Nongovernmental organizations may at long last be getting some backup when it comes to being the fashion police.
After decades of having often been the sole voice when it comes to pressurizing brands into making significant changes to their environmental and social imprint, governments and political heavyweights in some countries have started to tentatively step up to the plate over the past few years.
Experts, for example, are largely encouraged by recent developments in the U.K., where an inquiry is under way by the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee into the impact fast fashion has on the environment and the workforce.
It’s eyeing a number of issues surrounding throwaway fashion, including its life cycle and carbon and water footprint, excessive waste and low pay of garment workers in the supply chain.
The committee is set to make recommendations to the government in the fall and while it’s unknown if any formal action will be taken on any of these areas, Sarah Ditty, head of policy at Fashion Revolution, an NGO, argued that this is a huge step forward.
“They have a huge amount of influence in government. A lot of the members are senior MPs and they’re well-respected,” she said, adding that some of its previous inquiries led to concrete change, such as banning microbeads in the U.K. “There could be something concrete that could come out of it.”
European authorities, meanwhile, are starting to make some noise, recently putting their weight behind the extension of an accord to safeguard factory workers in Bangladesh.
The original Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was set up in 2013 by more than 200 Western fashion companies in the wake of the Rana Plaza factory tragedy, which killed 1,134 garments workers.
It ensured that there were independent inspections of factories, but only lasted five years, so brands agreed this year it would continue in the form of the new 2018 Transition Accord — but the Bangladesh government is trying to fight this.
In a bid to help the Transition Accord, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the Bangladesh government to extend it, stating that to date, less than half of the factories covered by the accord have completed adequate safety measures.
“Because there was no governmental leadership in this space, activists and brands got together and figured out how to do something about it on their own,” said Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.” “Now having the EU back the accord is so powerful. That I think is the pressure and support that the accord needed from the beginning. I hope that it’s not too late.”
On a country level, the German government set up the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles in 2014 in response to the deadly accidents in textile factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Today it has 130 members — a mix of the textile and garment industry, retailers, trade unions, standards organizations and the German government, with the aim to pool the strength and expertise of its members to bring about social, ecological and economic improvements in the textile supply chain.
The Netherlands has a similar initiative — the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garment and Textile — and the two joined forces, with member companies working on projects to improve working conditions in risk areas and benefit from shared knowledge and support.
These are both voluntary, but Fashion Revolution’s Ditty calls them “a good first step in anything meaningful.”
Some governments in Europe have made legal moves to make companies accountable for the workers in their supply chains following Rana Plaza. France passed a due diligence law in 2017 called Corporate Duty of Vigilance, which stipulates companies headquartered there with at least 5,000 or more domestic employees or 10,000 employees globally must make public their efforts to prevent and rectify any environmental and human rights abuses. An earlier draft had included hefty fines, but they did not make it into law.
It followed the example of the U.K. with its Modern Slavery Act of 2015, which demands that businesses with revenue in excess of 36 million pounds or more make an annual disclosure on the treatment of workers in factories that they use, with the threat of sanctions for those who don’t fall into line.
Australia recently introduced a Modern Slavery Bill, which requires around 3,000 companies explaining annually measures they’ve taken to address modern slavery in their supply chains. Like France, this also has no penalties.
As for the issue of fashion waste, France earlier this year mooted banning fashion brands from throwing away or burning unsold stock and instead is forcing them to make donations, while over in Asia, Hong Kong’s government is also making inroads, having for more than a decade funded the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel. It also backed the “Fashion Summit,” which describes itself as “Asia’s Sustainable Fashion Event.”
But as other countries make some progress on these issues, the U.S. seems to be lagging behind others when it comes to sustainability in fashion — both socially and environmentally. That is despite getting a head start back in the Nineties during the tenure of President Bill Clinton when he set up a task force to study sweatshops, with the hope that the result would be for brands to audit their suppliers and develop a labeling system for sweatshop-free certified products.
That did not happen and despite being both the biggest buyer and seller of fashion in the world, the United States is way behind the other countries in improving social and environmental impact of the industry.
“There was this whole kind of vision to fix the global sweatshop problem and then, of course, the political climate changed and the world moved on and nothing was really done about this for two decades,” said Cline.
She is, however, hopeful that the political shift since the midterm elections in the U.S., which saw the Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives, could put issues with the fashion industry back on the table.
“I think that the U.S. is grappling with its own set of issues but there’s no reason why the U.S. couldn’t put the impacts of the fashion industry on its agenda,” she said. “I hope in the U.S. there is more governmental action considering that we both buy and sell more fashion than any other country. If the U.S. government got involved, I think that we would see change a lot faster.”
On a state level, the biggest change appears to have been in California, which in 2012 passed the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires large manufacturers and retailers with global revenues of more than $100 million that do business in the Golden State to disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking within their supply chains.
This did make a difference, according to Marsha Dickson, co-director of the Sustainable Apparel Initiative at the University of Delaware: “I had studied for years what companies were disclosing about how they address due diligence in their supply chains and almost no one was until that law,” she said.
“All of a sudden, companies that never wanted to talk about any auditing they were doing in their supply chain — let alone what they were finding — were suddenly at least giving the basics of their due diligence programs so that was really useful. It spurred some on.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) tried but failed in 2014 to do something similar across the whole country with her bill, the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act. Her plan with the federal version was to force businesses to detail this on their filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission.