The Fashion Act

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Ellie Fitchet
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The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act – or ‘the Fashion Act’ for short – has been heralded as a ground-breaking piece of legislation, with the potential to transform the way the fashion industry operates not just in New York, where the bill originates from, but across the globe. Considering the Big Apple’s status as a global fashion capital and the fact that this law would cover any apparel or footwear company doing business there with an annual global revenue of $100 million, it definitely has the potential to do just that. Moreover, it requires mandatory disclosure of social and environmental diligence, promoting uniformity across the industry and diverging from the current situation, where all data is disclosed at a company’s discretion.


This legislation certainly seems to be impressive. Few bills encompass both environmental and social issues simultaneously in this way, and the number of brands covered is astounding, stretching from luxury designers such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton to high street brands like Nike and Zara. However, is it only impressive as it targets an industry that has operated unregulated for too long and where the bar is set far too low? A distinct lack of legally binding environmental standards has allowed huge fast fashion TNCs like Shein and Boohoo to prioritise profit above all else and accelerate the environmental impact of a trade which, if it continues on its current trajectory, will be responsible for over ¼ of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.


Turning the tide on this industry requires some truly ambitious legislation, and, whilst the Fashion Act is certainly a step in the right direction, I’m not sure it has the teeth to ignite genuine structural change. Its focus on transparency over change and accountability is also worrying. If a murderer admits to their crimes, it neither absolves them of blame nor prevents them from attacking again. Clearly, this approach wouldn’t work in a justice system, so why do we think it will in the fashion industry?

What it's made of:


Currently, companies are not required to release information on their environmental impacts which has led to huge inconsistencies across the industry and a lack of transparency, hindering consumers who want to make informed decisions about their purchases. The fact that this is voluntary means that companies can choose the data they disclose, allowing them to skew it in their favour, maybe even causing inaccuracies as they are not necessarily independently audited. This would change under the Fashion Act, as firms would have to release quantitative, data-based reporting on energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions, water, plastic use and chemical management throughout the whole supply chain. Moreover, they would be required to disclose annual volumes of materials used, as well as what those materials are. This would help to remedy the often-overlooked issue that companies can pick and choose what they share, allowing them to boast about their “recycled” and “sustainable” materials without ever explaining what this means. 


These changes, the Coalition behind the Act have argued, would mean companies using more sustainable materials and reducing their plastic usage. However, the focus of all of these clauses is on transparency, not change – it forces companies to disclose their negative impacts BUT does not require them to compensate for or correct them. This is exemplified in the 2020 scandal surrounding H&M topping Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index: whilst H&M used this accolade as a way of proving their status as a sustainable brand, it did not actually mean they were, just that they were openly unsustainable. Whilst transparency can lead to companies changing their ways as they care about their image, this is by no means always the case, and the Fashion Act’s main flaw is that it fails to acknowledge this. Furthermore, there are still opportunities for companies to pick and choose their information with the Act, as it only mandates the mapping of 50% of the supply chain, urging brands to focus on the areas they think have the greatest social and environmental risks. Whilst Maxine Bédat, a key drafter of the bill, argues that this ambiguity is deliberate to acknowledge the differing requirements of different sections of the industry, it would likely just allow brands to only look at what is easiest and paints them in the best light, not what needs the most change.


Furthermore, the parts of the Act looking at the labour aspects of fashion are even weaker, as the language is far vaguer and avoids numbers-based targets, unlike the ‘Science Based Targets’ required on the environmental side. Corporations would have to disclose their median wages for workers and compare this to the minimum wages in the area, but this does not go far enough: why can’t the Act just force companies to pay their workers a living, or at least minimum wage? Whilst it is a great step that there will be more independent auditing in factories, this looks at enforcing the minimum standards already in place, not creating new ones. This is a common trend within the Act: in the battle between feasibility and ambition, feasibility almost always wins. This just isn’t good enough considering the current state of the fashion industry.

How it's made:


The Fashion Act’s timeline promises to follow the scale required to keep global warming below 2 degrees C from pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris Agreement. However, there are not enough incremental targets in the bill which would ensure this threshold is met, meaning that, with the current Act, it is unrealistic. This may come as a result of the careful balance between the economic and environmental goals of the fashion industry which the Coalition is striving to achieve. Companies need to be given a reasonable window to change their ways, else they risk collapse if it is enforced too quickly. However, to ensure momentum is maintained, the Act either needs to promise to go further in the future or must be followed up by tougher legislation.


The Act’s lack of teeth is also evident in its enforcement. Whilst the fact that it would be the role of the Attorney General to enforce the legislation certainly puts some muscle behind it, the punishment for non-compliance just doesn’t go far enough. Bearing in mind the costs of switching to more sustainable practices for a company, a fine of up to 2% of annual revenues may not be enough of an incentive for change. Moreover, the ambiguity in the Act’s language further undermines its efficacy: companies “may” be fined “up to” 2%, which suggests this is a worst-case scenario, not a baseline. 

Who makes it:


This Act was the brainchild of a union of groups who label themselves the ‘Act on Fashion Coalition’, comprised of some huge names, such as the New Standard Institute, the Natural Resources Defence Council and the designer Stella McCartney. It has since been sponsored by Democrat Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblywoman Anna Kelles. This puts some force behind the legislation and certainly makes it more likely to pass. However, such a coalition lacks diversity and supply chain representation. Who is represented in the process of this legislation will also determine who it is designed to serve, so it is vital that the type of organisation and people involved in the Act is broadened to ensure it tackles the right issues. So far, the Coalition has consulted the brands covered by this bill but not the communities who will be disproportionately affected by it, such as BAME and indigenous communities and garment workers, risking a “white saviour” approach to change, and this must be remedied.


So, the Fashion Act promises to be revolutionary. But it relies on fashion wanting to act… and I’m not convinced they do.