While the U.S. rejoining the Paris Agreement is just the beginning of a bold rush into environmental stewardship, the action should not be overlooked because of the message it signals to fashion.
Why does this brush of the penstroke matter?
A Cross-Industry Sustainability Push
“Rejoining the Paris Agreement is a signal to the world that the U.S. ‘is back’ on the international climate stage,” said Mark Nevitt, an associate professor of law and expert in environmental and climate change law at Syracuse University’s College of Law. “The U.S. is the world’s largest historical greenhouse gas emitter, and U.S. leadership is crucial for making international climate progress and reducing our emissions. As the Senate is 50-50 and there is a slim Democratic majority in the House, passing bold climate legislation will be challenging.”
It is a 30-day process that began Wednesday for the U.S. to officially rejoin the agreement, but the process of undoing previous environmental rollbacks and rewriting law to realize the bold pledge of making the country carbon-neutral by 2050 is more daunting.
Nevitt believes the Environmental Protection Agency will be the main lever under the Biden-Harris administration “to push [Biden’s] environmental agenda,” both in communication and action. And as for the largely unregulated and highly polluting fashion industry, Nevitt foresees it in the mix of broader industry overhaul.
“I think there will be more focus on all industries that contribute to climate change, to include fashion. Look for the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, to push broad sustainability policies across the U.S. economy. For fashion, this will likely highlight the need to reuse clothing, streamlining supply chains to reduce the carbon footprint,” he said. “While only so much can be done by law or regulation, look for a broad push via public communications on sustainability across all industries, to include fashion and its environmental impact.”
The Biden administration tackles “cross-cutting” issues like climate from a domestic and international perspective. John Kerry, the former senator and secretary of state under former President Barack Obama, is tasked with the newly created internationally facing role of “special presidential envoy for climate,” which is housed under the National Security Council. Former environmental protection agency director Gina McCarthy, also an Obama administration veteran, will oversee the domestic policy as head of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.
“I like that he decided to choose this international leader and domestic leader on climate, and he chose Kerry as his international one. I’m really excited about that one because I’m often focused on domestically: ‘What are we doing about climate change,’ but the international piece is a huge opportunity, and a lot of that, importantly, can be done just by the presidential administration — they don’t necessarily need to bring in Congress,” Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the the Union of Concerned Scientists, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering, said in an “Eco Chic” podcast episode that aired Wednesday.
Emphasis on Science in Fashion
It’s no coincidence that the executive order underscores “restoring science to tackle the climate crisis,” where previously no such acknowledgement (erasure, rather) existed from the Trump administration.
“I think when you see the administration then signing back on, [fashion companies] realize that at some point there will be some accountability, so they need to start considering [sustainability], and considering it beyond just a marketing plan — but from the scientific perspective,” said Ariele Elia, assistant director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, a first-of-its-kind institute dealing with the intersection of law and the fashion business.
With the re-signing of the Paris Agreement, the sense of responsibility reenters the fashion conversation.
In the past, expert marketing efforts have steered the blame toward consumers for overconsumption and wastefulness, where the reality is, the volume of clothing being produced shows no sign of slowing according to reports from Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Co., and recycling efforts lack enforcement or the proper infrastructure altogether.
Elia said industry regulation could go either way: tax credits or penalties. “[Credits] are an easy way for [fashion] to sign on, but maybe it has to be in a more forceful way where you’re going to be taxed for your amount of waste.”
The Federal Trade Commission, according to Elia, may also play a bigger role in educating consumers on sustainable fashion, and she believes other moves by the Biden administration are important to watch, like the potential to revitalize the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum, or the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit initiated by Obama, because of what it means for the used clothing sector. As East African countries look to develop their own clothing economies, a limit or ban on used clothing imports from the U.S. would be beneficial but spell disaster for the used goods industry in the U.S. because it sends its used clothing there.
Regardless of what route progress takes, Elia emphasized the need to “bridge” policy, science and fashion business.
Using New York City’s textile laws as example, she said: “What we’re seeing, too, is that there’s not any enforcement for it. So when there’s no enforcement, and there’s no education that makes it really complicated. What I was excited about is this idea of rebridging everything — rebridging both sides of the aisle in Congress, and that’s exciting. We’re bridging sustainability in fashion and also a lot of these policies. I think just signing onto the Paris Accord does signal: ‘We are heading in this direction. It is important,” and I think for a lot of different fashion brands, there is this building pressure that they need to start considering this, and it’s a very serious thing.”
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