So far, most brands have failed to substantively address their impacts on people and the planet. Now, campaigners and policymakers are calling for stricter regulations. But how could better rules make a difference?
The growing calls for government action
“The fashion industry has marked its own homework for too long.” Those are the words of the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee in a report calling for British legislators to urgently act to regulate global fashion brands.
That’s because the industry—despite brands releasing their own codes of conduct, sustainability action plans, and verbose ethical manifestos—has so far failed to hold itself accountable.
Inarguably the biggest trend in fashion over the past decade is that its negative impacts have gotten depressingly worse. That’s rising carbon emissions, environmentally devastating waste and pollution, human rights violations, and worker exploitation at every turn.
So far, letting the industry grade itself has led to little substantive change.
Industry action and collaboration is crucial. But so far, letting the industry grade itself has led to little substantive change. That’s why people in all corners of the world are calling for fashion, like other sectors, to be more closely regulated.
But in an industry as far-reaching as fashion, setting effective rules is far from clearcut. The push for legislation raises many challenging questions: can regional laws actually reign in often-shady supply chains that crisscross continents? Can governments, which have so far failed to hold themselves accountable on things like climate targets, effectively hold brands to account? And what role do consumers have to play in this tangled mess?
To get answers, we’ve tapped leading activists and academics to help you understand the current drive for legislation—and what effective rules could realistically achieve.
Fashion regulation is long overdue, experts say
“We waited a really long time for the industry to regulate itself,” says Maeve Galvin, global policy director at Fashion Revolution. “But it’s so unregulated, and we have a climate crisis looming. As a result there is an urgency and policymakers have stepped up.”
Policymakers are the people who are responsible for making action plans and regulations—including legislators, members of parliament (MPs), congresspeople, government staff, and special advisors.
Many policymakers believe the fashion industry has been given enough chances to sort out its own mess.
And many of them have decided that the fashion industry has been given enough chances to sort out its own mess. Now is the time, they say, to put some laws and regulations in place. But for many people, it’s long overdue.
Nazma Akter, founder of the Awaj Foundation, has been fighting to improve workers’ rights in the garment sector for over 32 years. Her first experience of the sector was as a child worker, aged 11. “If there is no legislation, there is no legally binding agreement, then there is no protection, and there are no rights,” she tells me.
“You don’t have accountability, and you don’t have the responsibility as a company,” she says. “They can do whatever they want.”
High level: how it could work
Let’s step back for a moment: the general idea of breaking the law is a pretty strong deterrent for most people. And for those that legislation doesn’t deter, there’s typically a punishment or penalty involved. That’s the same general idea behind regulating fashion: set rules that determine what brands should do, then punish those who don’t comply.
The general idea: set rules that determine what brands should do, then punish those who don’t comply.
Those punishments could include things like fines, being publicly listed as having broken the rules, or being denied access to government aid programmes, explains Galvin. Brands could also be forced to pay compensation to those they’ve harmed and pay to resolve problems they’ve caused—for instance, paying to bring a supplier factory up to proper safety standards.
However, seeing people get away with breaking the rules happens in all areas of life. So for legislation to be effective, there needs to be mechanisms that ensure companies are being compliant.
Regional laws could have international impact
Much of the legislation currently being proposed—more on that below—comes from places like America, the UK, and the EU. But if it’s done properly, regional laws can have international impact.
For example, two key proposals—Good Clothes, Fair Pay in the EU and the Fashion Act in New York state—would cover the entire supply chain of companies operating in their market. If a brand is selling in Spain, for instance, Good Clothes, Fair Pay would ensure garment workers in countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh would be covered by the law. “It [could] compel bigger companies to take responsibility for what’s happening with their global supply chain, not just in their own backyard anymore,” says Galvin.
The impact lies in implementation, and it’s important that people who will be impacted by new legislation are involved in the process.
But the impact lies in implementation, and it’s important that people who will be impacted by new legislation are involved in the process. “Everybody needs to know how to implement it, how the procedures work, and how to use this legislation to get better justice. We need a monitoring system and an evaluation system,” says Akter.
But don’t brands break the existing rules?
Unlike some other industries, there are very few laws or rules that specifically apply to fashion brands. But there are still rules out there to be broken. Numerous areas of legislation that fashion brands do have to comply with depending on the region—these can include laws focused on labour, environmental, animal welfare, misleading conduct, and so on.
You don’t have to look far to find a brand paying illegally low wages, being caught, and then continuing to do so, so would brands even care about new laws? Frank Zambrelli, Director of Fordham University’s Responsible Business Coalition, thinks they will.
Money makes the world go round—for good or bad. If doing better creates a financial incentive, then you’re more likely to do that because there’s just no good reason not to.Frank Zambrelli – Director of Fordham University’s Responsible Business Coalition
“Money makes the world go round—for good or bad—and I think the financial communities have recognised the materiality of these issues,” he says. While reporting on supply chains or emissions didn’t used to have any financial implication, he says legally mandated disclosure with financial penalties attached could “very much impact the financial health of the company.”
“If doing better creates a financial incentive, then you’re more likely to do that because there’s just no good reason not to,” he says.
Types of legislation affecting brands
Laws that do or could apply to fashion can operate in different ways, explains Gordon Renouf, co-founder at Good On You. Analysing the laws currently being considered is easier when you group them into two categories, though sometimes proposals may involve elements of both.
1. Laws affecting what a brand can or must say
“Some laws require that brands disclose certain information, such as how they address the risk of modern slavery in their supply chain,” says Renouf. “Others regulate what they can say.” For example, many countries prohibit “misleading statements” and there are recent EU proposals to specifically ban some forms of greenwashing.
