Even though we are a small fair trade brand with a very niche market, we care deeply about the ethos across the entire fashion industry. We want to see the kind of accountability and transparency we work so hard to maintain to become the norm, rather than the exception. That's why we've got our eyes on a new bill that if passed, proponents say has the potential to catalyze real and lasting change. But is it all it's hyped up to be? Let's dive in!
The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (otherwise known as the Fashion Act) was introduced by New York senator Alessandra Biaggi and assemblywoman Anna R. Kelles. In a nutshell, it aims to hold all the major players in the fashion industry accountable for their environmental and social impacts. Even though the law would exist in New York state, supporters say that if passed, it will shift how the fashion industry operates globally.
Why is the Fashion Act needed?
The fashion industry is a destructive beast. Mainstream fashion production results in devastating environmental and humanitarian consequences. Check out these facts from the World Economic Forum , the UN Environmental Program, and Fashion Revolution:
- The fashion industry contributes up to 10% of worldwide carbon emissions, which is more than all international air travel and maritime shipments combined.
- It ranks second in the world for water consumption.
- The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second. Every second!
- 85% of textiles go into landfills each year.
- It is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
- 60% of clothing is made from synthetic fibers like plastic, which includes polyester, acrylic and nylon. Every time they get washed, they shed tiny pieces of toxic microplastics- an estimated half to one million tons annually. These pollute the water and are toxic to all marine life.
- The fashion industry is notorious for human rights violations by operating sweatshops, paying low wages, and maintaining unsafe working conditions. Seven years after the Rana Plaza Collapse, millions of workers in Bangladesh and around the world still face poverty, danger, and even death.
What does the Fashion Act propose?
The Fashion Act would apply to businesses that meet these three requirements:
- Fashion retail seller or fashion manufacturer.
- Doing business in New York.
- Annual worldwide gross revenues of $100 million or above.
The fact that one of the thresholds is "doing business" in NY, rather than "headquartered" or "incorportated" in NY, is key; it widely broadens the scope, because NYC is a world fashion capital. This means the Fashion Act has the potential to reach a significant portion of the industry.
These businesses would be required to disclose their environmental and social policies, processes and outcomes, including significant current or potential negative environmental and social impacts based on scientific facts and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This would include:
Supply Chain Transparency
They would be required to disclose full transparency on at least 50% of their supply chains, including environmental impacts such as water use, chemical use, and greenhouse gas emissions, and social impacts such as wages and working conditions.
Brands would also be required to map out the exact totals of materials they produce, which addresses the widespread problem of "greenwashing"- using hyped up language in marketing to make a brand seem way more sustainable than it actually is. This alone is a powerful move that would highlight the sector’s aggregate impact that’s typically hidden; most brands boast about reducing the impact of individual materials while still increasing their production and their total carbon footprint.
So they've disclosed the details of their supply chain, now what? These businesses would then be required to prepare a social and environmental sustainability report, with a clear plan and relevant information on due diligence policies relevant to the findings of the supply chain disclosure. Their plans to address any adverse environmental and social impact would have to follow the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They would then have 18 months to provide an impact disclosure on the changes they've made to abide by these guidelines.
The NY State Attorney General (or a designated administrator by the AG) would be responsible for enforcing the Fashion Act. Each year, the Attorney General would be required to publish a public report regarding compliance with the Act. The report would be required to include a list of fashion retail sellers and manufacturers who are out of compliance.
If a business is not in compliance three months after receiving a notice of non-compliance, it could be fined up to 2% of annual revenues of $450 million or more. Any fines levied would be required to be deposited into a community benefit fund that would be used for environmental conservation and social justice initiatives.
In addition, private citizens would also be able to file suit against any fashion retail seller or manufacturer that they know are not in compliance with the act.
Is it enough?
The Act has gained a lot of support from environmental and human rights advocacy groups, fashion designers like Stella McCartney (who was part of the coalition that got the ball rolling), and celebrities like Rosario Dawson, Jane Fonda, Leonardo di Caprio, and Cameron Diaz. But it's left others wondering: is it enough? And there are some compelling arguments that it falls short in the midst of the climate and humanitarian crisis the world is facing today.
Lack of Diversity
No Black, Brown, or Indigenous voices were included in the creation of the bill, which critics argue is problematic since the BIPOC community makes up for such a large portion of the garment worker industry.
Transparency is Not Enough
The Act's main focus is on disclosure, and only on 50% of the supply chain. What's to stop brands from choosing the best half of their business to report on? Furthermore, even though it would penalize for failure to comply, that failure is specific to reporting, not the actual actions taken to comply.
Organizations like Remake and Fashion Revolution share this sentiment. Together with other labor and sustainability advocacy groups, they formed a coalition and drafted an official proposal to strengthen the Fashion Act- you can read it in full here. They argue that although they agree that it's time for a world fashion capital like NY to take action to improve the ethics of the industry, much stronger laws have been passed in California, Germany and France that more directly address improving the lives of workers and enacting environmental policy - which ultimately puts NY behind the curve.
As exciting as it was to see the Fashion Act introduced, we agree that there is a lot of room for improvement. We hope that more advocacy groups speak up to the bill's shortcomings, specifically that it gets revised to include expanded disclosure requirements (why only 50% !?) and that requirements and penalties are implemented that address real, actionable change. Every step of this process should also rely on third-party audits.
Although transparency alone is definitely not enough, it is always a step in the right direction. We cannot change what we cannot see, after all. The conversation is on the table, and it's getting a lot of attention - that in itself points to a more hopeful future.
If you'd like to learn more about the issues affecting the state of ethics in fashion today, visit the Fashion Revolution website.