Bold fashion legislation and reforms will help to mainstream sustainable fashion.
Fashion legislation is a huge step in the right direction when it comes to accountability, which is something that Big Fashion sorely lacks.
Here are some of the fashion reforms and laws that are reshaping the fashion industry:
The International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry
This Accord began as The Bangladesh Accord, in 2013, which was an independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to work towards a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Accord was created in 2013 after the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza. This was a fatal incident where a Bangladeshi factory, filled with garment workers, collapsed and resulted in the deaths of 1134 garment workers and thousands more injuries. The Bangladesh Accord holds brands accountable for their suppliers and ensures that suppliers provide fair and safe working conditions, and respond to labor concerns.
The Bangladesh Accord was initially valid for five years. At the end of last year, it was renewed, expanded, and renamed the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry. The renewed Accord will continue to protect garment workers in Bangladesh, but it will also be expanded to other garment-producing nations, where workers’ lives are currently at risk daily.
Most recently, the International Accord has been expanded to include Pakistan with the monumental Pakistan Accord being signed. This is the first regional successor of the International Accord. Pakistan is another major garment production hub, and the hope is that the Pakistan Accord will make Pakistan one of the safest garment production hubs in the world.
Sustainable Fashion Legislation in the United States:
The Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act
Wage theft is one of the biggest injustices in the fashion industry — and it’s all too common. US senator Kirsten Gillibrand hopes to end wage theft on a federal level with the introduction of the FABRIC Act.
The precedent-setting bill aims to eliminate piece-rate pay, set a fair hourly rate for garment workers, hold brands accountable for wages in their supply chain by charging penalties for wage violations, and encourage brands to reshore manufacturing.
Reshoring – ensuring that garments are produced in the US – is incentivized with tax credits. A $40 million domestic garment manufacturing grant program aimed at revitalizing the industry is also a provision made in the bill.
The duality of both incentivizing brands not to outsource production to garment production hubs in the Global South and penalizing wage violations in the US helps to ensure brands implement long-term, ethical business practices.
The FABRIC Act has been officially endorsed by nearly 200 companies and organizations so far, including Remake, ThredUp, and Mara Hoffman. As it stands, the bill is still being reviewed.
The SWEAT Bill
SWEAT stands for ‘Securing Wages Earned Against Theft’ and is a bill that holds companies liable for unpaid wages. The SWEAT Bill was passed by the New York State legislature in 2019 but was vetoed by Governor Cuomo on January 1st, 2020.
So often, we hear of businesses getting away with not paying garment workers. Under existing law, if a worker is owed money by an employer, it is very difficult for the worker to access their money, because the employer can easily hide or move their funds.
The SWEAT Bill aims to make it easier for workers to get back their wages. The SWEAT Bill will allow workers to freeze the employer’s assets, which ensures that workers will be able to get their money back. New York organizers and legislators are looking to pass the SWEAT bill this year.
The Garment Worker Protection Act
Los Angeles is the biggest garment hub in the United States, servicing some of the world’s largest fast-fashion retailers. Historically, fashion brands have avoided taking responsibility for paying garment workers by hiring their factories as third-party contractors.
Also known as Senate Bill 62, the Garment Worker Protection Act is a Californian anti-wage theft and brand accountability bill that makes the state the first in the country to require hourly wages for garment workers. The Act also prohibits piecework (a mechanism used to pay workers per garment and often results in a shockingly low hourly rate) and penalizes wage theft and other illegal pay practices that disadvantage garment workers.
This Act is life-changing for Los Angeles’ 45000 garment workers and their families because it allows them to reclaim a level of agency and makes their lives slightly less precarious.
The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act
This Act is currently under consideration in the New York State Assembly. If passed, the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act would require all fashion companies that do business (i.e. sell their products) in New York and generate more than $100 million in revenues to map at least 50 percent of their supply chains and disclose environmental and social impacts in public reports.
In terms of environmental impact, this includes elements such as greenhouse gas emissions, water footprint, chemical use, as well as reporting on the total volumes of materials they produce.
When it comes to social impacts, brands will have to median wages for workers and what measures are in place to embed responsible business conduct into policies and management systems.
Beyond increasing supply chain transparency, brands will have to set clear targets for how to improve their social and environmental impact. Fines for non-compliance will be pooled in a community fund that will be used for environmental justice projects in New York.
The announcement of the Fashion Act was met with support, but also valid critique due to it being too broad in scope, a lack of clarity about what non-compliance fines would be used for, and not being sufficiently worker-led.
Since its introduction, a few amendments have been added to strengthen the Act. These amendments include clearer requirements for climate targets — and the necessary enforcement measures to ensure this. The amendments also give greater agency to garment workers, allowing them to pursue legal action against brands that are guilty of wage theft.
The Fashion Workers Act
New York’s fashion industry employs 180,000 people, accounting for 6 percent of the city’s workforce and generating $10.9 billion in total wages. Yet the people behind this creative workforce are not afforded basic labor protections, because they work through management companies in New York which escape licensing and regulation.
Initiated by The Model Alliance, the Fashion Workers Act aims to regulate management agencies and provide basic labor protections for models and creatives. For example, the bill requires management companies to pay models and creatives within 45 days of completing a job, provide models and creatives with copies of contracts and agreements, and discontinue the practice of imposing a commission fee greater than 20% of the model or creative’s compensation.
The bill still needs to be voted on by New York Legislators.
Sustainable Fashion Legislation in Europe:
The European Union’s Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation
The European Union is implementing legislation to support the transition toward a circular economy with their proposed Ecodesign for Sustainable Products regulation.
This new proposed regulation will improve EU products’ circularity, energy performance, and other environmental sustainability aspects. The legislation will include a range of requirements including rules on:
- product durability, reusability, upgradability, and reparability
- presence of substances that inhibit circularity
- energy and resource efficiency
- recycled content
- remanufacturing and recycling
- carbon and environmental footprints
The proposed legislation also intends to implement a “Digital Product Passport” for greater transparency. The Passport will provide information about the products’ environmental sustainability. This will help consumers and businesses make informed choices, facilitate repairs and recycling, and improve transparency about products’ life cycle impacts on the environment.
If it is adopted, the soonest the regulation is expected to be put in place is 2025.
The European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence
The fashion industry is composed of complex global value chains that often obscure impact and enable exploitative brands to avoid accountability. The EU’s proposed Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence legislation aims to foster responsible corporate behavior throughout global value chains.
Companies will be required to identify and, where necessary, prevent, end, or mitigate adverse impacts of their activities on human rights and on the environment.
The due diligence rules will apply to EU companies and non-EU companies with a certain turnover threshold. They primarily aim to address the effects of big businesses, which have the greatest impact, so small and medium enterprises are not the main focus of this legislation.
Fines will be charged in cases of non-compliance. And victims will have the opportunity to take legal action for damages that could have been avoided with appropriate due diligence measures.
The European Union’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive
Joining the US and the UK, European legislators are acting against greenwashing and positioning it as an unfair commercial practice.
New European laws are tackling greenwashing by setting standards for companies to adhere to when making environmental claims about their products, including the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive.
This Directive enables law enforcement to eliminate a range of unfair business practices. Examples of unfair business practices include the spreading of misleading information or aggressive marketing techniques to influence consumer choices. The Directive is accompanied and strengthened by the Climate and Resilience Law.
These new anti-greenwashing regulations require companies to collect their own clear, objective, and verifiable data to back up any environmental claims. Companies will only be able to claim a product is sustainable if they disclose the impact of the entire life of the product.
The European Union’s REACH Laws
Textile dyeing and treatment have a large role to play in this pollution of the world’s waterways — not to mention that these toxic chemicals and polluted waterways have serious consequences for human health.
60-70% of dyes used in the food and textiles industries are known as Azo dyes. Some Azo dyes are classified as carcinogens, which is why the European Union has decided to ban the use of all Azo dyes containing carcinogenic compounds.
The REACH regulation holds manufacturers and importers to account by requiring them to gather information on the chemicals used in the products they are creating. They are required to register this information in a central database at the European Chemicals Agency.
This Agency also performs in-depth research into the properties of chemical substances to identify harmful properties. The REACH Laws aim to ensure that the food we use to nourish our bodies, and the clothes that adorn our bodies, do not contain toxic chemicals.
