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Op-Ed | Only Government Can Make Fashion Sustainable

Fashion’s sustainability problem will not be solved by consumers or companies. It’s time for government legislation and regulation, argues Maxine Bédat.
Clothing waste mounting in the Kpone landfill in Accra. Maxine Bédat.
Clothing waste mounting in the Kpone landfill in Accra, Ghana. Maxine Bédat.
  • Maxine Bédat

I have been working in “fashion sustainability” for nearly a decade. Back when I got started, people — including most in the industry — gave blank stares when I spoke of the fashion world’s enormous environmental and social impact. Back then, fashionistas cared more about peplum and sparkly pumps than pesticides or pay.

We have made significant progress, at least in talking about sustainability. Today, every major brand produces some kind of sustainability report and many have set carbon reduction targets. In the media, several very talented reporters have been hired to cover the topic. Many large scale organisations and conferences such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Global Fashion Agenda have launched and grown, and countless “sustainable” collections have hit the market.

But for all that talk, what do we have to show in terms of measurable results?

Not much.

Reliable data is notoriously hard to come by in this industry, but what we do have does not demonstrate overall progress. There is evidence instead of movement on both the social and environmental fronts headed in the wrong direction.

On the labour side of things, recent analysis by Prof. Sarosh Kuruvilla of Cornell’s New Conversation Project presented in his book: Private Regulation of Labour Standards in Global Supply Chains found, after having reviewed 40,000 factory audits, no progress in reduction in the average number of violations per audit over time.

And while wages have increased to some degree in the apparel sector, they continue to be the lowest wages across all industries studied.

On the environmental side of things, the data does not look any better. According to the analysis from industry group Global Fashion Agenda, “[I]f the industry continues to embrace current decarbonisation initiatives at the current pace, emissions will be capped at around 2.1 billion tonnes a year by 2030, around the same as they are now, leaving levels at nearly double the maximum required to meet the Paris Agreement.”

But actually, if you travel to the regions in the world that create and ultimately dispose of our clothes and see what is happening on the ground, you don’t need more numbers, spreadsheets or graphs to feel convinced that we are not making anywhere near the progress we need; you can see it clearly in the devastatingly polluted landscapes and feel it in talking with the exhausted and exploited people.

Law and policy is the only way we solve the collective action problem.

Many, including myself, have argued that growing consumer awareness would force the industry to change. But it turns out we were overly optimistic. My recent travels drove home that even I myself was not fully aware of the magnitude of the recalcitrant problems that remain in this industry. The average citizen cannot be expected to demand change for what they do not know and, besides, they have their own needs to meet. This crisis will not be solved by consumer demand, nor will it be solved by fashion companies which — regardless of the nice talk — are still in the business of maximising profit.

We do not have the leisure of time to get this right. This leaves us with only one solution: government. Law and policy is the only way we solve the collective action problem, stop the race to the bottom and set a level playing field. What, practically, should the rule book look like?

1. Clear, Relevant, Common and Transparent Accounting

At the moment, companies are inconsistent in their accounting of their impacts. One environmental report might highlight only the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at a brand’s owned and operated facilities, while another includes the emissions from textile mills, where the vast majority of emissions occur. Some brands may report emissions per garment, without disclosing absolute emissions. So per garment emissions might decrease but that may very well be outweighed by the growth in the number of garments produced by a brand. The planet and its fires, hurricanes and icebergs, does not give extra credit points for such creative accounting.

Legislation that requires environmental reports to include, at a minimum, a quantitative baseline on Energy/GHG, water and chemical use, and that is required to conform with common the universal environmental accounting standards set forth in the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard and the GHG Protocol Scope 3 Standard would provide an apples to apples comparison of different companies’ impacts.

2. Target Setting

This degree of transparency would help researchers, advocates and the media understand which companies are making progress and which are lagging behind. But there must also be accountability. A straightforward legal requirement that companies reduce emissions at levels set by the Paris Agreement would quickly fast track progress in an area that to date has been only crawling ahead.

3. Mandatory Due Diligence

Beyond clear accounting and target setting, creating an additional duty to identify, assess, prevent and mitigate adverse impacts and provide for remediation when appropriate can help move beyond just a legal floor to broader progress across the industry. It would provide a means for victims of any factory disasters to have legal standing to bring a case to seek relief for the failure to prevent their injuries.

Finally, as more brands proclaim to care about racial justice, I would consider legislation around quotas for board seats, as has been in done in Germany with regard to women.

Together, smart legislation can spur industry collaboration. It will allow the industry to move beyond public pronouncements and replace words with action. It can, ultimately, allow the capitalist system we operate in to work for the people and the planet.

Maxine Bédat is the director of New Standard Institute, a non-profit working with scientists and citizens to make the fashion industry more sustainable, ethical and equitable. Her new book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, debuts on June 1st.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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