from peers that demand accountability from fashion brands. As it also levies a fine of two per cent from the annual revenue for failure of compliance. Senator Alessandra Biaggi and assembly member Dr.Anna Kelles are hopeful that the bill will be passed later this year, during the June legislative session. Meanwhile, non-profit organization Remake, in association with nineteen other organizations including Fashion Revolution USA, have proposed amendments to the bill.
Accountability limited to disclosure rather than action
They believe that it is linguistically lacking in purpose. The coalition’s primary concern is that accountability is limited to disclosure rather than action. Some of their proposed modifications include: mandating performance rather than reporting due diligence and remediation for garment and supply chain workers directly. This would ensure that funds are returned to victims instead of supporting organizations. «Currently, less than one per cent of textiles worldwide are recycled into new textiles. The majority of recycling is down-cycling, which lowers the quality of the material,» according to a paper by an alliance of non-governmental and non-profit organizations, including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Zero Waste Europe and Green Liberty. Pressurizing the EU commission to make new policies as part of the Wardrobe Change Campaign.
Emily Macintosh, Policy Officer for Textiles at the EEB, shares. «EU laws should focus on reducing the amount of resources used across supply chains. Also on boosting the market for second-hand and repairable textiles. Fast fashion’s linear and exploitative business model must become a thing of the past». Cue: one of the most pivotal legislatures-in-progress to adopt in Q1 2022 is the EU Commission’s Strategy for Sustainable Textiles. Eleven European countries proposed a paper in October ‘21 stressing on comprehensive regulations for transparent sustainable textile production. This includes the banning of destroying unsold and returned goods. de-linearizing business models by taxing use of virgin resources and substantiation of green labels.
The year greenwashing abolished
Starting January 2022, the UK is set to audit businesses for greenwashing, with a focus on fashion and textile brands. With the objective of transparency over sustainability claims, Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), says: «More people than ever are considering the environmental impact of a product before parting with their hard-earned money. We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green. While genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve».
The CMA is an independent and non-ministerial department of the government that published a Green Claims Code. To provide a guiding framework of six questions that companies should use to substantiate claims of sustainability. From recycling and biodegradability to toxic chemical usage. «Our work so far indicates that there could be issues with greenwashing in the fashion sector. That is why we’ve prioritized this area for further investigation,» noted Cecilia Parker, director of consumer protection.
French parliament: forerunner in ‘cleaning’ out the fashion industry
France has been crucial in dictating the way other countries operate in policy-making pertaining to fashion. The earliest in taking a leap towards circularity; France’s Anti-Waste Law in 2020 introduced a ban on the burning of unsold clothing within the country. This is among other consumer items ranging from cosmetics to electrical. These goods are further re-directed towards recycling and reusing initiatives.
The fashion trash is collected by ECO TLC, a French accredited organization for prevention of waste. It can either be hand-processed and resold to second-hand stores. Otherwise delivered to recycling units that usually end up down-cycling the processed scrap. Following closely is the Carbon Labelling Law, 2021. It enables a framework of carbon scoring for textiles and garments to educate consumers on conscious consumption. This is an attempt to calculate the environmental footprint of textiles through a system of grading garments from A to E. With A most sustainably produced.
Bills that didn’t get the green verdict
Fashion’s tryst with environmental law is short. A fast fashion tax was proposed, considered and rejected in the UK in 2019. On the other hand Sweden’s motion for a chemical tax on apparel and footwear has been indefinitely postponed since 2021. This proves that economic profitability has greater advocates than environmental profitability. The UK government rejected a tax on fast fashion proposed by a group of cross-party MPs from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).
In a report, Fixing Fashion in 2019, the committee detailed strict ideas. including a one penny tax per garment for fashion producers. It also explained tax rewards for repair and recycling and a ban on landfilling unsold or returned stock. It revealed that UK shoppers buy more new clothes than any other European country, twice as many as in Germany and Italy. This highlights the country’s notoriety for throwaway fashion culture. In response, the government announced: «Positive approaches to find outlets for waste textiles rather than simply imposing a landfill ban».
Sweden also proposed a tax on clothing and footwear products containing substances of very high concern (SVHCs). The intention was to reduce exposure of both humans and the environment to toxic material released during manufacturing processes. The tax was also extended to imports. Initially set to be enforced in April 2021, the exercise was postponed to January 2022. However, in the proposal for a Swedish national budget in 2022, the Government declared no intentions to proceed with the bill. In the Central Budget report, it stated that: «The budget proposal makes the assessment that there should not currently be a tax on chemicals in clothing and shoes».
Dearth of laws disabling economic disparity within the fashion supply chain
Supply chains unravel across the world and early stages are outsourced to South Asian countries. In Indonesia, the textile and garments exports sector is responsible for employing 3.7 million of the country’s population, according to Indonesia Investment. Vietnam, one of the third-largest global textile exporter. As labels like ‘Made in India’ become movements of sustainability rooted in local-production; the deficit of laws to protect this workforce is one of the growing points of contention for social justice organizations, including NGOs like Indonesian Fashion Chamber (IFC) and Fairwear Foundation Indonesia. These production economies undersupplied with regulations as policymakers focus on decarbonization and circularity to achieve the UN Fashion Charter’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Garment Worker Protection Ac
What could be a trend-setting law is the Garment Worker Protection Act, signed by Gavin Newsom, governor of California in September 2021. It was first proposed in December 2020 and took effect on January 1, 2022. The law aims to rectify the injustices to the underprivileged labor force in California. It employs the highest concentration of garment workers in the country – approximately 45,000 immigrant women according to Fashion Revolution.
While this is a meagre amount compared to the labor intensive South Asian countries, the law makes waves mandating hourly wages and prohibiting piecework pay. This can often add up to less than three dollars per hour, cites Fashion Revolution. The Act is a revamped renewal of Assembly Bill 633 from 1999 which also sought to eliminate wage theft in the garment industry; though retailers and manufacturers discovered means to circumvent liabilities through sub-contractors. Fashion revolution’s legendary #WhoMadeMyClothes movement of 2013 has been the only effective voluntary attempt to address this till now.
The other half of the world is slow to catch on
Countries like Japan and Australia have yet to jump onto the bandwagon when it comes to creating green laws in their garment and textile industries. In 2021, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Japan Textile Federation (JTF) adopted a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to promote responsible business practices in the Japanese textile industry.
The MoU has to create guidelines to ensure «sustainability of the industry, check possible human rights abuses. Such as the use of forced labor or underpaid workers in their supply chains, including manufacturing and distribution processes», according to their official proposal. Meanwhile, last year also witnessed Australia’s Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, grant two sets of one million dollars to the Australian Fashion Council. This to promote and certify locally developed fashion brands and also combat the country’s increased fast fashion addiction. As the industry makes appearances in parliaments, its archaic and linear business models are finally forced to evolve or be penalized.
Fashion Revolution is a not-for-profit global organization with more than ninety teams working towards its activism movements across various aspects of the fashion industry through the mobilization of brands, policymakers and citizens using research, education and initiative.