Can Regulation Transform Fashion

Ruth MacGilp

The fashion industry contributes around 4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions and is the second highest risk category for modern slavery. What’s more, the industry employs an estimated 2.4 billion people, and in 2018, was valued at $1.4 trillion. So, as influential policymakers across the world turn their attention to climate change solutions at this year’s COP26, why isn’t fashion top of the agenda?

The truth is, brands alone can’t save us from the negative social and environmental impacts of fashion. While individual actions can make a huge difference in shifting market demand, consumers can’t save us either. There is a third party missing from the sustainable fashion conversation, and it’s arguably the most powerful: government. But up until recently, fashion has been left to self-regulate its supply chains and sign voluntary sustainability pacts without science-based targets or mechanisms for accountability. 

“More often than not, the industry is marking its own homework,” agrees Samata, CEO of Red Carpet Green Dress. “To challenge this dynamic and apply the pressure needed for accelerated change, we need policymakers and legislators to support sustainable products, services and business models through investment and incentivisation. We also need the flip side, a punitive framework for those totally unwilling to do the work.”

Elizabeth Segran recently called for the new Biden administration to appoint a Fashion Czar to oversee policy in the industry, akin to the role of France’s ‘Minister of Fashion’. Compared with the food sector, for example—another industry that is reliant upon agriculture—fashion seldom has departments of government dedicated to regulating it. Leaving fashion to operate as a ‘Wild West’ ultimately has dire repercussions for workers, consumers, animals, oceans, rivers, soil and every other stakeholder in the vast and complex supply chain.

“I would like to see the fashion and footwear industry treated in the same way as the tobacco industry,” says journalist Tansy Hoskins, a statement echoed by Segran in another plea for the US government to regulate fashion like other dangerous and polluting industries like oil and transport. “What we have seen over the last 30 years is a dramatic rise in corporate power. This has not been matched by any kind of legislation which can keep up,” says Hoskins, emphasising the power imbalance of fashion brands exploiting workers and ecosystems that have few legal protections. To address this imbalance, Hoskins wants to see serious consequences for violations, suggesting measures such as “astronomical fines for corporations that are involved in industrial homicide and environmental degradation, and CEOs put on trial for crimes against humanity.”

Zooming in on the area of labour rights (although human rights and the rights of nature are interconnected and interdependent), legislation has been attempted in various countries to prevent exploitation and abuse. In the US, a landmark bill known as the Garment Worker Protection Act was recently re-introduced, which targets corporations that fail to prevent malpractice in LA garment factories. This builds upon the relative success stories of binding contracts in garment-producing countries, such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Lesotho agreement on gender-based violence.

Other policy decisions have been implemented in France and more recently, Germany, where human rights ‘due diligence’ laws have been introduced which focus on corporate accountability for human rights violations in global supply chains. Most notably, Modern Slavery Acts in the UK and Australia provide a legal requirement for highly profitable brands to monitor forced labour and human trafficking in their supply chain. However, there are no penalties for companies that fail to implement this, so once again, brands are marking their own homework.

“The difficult thing about policy in fashion is that so much is outsourced, so it’s really difficult to get a hands-on understanding, from conception to sale, of what happens to our clothes along the way but also to the people that make them,” says brand consultant and former staffer for the UK’s Labour Party, Frances Leach. “There are limitations on what policymakers [in the UK] can really do about it…companies are able to say that they aren’t aware of the working practices in the factories that produce their clothing. Which means that if you’re trying to prosecute or investigate a company, it’s really difficult to even find the places you’re supposed to be looking for.”

Leach refers to the recent Boohoo supply chain scandal as a key example of the limitations of the Modern Slavery Act, claiming that it was difficult for the UK government to shut down offenders quickly due to the lack of a paper trail tracing Boohoo to the subcontracted Leicester factories. Another layer of complexity comes with the rise of governments that are reluctant to reign in corporate freedoms, particularly with corporations so closely aligned with their interests. For example, fashion billionaires have been known to escape state punishment for workplace misconduct thanks to their political ties.

Race and gender also play a part in shaping perceptions of fashion at the highest levels of power. “Garment workers aren’t seen as skilled workers,” says Leach, referencing fashion’s 80% female workforce as a source of prejudice towards workers in the Global South, presumably undeserving of a higher wage for what is still seen as ‘women’s work’ in fashion’s perpetual race to the bottom. In Leach’s words, “people think it’s just clothes. They don’t see it as a political issue, never mind a humanitarian issue.

To get to the crux of creating legislation with teeth that protects fashion’s most vulnerable workers, we need increased transparency and traceability across the supply chain beyond the first tier. The supply chain is vast and complex with an immeasurable network of manufacturing middlemen, not to mention millions of informal home-based workersWe can’t fix what we can’t see, and that’s why we need to map this worldwide spider web in order to hold brands accountable for every worker associated with their products.

Transparency also refers to environmental impact, as we need brands to disclose their carbon, water and waste footprints so they can be held to account for reducing them. With voluntary multi-brand commitments such as the G7 Fashion Pact pledging sustainability in the year 2030, the question is: why wait?

Policy must step in to fast-track progress, and that starts with implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This is legislation that ensures environmental costs are accounted for throughout the entire product life cycle, so that corporations are held responsible for the inputs and outputs of every supplier. In particular, EPR holds brands responsible for the end-of-life of their products, so they take ownership of the waste they create. Ultimately, its purpose is to incentivise brands to produce less, pollute less and waste less, because it would be too costly not to.

In the UK, the Environmental Audit Committee have tried to implement a series of interventions to reduce fashion’s impact on people and the planet. Their 2018 Fixing Fashion Report suggested policy changes such as an EPR charge to improve recycling, a ban on landfilling unsold stock, and tax incentives based on a brand’s eco-conscious design practices. Tragically, every recommendation was rejected, but as of 2020 the research is being revisited.

Another important area for the government to intervene in is greenwashing, the phenomenon of misleading sustainability claims. A recent report by the European Commission revealed that 42% of online stores were spreading exaggerated or false messages about sustainability. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has also been scrutinising unsubstantiated marketing claims in sectors like fashion in a new investigation. As a result of these initiatives, it is hoped that new legislation will crack down on brands who deceive their consumers.

As for the future of fashion’s role in the global political landscape, change is afoot. From Brexit to Biden, India’s farmer protests to China’s forced labour crisis, it’s clearer than ever that fashion is a global system. Policies in one country impact the entire supply chain, so to make sweeping systemic change, we must act as one international community. After all, the impacts of climate change will be felt across the world, so there is no use in nationalism when it comes to investing in solutions.

Remember that the only true purpose of your representatives is quite simply to represent you. In addition to ‘voting with you wallet’, vote with your vote and help elect parties with a manifesto for climate and social justice. Don’t wait until election day either. Write to your MP and tell them that equity in the fashion industry is important to you as their constituent (you can find some great email templates here and here). Signing petitions is far from a meaningless action too: after 100,000 signatures, issues get debated in parliament. Most of all, pledge to act not just as a consumer, but as a global citizen, and stand up for your neighbours who have been let down by the fashion system. Regulation can transform fashion, but we need collective action to help us get there.

Ruth MacGilp

Ruth MacGilp is a freelance ethical fashion journalist based in Edinburgh. She writes for the likes of Eco-Age, The Flock, EcoCult and Cosmopolitan and has recently joined the Fashion Revolution team as their new Communications and Content Manager. She also co-hosts an ethical fashion podcast called Common Threads.