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The fashion industry needs to clean up its image and its act—fast. Apparel and footwear production is responsible for anywhere between 4 and 8.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Such a carbon footprint is far larger than the highly emitting aviation industry, or that of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, combined. And climate pollution isn’t the fashion industry’s only problem: It also contaminates water, destroys forests, abuses toxic chemicals, clogs landfills, and exploits workers.
That’s why New York lawmakers have linked up with environmental advocates to expose the $2.5 trillion industry’s not-so-glamorous side and push for the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (Fashion Act). First introduced into the New York legislature a year ago by former State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assembly Member Dr. Anna R. Kelles, the act aims to create, for the first time, legally binding environmental and labor standards for the industry. In the coming weeks, lawmakers plan to reintroduce the bill with new amendments that make it even stronger.
The Act on Fashion Coalition—a diverse group of clothing and apparel companies, labor rights organizations, environmental justice organizations, and other nonprofits, including NRDC—supports the bill that Rich Schrader says “goes beyond anything done by the European Union.” Schrader, NRDC’s legislative and policy director for New York, says the act also aligns with the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protect Act, which requires New York to cut its carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
For Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the New York–based New Standard Institute, a self-described “think-and-do tank” that’s been a driving force behind the act, voluntary measures to bring about change in the industry simply have not worked. “The fashion industry has told its own story about sustainability for a long time, and people up until very recently have trusted this information. Yet the data show the industry having an increasingly negative impact,” she says. “We need laws in order to move together as a sector. Any one company can’t do it on its own.”
Fashion’s race to the bottom
Far from New York, in Chile’s Atacama Desert last summer, mountains of clothes, much of them unworn and donning the logos of big-name fashion brands, went up in flames. Some 100,000 tons of garments—mostly made of synthetic, nonbiodegradable materials—burned for two weeks, and the resulting toxic fumes forced local communities to stay indoors. This calamity unfolded at just one of thousands of clothing landfills across the globe, a symptom of our destructive addiction to cheap, mass-produced clothing.
The United States currently generates around 16 million tons of textile waste per year, and nearly two-thirds of that ends up in landfills. New Yorkers alone are responsible for 200,000 tons of this waste—enough clothes, shoes, and accessories to reach the top of the Empire State Building, every year.
How did we get here? So-called “fast fashion” began to take hold in the 1990s as companies, aided by a lack of industry regulations, saw profit in churning out clothes quickly and cheaply to keep up with changing trends. Between 2000 and 2014, apparel companies worldwide doubled their production. In fact, the average consumer bought 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than they did in 2000—and kept each item for half as long. A 2015 survey of 2,000 women by British charity Barnardo’s found that people tend to discard clothing after just seven wears. At the same time, increasingly short fashion cycles, often fueled by social media, exacerbate clothing production, consumption, and waste. And this trend doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon.
Despite the expressed desire by younger people to shift away from such destructive consumption patterns—in 2020, Forbes found that 62 percent of Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) prefer buying from sustainable brands—the pull of fast fashion is strong. According to market research firm Mintel, Gen Z purchases more fast-fashion items than older generations (perhaps unsurprisingly, given income differences) and many buy clothes they never end up wearing. No one generation is to blame, of course, and placing the responsibility on cash-strapped consumers only lets the profiting industries off the hook.
And companies peddling these throwaway clothes continue to crop up. The U.S. fast-fashion market grew by 15 percent between January and mid-June 2021, and mega markets elsewhere are keeping up—for example, Chinese online retailer Shein’s production rose an astounding 160 percent during that same period. Bloomberg reports that in July 2021, Shein’s online store had 548,000 in-stock products, a 370 percent increase from two years earlier.
“With these corporate models, their directive is to grow and continue to grow—and our natural systems aren’t aligned with that,” says Laura Sansone, creator of New York Textile Lab, a design and consulting company that supports environmentally and socially conscious textile production. “We just can’t sustain it anymore.”
Left unchecked, the fashion industry could represent a staggering 26 percent of global carbon emissions by 2050.
When exploitation is in season
The legacy of the garments themselves, from the moment their fibers are made and dyed to the thousands of years they could take to degrade, is also a huge concern. Clothing accounts for a fifth of the world’s 300 million tons of plastic pollution every year. Producing polyester, now the world’s most widely used clothing fiber, and other synthetics requires 1.3 billion barrels of oil annually. When washed, these garments leach microplastics into waterways, eventually adding to the enormous plastic stream we continually send into the sea. Meanwhile, according to a 2019 report by Green America, a nonprofit that promotes ethical consumerism, textile manufacturing is responsible for about 20 percent of the world’s industrial water pollution. Mills all over the globe misuse hazardous chemicals, jeopardizing the health of their workers and consumers, and then irresponsibly dispose of them in local waterways, putting wildlife and local communities at risk.
The human cost of fashion looms large, and egregious worker justice issues plague the industry. The 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,000 garment workers and injured thousands more. The tragedy helped open the world’s eyes to the fashion industry’s exploitation of workers—especially women of color in the Global South—who are underpaid, lack basic health and safety protections, and face higher risks of sexual violence in the workplace. According to The True Cost, a 2015 documentary on the industry, only 2 percent of its 75 million workers worldwide earn a living wage, and in several countries, forced or child labor support the fashion supply chain.
Mazeda Uddin, founder and CEO of the New York City–based South Asian Fund for Education, Scholarship and Training (SAFEST), says the state has an obligation to address the continued suffering of garment workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere. At the time of the Fashion Act’s initial introduction, she stated, “As one of the leaders of the world and as a global fashion capital, New York must do more to ensure price wars do not result in human hardship elsewhere.”
What would New York’s Fashion Act do?
If passed, the legislation would require apparel and footwear companies to map their supply chains, disclose the environmental and social impacts of those operations, and create binding targets to improve them. This would apply to any business with annual revenues more than $100 million that does business in New York, whether via brick-and-mortar or online stores.
More specifically, the act would require companies to detail the greenhouse gas emissions, chemical management, energy consumption, and water and material usage throughout their operations and those of their suppliers. It would also require them to increase the amounts of recyclable materials used and to be transparent on the wages they’re paying workers. Then, the companies would need to address any issues by, for example, setting science-based targets that align with Paris Agreement goals, working with suppliers to manage chemical use, or independently verifying workers’ wages.
“There’s a real need to hold companies accountable for what they’re saying, and we see the intent of this legislation as doing just that,” says Corley Kenna, a spokesperson for the Patagonia brand.
The legislative effort follows the model of California’s vehicle pollution standards, which revolutionized the auto industry by setting regulations that are stricter than federal ones. This spurred automakers that wished to sell cars to Californians to change their practices elsewhere. When it comes to the fashion industry, New York could have a similar market-wide influence. The long-overdue act, Kenna says, could spark changes that spread throughout the industry at levels “that really make a difference. Hopefully, it could also penalize bad behavior too.”
If companies fail to meet their targets, the state’s attorney general could fine them up to 2 percent of their annual revenues. For a company as big as, say, Shein, which raked in $30 billion last year, that would be roughly $600 million.
“This is not a disclosure bill,” Bédat says. “It requires companies to achieve outcomes.” And that’s when the fashion industry will really start looking good.
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