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The Fashion Act

New York’s Fashion Act is trying to make the fashion industry sustainable through accountability

In early 2022, as the pandemic appeared to be slowing its course, the fashion industry made a historical move toward sustainability. Drafted in October 2021 and presented in New York on January 5, 2022, the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act aims to transform the way clothing and footwear brands and manufacturers work, in order to reduce their impact on the environment. The fashion industry has famously been a huge source of pollution and with a growing demand for fast fashion items globally, trends have shown a worsening situation over the past two decades in terms of environmental damage. The “Act” hopes to change this by keeping brands accountable for their behavior. As we wait for the bill to be officially introduced, let’s take a look at what it entails in detail.

The impact of the fashion industry on the environment

Globally, the production of clothes has doubled over the past 15 years. With approximately 100 billion items of clothing produced on a yearly basis around the world, the textile industry has become one of the leading causes of environmental damage, both because of the natural resources needed to keep up with demand and the short lifespan of products which cause them to end up in landfills shortly after their release.

The extraction of raw materials, processing, intercontinental transportation are all part of the problem. As the [European Environment Agency reports], the great majority of textiles today are made from synthetic fibers (polyester), which require over 70 million barrels of oil to be extracted and processed each year. The apparel industry is responsible for an estimated 10% of the world’s CO2 emissions – more than the entire global air and sea traffic combined.

Carbon emissions, however, are not the only cause of concern. Water is the main victim of the overproduction of clothing. With consumption of nearly 80 billion cubic tons of water each year, the fashion industry is the second most water-intensive sector in the world, as shown by [a study by the University of Florida]. While the demand for new clothing is concentrated in Western countries, water consumption affects primarily regions where the resource is already scarce, including China, India, Pakistan, and Central Asian regions where cotton plantations compose a large part of the local economy.

Hazardous chemicals are also released in river waters by factories that work for large brands in developing countries. In Bangladesh, the second-largest textile manufacturer after China, wastewaters from plants that process fabrics are dumped into waterways that have, as a consequence, [turned black]. With few regulations stopping such practices, 72 toxic chemicals used for textile dyeing end up in waters that are then used to cultivate crops, increasing the risk of cancer for communities living in their vicinity.

Clothing manufacturing is not just responsible for the consumption of huge quantities of water, but also the pollution of those sources that are left unused. While to produce a single pair of jeans and a T-shirt, approximately 20,000 liters of water are required, once these are washed or discarded they release microplastics that end up in rivers and oceans and are nearly impossible to remove. *It is estimated that half a million tons of microplastics end up in the water during machine washings of fabrics like nylon, polyester, and acrylic. *These microplastics end up in the ocean, where they are eaten by fish which end up on people’s plates.

What is the goal of the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act?

The state of New York has become the first region in the world to attempt to regulate the supply chain of large fashion brands. While the Sustainability Act published in January will – for the time being – affect only the companies operating in New York, the new regulations will set a standard and provide an example for institutions around the world on what can be done to limit the social and environmental damage of the industry.

The primary goal of the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act is forcing big corporations – both fast-fashion brands such as Shein and high-end names such as Armani – to declare where their raw materials come from, where they are processed, and under which conditions they are produced. In short, the Act will require fashion houses to map out the entire production process to identify sustainability flaws and correct them in accordance with the goals established by the Paris Agreement.

Initially, New York’s Fashion Act will only impact clothing and footwear businesses with more than USD 100 million in yearly revenues, with the intention of setting the standard for smaller companies as well. The brands included in the regulation will have to map out 50% of their supply chain and highlight whether parts of the production process can be improved from an environmental point of view.

Half of the production process – from the use of toxic chemical agents, to the treatments of workers in factories and greenhouse gas emissions – will have to be disclosed and, in case of non-compliance with sustainability goals and social welfare standards, flaws will need to be fixed. Each company must set goals to avoid unnecessary pollution and reduce its environmental impact, following the [Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standard], and commit to paying minimum living wages to all its workers. All of the information released as a result of the Fashion Act will have to be made publicly available.

Companies that do not comply with the new regulations will receive a fine of up to 2% of their annual revenues. Such fines will be invested in social and environmental projects financed by the Community Benefit Fund.

Criticism of the “Fashion Act”

While keeping large fashion brands accountable for their negative impact on both the environment and the welfare of their workers appears to be necessary, New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act has received its share of criticism from industry-linked organizations.

A [letter] sent to regulatory bodies by a group of 20 non-profit organizations defending fashion laborers – including the [Asia Floor Wage Alliance], a coalition of trade unions demanding that garment workers are paid a living wage, and [Remake], an advocacy group working to make the fashion industry more inclusive and environmentally sustainable – state that the mapping only 50% of the supply chain is not enough to stop harmful practices currently in place.

Another point of criticism has been the lack of focus on reuse, rather than recycling. Signatories of the letter have said that while it is important to recycle discarded textiles, reusing them is an even more effective method of reducing emissions. Today, 200,000 tons of fabrics are thrown away every year, and only a small part of this is recycled or reused, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Creating systems for repairing and upcycling clothing would allow for a circular economy model with minimal resource extraction.

A global movement for change: what is next for the fashion industry? 

While the Fashion Act will be a huge step forward in terms of regulations for the fashion industry, it cannot be considered the ultimate solution to solve all the problems affecting the sector. Those who have sponsored the Act are the first to admit that this is “the most robust and aggressive bill possible that can get passed,” but cannot be the sole tool for transforming the industry.

Following the [Rana Plaza disaster], which saw a garment factory producing clothing for brands such as Benetton, The Children’s Place, Mango, and Primark in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapse onto itself killing 1,134 workers in 2013, governments have raised their attention toward the social impact of global brands. France’s “[Duty of Vigilance Act],” introduced in 2017, was set up to make companies working internationally more responsible for their actions through constant monitoring by a vigilance committee.

In 2021, 25 non-governmental organizations set up the [Wardrobe Change Campaign], calling for the European Union to set up an accountability program for the textile industry and to end the fast fashion industry, which is the major cause of concern in terms of both pollution and human rights violations within the fashion industry.

Commitment from brands is needed as well and many companies are already working towards goals. Brands like Patagonia and North Face have famously made environmental sustainability part of their business plans, setting objectives that include responsible sourcing of raw materials, the reduction of plastics in packaging, and circular systems that allow for the reuse of pre-owned garments.

High-end brands such as Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, and Balenciaga, who operate under their parent corporation Kering, have also set their own goals through the [2017 – 2025 Sustainability Roadmap]. Following the three concepts of Care, Collaboration, and Create, Kering aims to reduce its environmental footprint by 40% by 2025 by introducing innovative processes that will allow for the disruption of traditional production methods.

While brands’ promises of change are to be praised, institutional regulations remain important to make sure that such goals are met. In this sense, the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act offers a tool to keep industry leaders in check and make sure commitments do not simply turn into greenwashing.

Story by Angelo Zinna

Header photo by [Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona]