In October 2021, New York Assemblywoman Kelles and State Senator Biaggi introduced a new act to Congress — the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. This bill aims to hold major fashion brands accountable for the environmental impact their products and materials have.
Every fashion retailer and manufacturer that operates in New York and collects upwards of $100 billion in revenue would be required to disclose a minimum of 50 percent of their suppliers to the public as well as provide a detailed sustainability report that includes conscious efforts by the company to curb their environmental footprint.
The act would also target labor practices within these organizations. Companies would need to disclose median wages and labor policies. Any non-compliance with these regulations would result in a fine that, when accrued, would help fund other environmental justice work in the city.
In January of this year, the bill moved forward and was proposed to the Consumer Protection committee, where it is currently being reviewed.
An upwards of 600 fashion companies currently operate out of New York City. The city is a fashion hub. The effects of this act on the fashion industry, especially because of its seemingly comprehensive regulation, would be quite massive. If it passes, it would set a precedent for sustainable fashion policy in the US that could hold more companies accountable for their manufacturing environments than ever before.
The act is revolutionary for the ongoing movement toward sustainable fashion, but amidst a growing cry for official regulation on the fashion industry, especially in relation to fast fashion and its social and environmental harms, it can be a little hard to contextualize.
For a detailed breakdown of specific provisions of the act, click here.
How did we get here?
The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry. It takes 20,000 liters of water to produce a single kilogram of cotton. The textile industry accounts for 17-20% of global water pollution. A 2015 estimate revealed that the fashion industry put out about 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s no doubt that fashion has been, and without intervention, will continue to be a major contributor to the impending climate crisis. But current policy and social efforts to reform the industry are a product of years of work to raise awareness about the unsustainable direction fashion has been taking.
Following the boom of industrialization in the latter half of the 20th century, the mass production of goods, specifically clothing and textiles, began to transform how fashion was regarded. It was no longer specialized to specific tailors — for the high class and wealthy.
From the 1960s to the 80s, rampant consumerism sparked a series of movements advocating for a return to “simple” fashion or a rejection of fashion as a whole: the hippie revolution, the anti-fur movement, etc. This was the beginning of sustainable fashion.
Increasing globalization meant that the industrialization of the fashion industry and its resulting effects emerged into what would be officially coined as “fast fashion.” Fast fashion is a type of fashion that replicates “trendy” or designer items worn by celebrities by mass-producing them (typically by outsourcing production to countries with cheap labor) at a significantly lower cost. It utilizes synthetic fabrics made from fossil fuels to expedite the time manufacturing takes.
Policy efforts were made throughout the late 20th century and early 21st century, but fast fashion has grown exponentially since its humble beginnings. In 1989, the Clean Clothes Campaign was formed in the Netherlands to ensure that the industry labor abided by human rights laws.
From 2007, when Kate Fletcher, Sustainability, Design, and Fashion professor at the University of the Arts London’s Center for Sustainable Fashion, coined “slow fashion” as the better direction to take the industry, a number of sustainable coalitions attempted to curb the social and environmental effects of industrial fashion.
Slow fashion, according to her, is “about choice, information, cultural diversity and identity.”
“It requires a combination of rapid imaginative change and symbolic expression as well as durability and long-term engaging, quality products. Slow fashion supports our psychological needs (to form identity, communicate and be creative through our clothes) as well as our physical needs (to cover and protect us from extremes of climate),” Fletcher told The Ecologist.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Ellen McArthur Foundation (who popularized the idea of a circular economy), the UN’s Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, and Fair Trade US (who began the use of the Fair Trade Certified Label, ensuring that the piece of clothing was made in a safe eco-conscious working environment).
The turning point for modern movements of ethical fashion was the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, a factory disaster that took the lives of 1134 garment workers laboring in inhumane conditions.
But for all efforts to limit the devastating impact of fashion on the environment, fast fashion (companies like Shein, Zara, H&M, and Forever 21) continues to have a firm grip on consumer spending.
The Sustainability and Social Accountability Act in New York could be the first fashion sustainability law in the US to harness the power of public accountability and build on the work that coalitions and non-profits have been doing for decades through policy.
What does this mean for fashion moving forward?
The act isn’t perfect. It’s been criticized since its proposal for being reactionary instead of proactive, as well as lax on its labor provisions. It also allows for companies to choose which 50% of their supply-chain and production efforts they release to the public, which means they can continue their less eco-conscious manufacturing, just at a lower level.
Because the act has no provisions to lay out a path for companies to follow in order to meet sustainability standards and simply requires them to release their statistics to the public, it brings with it no guarantee that the public accountability will make a large difference in company conduct.
Critics also note that the act does not focus on reducing harm to the low-income and BIPOC communities that are most affected by dangerous manufacturing practices.
New York’s proposed act is a first step to holding fashion retail companies accountable for their part in aggravating the climate crisis, but by no means is it the end goal or the only policy attempting to fix the issue.
Many European countries have passed, or are in the process of passing, due-diligence laws (ones that require companies to investigate their policies and documentation to meet specific standards) that target environmental and human rights goals.
A California bill passed in September 2021 held companies accountable for wage violations in state supply-chains. It requires factories to pay laborers by the hour and not by piece produced.
The New York Fashion Sustainability Act is an imperfect proposal to fix a monumental problem, but its potential effects on large retail companies at least partially responsible for the mounting climate crisis are tangible.
For more information about fast fashion, watch this easily digestible 20 minute episode that breaks down the industry: Patriot Act: The Ugly Truth about Fast Fashion.
What do you think about the proposed act? Will it pass in state court, and if it does, how much of an impact could it have on the fashion industry’s environmental footprint? Let us know in the comments below!