Fashion rules: why we need tougher laws and regulations in the fashion industry

Fashion rules: why we need tougher laws and regulations in the fashion industry

Less new = less CO2 signs campaigning for tougher laws and regulations

Despite its huge environmental and social impact, there remains a distinct lack of laws and regulations in the fashion industry. We take a look at why we need governments to step up and take action. 

The sustainable fashion movement is growing. An increasing number of consumers are concerned about the social and environmental impact of the products they buy.  

Companies are responding to this by increasing their range of eco-friendly clothing and working to ensure that ethical manufacturing practices are in place across their supply chains. 

Ethical brands can use sustainability certifications such as GOTS certified cotton and Fairtrade to qualify their sustainable commitments. 

But is this reliance on consumer pressure and voluntary measures taken by brands enough? Or do we need tougher laws and regulations in place to hold the fashion industry accountable?

We take a look at why governments have an important role to play and explore some of the new legislation being proposed to move the fashion industry into a sustainable future. 

What Are the Problems in the Fashion Industry?

Although the sustainable fashion movement is gaining traction, the environmental and social impact of fast fashion remains a huge issue.

The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10 % of worldwide carbon emissions. That’s more than the combined total from international flights and shipping. 

It’s the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply and is responsible for vast amounts of microfibre pollution in our oceans. 

It’s also estimated that in the UK alone, 140 million pounds worth of clothing is sent to landfill each year. 

And the problems aren’t confined to the environment. Workers around the globe continue to suffer from unlivable wages, child labour, modern slavery and unsafe working conditions. 

For more information on the effect fast fashion has on people and the planet, have a read of our article Why Is Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Important and our articles on the clothing waste crisis and microplastics

Is the Clothing Industry Regulated?

Are there laws on how fashion companies operate? Despite the grim statistics, the fashion industry remains largely unregulated with regard to environmental and social justice issues. 

Thankfully, there are signs this is changing as environmental organisations and consumers demand that fashion, especially fast fashion, be held accountable.

Generation Z is a powerful young consumer group that makes up 32% of the world population. Combined with millennials they have been calling for greater transparency, environmental responsibility and social accountability from brands and governments. For more about this future generation see Does Gen Z care about sustainability? Stats & facts in 2022.

Enough is enough, we need tougher laws and regulations in the fashion industry to ensure a sustainable future. 

Why Should Governments Act?

The Urgency Of Climate Change 

Protesters holding up 1.5 degree C placards protesting for more laws and regulations in industries such as the fashion industry
Climate change is just one of the reasons that governments should act. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

In 2015, as part of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, almost all of the world’s countries pledged to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century.

However, in the latest report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scientists warn that we are in danger of breaching the 1.5 degree limit as soon as the 2030s. The report calls upon governments and businesses to take more stringent action as a matter of urgency.

Considering its seismic climate footprint, the fashion industry must be looked at.

What Happened At COP26?

Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action

The fashion industry did receive some attention at the COP26, where an update to the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action was announced. 

Launched in 2018, and convened by the UN, the charter brings together policymakers, brands and suppliers and provides a framework for dialogue and engagement on climate action. 

The renewed commitments form a decarbonization plan aligned with the Paris Agreement ambitions to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. 

The charter currently has over 100 signatories including brands such as H&M, Primark, Levi’s, Gap and Adidas. Signatories commit to implementing the principles of the charter and to working collaboratively with their peers and relevant stakeholders to further the climate action agenda in fashion.

The Use of Sustainable Materials

There was also a request for government-backed incentives to use sustainable materials, submitted by global non-profit Textile Exchange

These “environmentally preferred materials” are defined by the Textile Exchange as those from certified, verified sources that can be traced from raw material to finished product. 

The request is based on the idea that we need both laws to prevent damaging behaviour by the fashion industry, and incentives for using sustainable materials, in order to help alleviate the financial burden of sourcing more responsibly. The call was supported by 50 of the world’s largest fashion and textile companies.

Voluntary measures, are voluntary

ma-ti-system change not climate change sign
Calls were made at COP26 but action is needed. Photo by Ma Ti on Unsplash

Protecting Workers – The Bangladesh Accord

The fashion industry remains largely unregulated with respect to the monitoring of working conditions in supply chains. 

There are voluntary initiatives such as the Bangladesh Accord, created in 2013 after the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza, a garment factory building in Bangladesh, that killed 1,132 people. 

The original accord established an independent, legally enforceable pact between brands and trade unions in Bangladesh to work toward a safe and healthy garment and textile industry. 

The Bangladesh Accord was renewed and renamed the  International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry in September 2021. The renewed accord will continue to safeguard garment workers in Bangladesh, but it will also be expanded to other countries.

All garment and textile companies are being encouraged to sign the agreement, especially by organisations such as Remake, but there is no legal requirement to do so. As of November 2022, 186 brands had signed the accord. 

Voluntary initiatives like the Bangladesh Accord, whilst a step in the right direction, on their own aren’t enough. Child labour, modern slavery and unsafe working environments persist in countries around the globe. 

It’s clear that governments, as well as businesses, must take responsibility for ensuring that these practices end. Tougher laws and regulations in the fashion industry are desperately needed.

To learn more about where our clothes are actually made see Where do clothing brands manufacture? 

Why Voluntary Measures and Relying on Consumers Isn’t Enough

Given the urgency of climate change and the continued violation of workers’ rights, it’s clear that voluntary measures simply aren’t enough. 

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) 2019 report “Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability” was extremely clear in stating that a ‘voluntary approach has failed.’ (More on this report below).

It’s also not enough to rely on consumer pressure to shift the industry into a more sustainable future. The fast fashion model is deeply grained and consumption of clothing has increased by 400% in the last two decades. 

Consumers are encouraged to endlessly buy more clothes as brands tempt them with ultra-cheap garments and “must have” new season items. At the same time clothing is being discarded at a shocking pace. 

Reversing this trend needs more than goodwill. Consumers and brands can only do so much to impact such a vast, global industry. What we really need is governments around the world to step up and begin regulating the fashion sector, much like they regulate oil or agriculture.

Girl holding green leaf in front of her face
Consumers can only do so much. Photo by Alan Rodriguez on Unsplash

A Way Forwards? The Fixing Fashion Report 2019

In 2018 the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in the UK conducted a comprehensive and ground-breaking inquiry into the sustainability of the fashion industry. 

The report Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability was published in February 2019. It made 18 recommendations to the UK government. These included:

Modern Slavery and Child Labour

  • The government should make a list of all retailers who are required to release a modern slavery statement publicly available. This should be backed up by a penalty for businesses that fail to report and comply with the Modern Slavery Act.
  • The government should extend the Modern Slavery Act so that large companies are required to do due diligence checks across their supply chains to guarantee that their materials and goods are produced without the use of forced or child labour.

Raw Materials 

  • The government should collaborate with businesses to ensure that raw material in clothes is traced back to source in order to combat social and environmental abuses in supply chains.

Microfibre Pollution

  • The government should encourage fashion companies, water companies, and washing machine manufacturers to work together in order to address microfibre pollution.

Sustainable Design

  • The government should reform taxation to reward fashion firms that create items with minimal environmental impact while penalising those who don’t.
  • Government and industry should speed up research into the relative environmental performance of various materials, particularly in terms of reducing microfibre pollution.

Tax On Plastics

  • To encourage the market for recycled fibres, the government should look into whether the proposed tax on virgin plastics, which takes effect in 2022, could be applied to textile items that contain less than 50% recycled PET.

Dealing With Waste

  • As France has now done, the government should prohibit incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that can be reused or recycled.
  • The government must put an end to the disposable fashion era. It should compel fashion retailers to accept responsibility for the waste they generate and reward businesses who take steps to reduce waste.
  • The government should take Sweden’s lead and lower the VAT on repair services. 

Education

  • Clothing design, creation, mending, and repair lessons should be taught in Key Stage 2 and 3 in schools.

The report also pointed out that a charge of one penny per garment on producers could raise £35 million to invest in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK.

Unfortunately, the government rejected all of the key recommendations. It pointed instead to voluntary measures such as the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP). 

The Environmental Audit Committee is currently revisiting its report to monitor progress but no further publications have yet been made. 

anders-j-hxUcl0nUsIY-solar panels
The government could reward companies that design products with lower environmental impacts. Photo by Anders J on Unsplash

Current Laws and Regulations in the Fashion Industry

As depressing as the UK government’s rejection of the EAC recommendations is, there are other initiatives taking place to get the fashion industry into shape. Let’s have a look at some of the major reforms and legislation currently in place or being proposed, in countries around the globe:

1.   The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, New York

As of April 2022, this Act is under consideration in the New York State Assembly.

The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, if passed, would require all fashion companies in New York with more than $100 million in revenue, to map at least half of their supply chains. 

They would also have to disclose environmental and social impacts in public reports. Fines would be imposed if this were not done.

It’s great news for the future of sustainable fashion, especially as most major fashion brands operate in New York. The law is essentially an accounting mechanism, designed to force companies to get a handle on their supply chains.

A group of 20 human rights and labour organisations including Fashion Revolution, Remake and Human Rights Watch are arguing for the bill to go even further. They want to see amendments that will tighten disclosure rules, require greater action and establish liability for human rights and environmental abuses on the part of brands and retailers. 

It’s these types of laws and regulations in the fashion industry that will really start to hold manufacturers and brands responsible for their actions. 

2.   The Garment Worker Protection Act, California

The Garment Worker Protection Act was signed into law in September 2021, with support from fashion brands like Reformation, Saitex, Eileen Fisher, and Mara Hoffman, among others. 

Also known as Senate Bill 62, the Garment Worker Protection Act is a Californian anti-wage theft and brand accountability bill. It will make the state the first in the country to require hourly wages for garment workers. 

It will also prohibit piecework, a pervasive system in which workers are paid per garment (often resulting in less than $3 per hour). 

As of April 2022, there are now proposals to extend the legislation across the United States.

3.   UK Green Claims Code

A recent international analysis of websites by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) found that 40% of green claims made online could be misleading.

To address this, they developed the Green Claims Code. Its goal is to assist businesses in understanding and complying with existing consumer protection law when it comes to making environmental claims.

It’s great news for conscious consumers in the UK and will help combat greenwashing by requiring firms to back up any claims that a product is “sustainable.”

The code also provides tips for shoppers. For more on how to avoid greenwashing, see our article here.

Bag with sustainable sign
Companies must substantiate their green claims. Photo by Jess @ Harper Sunday on Unsplash

4.   EU Sustainable Corporate Governance Initiative

The goal of this initiative is to improve the EU regulatory framework on company law and corporate governance. 

As part of this, brands operating in the EU will be expected to report on long-term outcomes that include the environment, human rights, and social impact along their supply chains, rather than just reporting on short-term financial outcomes. 

Importantly, the new model also includes liability for non-compliance. 

5.   “Carbon Label” Law, France 

The French Parliament passed a climate bill in 2021 that will require mandatory “carbon labelling” on goods and services, including clothing and textiles. 

It’s more good news for conscious consumers as we’ll be able to more easily see the impact of our purchases. The French government also passed an “anti-waste” law in 2020, which prohibits the destruction of excess inventory and samples, among other things.

6.   “Green Button” Label Law, Germany

The “Green Button” is a government-run certification label for sustainable textiles. It demands that mandatory standards are met to protect people and the environment. 

A total of 46 stringent social and environmental criteria must be met, covering a wide spectrum from wastewater to forced labour. 

The entire company is audited and the Green Button is only awarded if both the product and the company comply with all requirements.

7.   Australia’s Modern Slavery Law

The Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018 came into effect on 1 January 2019. The Act established a national Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement that applies to large businesses and other entities with a yearly consolidated turnover of at least AUD $100 million.

Businesses are required to publish an annual Modern Slavery Statement, reporting on all potential modern slavery risks and practices in their operations and supply chains. The Australian Government publishes these statements through an online central register.

Multi racial models. The future of fashion depends on laws and regulations in the fashion industry
The future of fashion relies on governments to act. Photo by Monstera from Pexels

8. proposed eu legislation

Extensive legislation has been proposed in March 2022 by the EU including: 

  • An EU wide Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme which will force fashion brands to pay a “waste fee” based on how circular their items are.
  • The banning of unsold items being destroyed and a limit on textile waste sent overseas. For more on the textile waste crisis, see our article Stats on a crisis: UK clothing waste facts and 7 ways to reduce it.
  • A crackdown on greenwashing.
  • A focus on fibre to fibre recycling rather than the recycling of plastic bottles into clothes which comes with its own problems.

More details are due to be released in 2023 so we are watching this space!

The Future Of Fashion

Pressing environmental issues dictate that urgent measures need to be taken to start curtailing the fashion industry’s destructive path. 

Laws and regulations in the fashion industry are vital for creating change because they place a level of responsibility on governments and businesses, instead of relying on purely voluntary measures and on how consumers spend their money.

The EAC report to the UK government made a crucial point that ‘the fashion industry has marked its own homework for too long’. 

Governments need to strengthen regulation and incentivisation to encourage more responsible practices from brands. 

The new reforms and regulations being proposed such as The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act in New York mean that the fashion industry may finally face accountability.

As ethical consumers, we have an important role to play:

  • We can take individual action in our own lives through curbing our consumption levels and supporting ethical brands that have been voluntarily leading the way.
  • And we can help by calling on governments to commit to introducing tougher laws and regulations. 

Both are necessary if we want sustainable fashion to become the future. 

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