If there is one thing that we know for certain, it’s that the fashion industry lacks accountability. Despite sustainable fashion gaining more and more traction in mainstream fashion spaces, fast fashion has continued to overproduce, garment workers are still facing exploitative conditions, and fashion billionaires are pushing for never-ending profit-oriented growth.
And so, the question becomes:
How Do We Hold The Fashion Industry Accountable?
In the slow fashion movement, there is a constant conversation about the relationship between individual and collective action in systems change. But, some experts argue that the entire debate should be reframed.
As Elizabeth Cline, journalist, author, and Remake’s Advocacy and Policy Director, puts it, “Individuals can and do change the world all the time. And of course, we need collective action to make change as well. The shift we need is not from individual to collective action, it’s from privatized social change towards change in the public sphere.”
Fashion reforms are a key example of change in the public sphere. Widely adopted legislation and policy are essential levers for accountability when it comes to helping fashion clean up its act.
What is Private Social Change?
Private social change largely refers to how we spend our money. The popular phrase, “your dollar is your vote,” succinctly sums up the essence of private social change.
It is based on the belief that where and how we choose to spend our money – or not spend our money – will be what drives change in the fashion industry.
Private social change is the realm of conscious consumption. Conscious consumption looks different from person to person, but it can include: choosing to shop secondhand, doing a ‘no buy’ year, buying fewer better things, supporting sustainable fashion brands, or choosing to buy local. These practices help shift the way we relate to fashion and heal our relationship with our clothing.
But, conscious consumption has its limits. While it is important to spend consciously and invest in businesses you believe in, it cannot be the consumers’ responsibility alone to fund sustainability.
As an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review points out, “we get the default assumption that the route to sustainability is through offering sustainable products and services, suggesting that what consumers buy (or don’t buy) will be the key to a sustainable future.”
We cannot solve the fashion crisis only by buying differently, without challenging the fundamentals of this extractive industry.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be conscious consumers. Shifting the way we consume can begin to mend our emotional connection with our clothing — and, this often sparks an interest in more systemic issues in the fashion industry.
As Lily Fang of Imperfect Idealist puts it in a post about individual versus systemic change, “It’s true: buying less on your own won’t stop overproduction, garment worker mistreatment, or the culture of overconsumption. But individual actions are the most tangible ways to get involved, and that can spur your interest into larger-scale reforms.”
While it can have an impact, where and how we spend our money is not going to single handedly create a more just fashion industry.
But, we each have the power to extend our change-making capabilities beyond the marketplace.
What is Public Social Change?
Public social change expands the realm of change-making beyond our wallets.
As Cline puts it, “we have to look beyond voting with our dollars and work to introduce strong laws, change educational curriculum, increase budgets for underfunded services, provide social benefits for vulnerable people, teach organizing, share strategies, build networks and coalitions and power, and develop revolutionary new ways of thinking, doing and living.”
And, these systemic change-making avenues can be made up of many different individual actions. “We can do these things on an individual level when we sign petitions, share information on social media, attend a town hall meeting, read a book, or donate to grassroots groups fighting for change,” says Cline.
These actions (individual and collective) that contribute to public social change make the slow fashion movement more inclusive by emphasizing that your involvement in this movement is not only determined by how you spend your money (and how much money you have to spend), but rather how you choose to show up in the world and stand up for injustice.
The #PayUp campaign is a powerful example of how collective public social change held fashion corporations to account. The campaign came about in March 2020, when Covid-19 lockdowns became commonplace and the world pressed pause.
This meant that many retailers canceled orders, refusing payment and leaving global suppliers burdened with finished stock, an estimated $40 billion in unpaid contracts, and no means to pay garment workers’ wages. After Remake’s #PayUp social media campaign, $22 billion of these unpaid contracts were recovered.
The #PayUp campaign shows that public social change does create a sense of community, and it is this strength of community that empowers us to act on a scale that reaches far beyond our habits and daily choices. It is these collective actions that help to push for widespread fashion reforms, legislature, and policy that hold fashion giants accountable.
The Role of Fashion Reforms and Legislation
Just like legislation and policies governing other aspects of our lives, fashion reforms, policies, and legislature are mandates that help to mainstream best practices in the fashion industry and guard against exploitation of the planet and of people.
Historically, the fashion industry has relied on voluntary measures — such as sustainable fashion certifications — when it comes to change-making. What makes policy and legislature different is that they are not voluntary.
“Working through our democratically elected government is one of the most important tools we can use to transform fashion, as the government sets the rules about what business can and cannot do, they outline workplace protections, they set aside funding for research and development, and move large sums of money for new projects,” says Cline.
The one caveat of this is that we must continue to use our critical faculties and speak out when we see when lawmakers are serving the interests of the already privileged, instead of the people who desperately need to benefit from fashion reforms. Cline continues to explain that, “like everything else in our society, the government is sometimes responding to business interests instead of worker interests, and politicians and policy writers are sometimes cut off from the everyday realities of communities who need access to justice.”
There is an increasing movement pushing for the adoption of such fashion reforms, policies, and laws. One such campaign is Fashion of Tomorrow’s #Vote4Fashion campaign, a grassroots initiative that aims to cement fashion policy as a core part of the political agenda on the local, state, and eventually, federal level.
So, fashion reforms and laws are vital for systems change in the fashion industry, because they place a level of responsibility on governments, corporates, and brands, instead of relying on how people spend their money when it comes to leading the way towards a more just industry.
Six Fashion Reforms and Laws That Are Changing The Industry
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 just a few of the fashion reforms and laws that are reshaping the fashion industry:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Organizations including Remake, Fashion Revolution, and Custom Collaborative are pushing to strengthen the Fashion Act.
5. UK Green Claims Code
The UK’s Green Claims Code is clamping down on greenwashing by insisting that brands substantiate any claims of a product being “sustainable.” Brands that are found guilty of greenwashing or providing misleading information to their customers could find themselves in breach of consumer protection laws.
For fast fashion brands, this means that brands cannot showcase “sustainable” collections without being clear about what makes the collection sustainable.
6. Australia’s 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.
What Can We Do To Contribute to Public Social Change?
It’s crucial to advocate for widespread adoption of fashion reforms, policies, and laws that continue to protect the rights of garment workers, and safeguard our natural ecosystems, while also ensuring that fashion remains an important medium for expression and cultural sustainability.
This means we can sign petitions, call representatives and express support for sustainable and ethical fashion legislation, show up to protests and boycotts, call out brands online, share information with our friends and family. If you’d like some ideas for getting started, look at this article on how to be a fashion activist and listen to this Conscious Style Podcast interview for tips from Cynthia Dam of Inspiroue.
“In terms of what really makes a movement, it’s sustained action more than anything. There’s a lot of things grabbing our attention these days and activist burnout is real, so I recommend folks choose just one or two causes and pour your energy into them. And if you don’t have time but you do have resources, donate to grassroots groups changing the world,” says Cline.
“For legislation to reflect workers and push the boundaries on sustainability, we have to keep building up grassroots coalitions that are led by working people and communities directly impacted by fashion.”
Here are just a few organizations that you can look into if you are searching for a slow fashion community, or want to support people doing vital work in the fashion industry:
- Fashion Revolution
- Clean Clothes Campaign
- Fashion Act Now
- The Garment Worker Center
- The OR Foundation
- Awaj Foundation
- Custom Collaborative
There are so many pathways we can take to continue pushing for public social change. As individuals, we can find ways to exercise our voices as concerned citizens and understand that our role and agency in society extends well beyond our identity as consumers.
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.