Extended Producer Responsibility Policies
Since fashion brands are the ones creating the clothing that fuels fashion’s waste crisis, many people believe we should hold them responsible for this waste.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies in countries in the Global North are regulatory measures that hold fashion producers accountable for the waste they create when introducing new products into the world.
This is done by mandating an EPR fee from brands for each garment they create to a waste management organization. The fee is built into the cost of the garment that we’d purchase.
In 2007, France was the first country to declare a legal framework for managing textile waste. According to The European Union’s Waste Framework Directive, by January 1, 2025, all members of the European Union will be required to set up an EPR system.
Currently, because of how low EPR fees are and the lack of scalable recycling technology, EPRs are funding the increased collection and sorting of clothing, but not their end-of-life management. This means that a lot of the clothing collected in EPR schemes ends up in the global secondhand trade.
For EPR schemes to be rooted in justice and truly tackle fashion’s waste crisis, money needs to go toward the people that are actively doing waste management work.
Australia’s Legislation: Modern Slavery Law
This Australian Law was passed in 2018 and established a Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement that states that companies with revenues above AUD $100 million are required to publish an annual Modern Slavery Statement, reporting on all potential modern slavery risks and practices in their operations and supply chains.
All statements are made publicly available in a central government-run repository to foster public oversight, and the companies face penalties for non-compliance. The law aims to increase transparency around modern slavery and human trafficking in supply chains for consumers and investors and improve workplace anti-slavery practices by holding businesses accountable.
Action On Greenwashing:
While these aren’t specific pieces of legislation, these are steps towards governmental action on greenwashing.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority’s Green Claims Code
The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority developed the Green Claims Code in 2021. The Code sets out six key points to check whether a business’ environmental claims are genuine.
While the Green Claims Code is not considered legislation, it does provide tips to help businesses understand and comply with their existing obligations under consumer protection law, when making environmental claims. So the Green Claims Code helps businesses avoid breaking the law.
The tips are also designed to encourage consumers to ask themselves key simple questions to avoid greenwashing when shopping. And they help businesses to ensure that their green claims are truthful and verifiable.
According to the Green Claims Code, green claims must:
- Be truthful and accurate
- Be unambiguous
- Not omit or hide important information
- Only make fair and meaningful comparisons
- Consider the full life cycle of the product
- Be substantiated
Knowing that fashion is infamous for rampant greenwashing, the Competition and Markets Authority has been using the Green Claims Code to scrutinize fast fashion brands — such as ASOS, Boohoo — over the past year, intending to take legal action and encourage greater transparency and accountability in the industry.
The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides
Greenwashing is becoming harder and harder to spot. The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides are designed to help marketers, in the US, avoid making environmental claims that mislead consumers.
The Green Guides outline general principles for making environmental marketing claims and how consumers are likely to interpret these claims. They also share ways that marketers can substantiate and qualify claims to avoid deceiving shoppers.
While the guides don’t solely target fashion — rather focusing on all consumer goods — we know that fashion has a lot to answer for when it comes to greenwashing.
Some of the general principles that the guides apply to all environmental marketing claims include:
- Conditions and caveats should be clear, prominent, and understandable.
- Claims should specify whether they refer to the product, the product’s packaging, or a portion of the product or packaging.
- Claims should not overstate, directly or indirectly, an environmental attribute or benefit.
If a brand does make a misleading claim, there are clear consequences such as advertising prohibitions and fines.
The Green Guides were first issued in 1992, but have not been reviewed since 2012. As part of a 10-year review, the Commission is currently in the process of initiating an update to the guides, including asking for feedback from the public.
A more just and equitable fashion industry will be the result of a collection of efforts. We need brands to be more responsible in the way they operate. We need consumers who challenge the norms of overconsumption and advocate for a better industry. And we need government-mandated industry-wide fashion reforms and legislation that hold big business accountable and guard against exploitative practices.
This is a movement that has space for everyone.
I hope that this article has left you feeling energized and inspired to figure out what avenue of change-making you can get involved in, within the slow fashion movement!
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.