2. Laws impacting what a business can or must do
“Laws can prohibit businesses from engaging in the industry’s worst practices,” says Renouf. For example in the EU the REACH laws on hazardous chemicals prohibit the use of certain Azo dyes as they are associated with a risk of cancer. Customs laws in the US and other countries prohibit the import of goods made with forced labour. “Other laws require businesses to operate in a certain way. The proposed Fabric Act [see below] would require fashion brands to make sure their factories paid the US minimum wage and avoid piece rates unless they can be sure the minimum wage is met,” explains Renouf.
Happening now: legislation and legislative campaigns
Some of the legislation currently being proposed by policymakers and campaign organisations can help us understand what the future might look like for fashion brands.
Good Clothes, Fair Pay (EU)
The Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign was launched to demand living wage legislation in the European Union for global garment workers. The proposed legislation would require brands to publicly disclose details like production site addresses, the number of workers at each site, and the weekly take-home wage of workers. Brands would be prohibited from practices such as paying suppliers later than 60 days after delivery and cancelling orders without notice, and they’d have to release information about suppliers upon request. If brands break the rules, they could be excluded from state aid and loans and their commodities could be seized.
The FABRIC Act (US)
The FABRIC Act in the US aims to enforce minimum wage standards and increase transparency. There is a grant available for brands who onshore production and offer fair pay, workers being paid per piece is prohibited if it works out as less than the minimum wage, and brands will be held jointly liable for wage violations—not just the factory.
Fashion Act (New York)
New York State Assembly Bill A8352—known as the Fashion Act—would require brands making $100 million or more in revenue to map a minimum of 50% of their supply chain and require sustainability claims to be verified. The penalty for breaking the law would be a fine of up to 2% of a brand’s global revenue.
Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition (EU)
The European Commission has proposed changes to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive that would introduce much stricter requirements for a business to make “green” claims, and increase the number of claims that are strictly prohibited including unsupported vague or generic claims like “green” or “environmentally friendly”.
Extended Producer Responsibility laws (EU)
There are laws designed to tackle more specific environmental issues, too. Extended Producer Responsibility laws are already in place in countries like France and Sweden—making brands responsible for paying for the collection, sorting, and recycling of textiles. And a potential new set of EU rules could mean brands have to use certain percentages of recycled materials, or ditch materials which are hard to recycle.
Other new rules will affect fashion brands, too
More far reaching, a range of non-fashion specific laws could impact fashion nonetheless—asking big companies to disclose things like greenhouse gas emissions so we all have a better idea of what their true impact is. For example, the US is finally making moves to standardise emissions reporting with a new federal rule proposed in 2022, which would apply to publicly traded companies.
What a better regulated industry could look like
Brands being legally required to do better means a lot of work behind the scenes. Zambrelli explains that just like every department of a fashion brand now has its own budget and financial expectations, each department would have its own sustainability expectations, too.
While fashion executives might find themselves with a bigger workload, from a consumer viewpoint, some of the impacts would be completely invisible. For example, most people have probably never heard of triclosan but if you’re buying a mouthwash in the EU, you can be sure that it is only present at a concentration of 0.2% or less in order to protect aquatic life when it washes down the drain. It’s taken care of without the consumer having to ever even think about it. In an ideally regulated fashion industry, consumers wouldn’t need to become experts on polluting chemicals, greenhouse gases, or CO2E to make better choices. Someone behind the scenes would have addressed it already, as the law required.
In an ideally regulated fashion industry, consumers wouldn’t need to become experts on polluting chemicals, greenhouse gases, or CO2E to make better choices.
On the other hand, it’s likely that brands will be required to share some details and will want to shout about others. So, accurate information that consumers do want to know about could be much more easily available in a well-regulated industry.
“I think consumer labelling is coming in probably multiple forms. It’s gonna be nearly impossible to buy a shirt in 10 years and not fully understand what the implication of that shirt coming into the market had on the world,” says Zambrelli.
The role we all have to play
10 years is a long time in fashion. 10 years ago, the conversation around sustainable fashion was barely even in the mainstream, so in another 10 we could see a complete transformation, and legislation could have a lot to do with that.
“Legislation is very important for the protection of the workers, for safety, livelihoods, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of association, collective bargaining, balanced lives, quality of life, education, food, health, recreation, social protection. It’s people’s lives,” says Akter.
Consumers are also citizens. And in many jurisdictions, the voices of citizens can make a real difference.
Getting to a point where all of those elements are considered to be as important as profit will take a lot of political will. New rules for fashion need to be rigorously and comprehensively designed to make this future possible. “Minimum effective regulation should ban unsustainable practices in line with community expectations and also require full transparency from brands on what’s in their products and how they are made,” says Renouf. “And it must create effective incentives for compliance.”
And it’s not just up to the politicians. Consumers are also citizens. And in many jurisdictions, the voices of citizens can make a real difference.
For example, the Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign needs one million signatures from people with EU passports. Similarly, US legislation campaigns ask citizens to email their representatives and lend their voices to the cause.
Writing emails, making phone calls, asking brands to show public support for new laws, and all that old school activism can be incredibly powerful, as history has shown us in other ways. Newer approaches like sharing campaign materials on social media can influence hearts and minds, too. (Good On You’s app can help here—you can use it to send a message to your favourite brand asking them to lift their game including by supporting effective regulation.)
Citizens have power. We can all help call for legislation which, as Galvin puts it, “makes it easier to be a good brand and harder to be a bad brand.”