Why Regulations aren’t Solving the Fashion Industry’s Environmental Problem
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluting industry in the world (second only to the oil industry). There are a ton of agencies, collectives, and initiatives that have taken on the task of setting standards for regulation of the fashion industry, but how are they enforced?
Thankfully, people are beginning to pay more and more attention to the environment; where reusable bags were once “hippie” or “weird,” using plastic is becoming the weird thing to do; celebrities sponsor beach and environmental cleanups, straws are banned left and right, and so much more. We’re finding an increased awareness of microplastics, the importance of healthy, livable working conditions, and the importance of shifting toward better standards for ourselves, our planet, and the future.
Sounds nice, right?
At first glance, absolutely. But we have to remove our rose (or rather, green)-colored glasses and really understand if these standards are actually being enforced. Once you start to sift through the greenwashing, it’s pretty clear that the fashion industry is arguably more marketing than fashion — corporations love to slap an “eco-friendly” label on their products, but who is really checking?
Laws and standards would seem to be the answer in theory, but application and practice is not as easy:
Decades ago, a garment was produced and sold within no larger than a 20-mile radius from where the materials to create it were harvested — but as transportation advanced and economies globalized, the industry has become immensely fragmented with endless supply chain and production procedures — all with totally unstandardized practices.
We’re no longer in an age where we have control over the standards in our small geographic radius; we’re in a global economy with millions of cogs in the fashion production wheel.
Many fast-fashion companies produce their goods with one goal in mind: maximum profit — which almost always entails manufacturing in under-developed countries without the means, or even the desire, to regulate environmental impact.
Countries such as India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh do not have the organizational structures in place to hold apparel manufacturers accountable for pollution, and even if they did, it’s unlikely they would be effective; these industries thrive because of the ability to undercut production costs in developed countries. Increasing regulation would require costly restructure, completely undermining that one goal (maximum profit).
We see, additionally, a simple trade-off in location when the US and EU enforce fast-fashion barriers: in 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in the US, introducing penalties and fines for excessive chemical/waste into surrounding lakes and streams. As a result, bodies of water have shown marked decreases in hazardous pollutants… in the US.
The problem is, the goal for a majority of the companies remains the same: maximum profit. The answer to these US/EU-imposed restrictions is to move production to undeveloped countries, wreaking having on their environment and the people within it, which just recently gained attention in the last few years as a result of the massive Bangladesh factory collapse that killed 1,100 people and injured 2,000.
Different country, same globe. So what can we do?
In an industry that’s not slowing down any time soon (it’s projected that by 2030, 8.5 billion people will require clothing), how do we implement standardized regulation? How can we prevent imposed regulation in one location from simply spilling more toxins into an underregulated location?
Instead of the garment industry being a race to the bottom for cheaper workforce and raw materials, let’s shift the paradigm towards a race to the top of what matters: quality of life and environmental health.
Required Regulations VS Voluntary Certifications
Binding regulations required by law are currently more often found at the local level — which is how such “spillover” occurs when one locale implements regulations and another doesn’t. Voluntary certifications by private organizations are excellent — but they require opt-in by companies, and there are little to no legal penalties or repercussions for failure to follow procedure — a company will simply lose its certification if it doesn’t abide by the rules.
The Current Regulatory Climate
Information provided via Sustainalytics:
In 2017, the OECD (founded in 1961, currently consisting of 36 member countries) adopted a global guidance standard on companies’ due diligence requirements towards their supply chain as it relates to child labor, forced labor, workers’ wages and collective bargaining agreements. While the guidance is not legally binding, it has been ratified by OECD member states, and companies active in this industry are expected to conduct their business in accordance to this document.
In 2009, the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition) was formed, aiming to establish a framework for worldwide sustainable apparel production. It has more than 200 global members, and has established the HIGG index by which companies self-assess and measure environmental and social sustainability throughout their supply chains.
Again, these — along with the various organizations listed below — are voluntary. While these organizations are a strong start to increasing awareness of fashion’s impact, the lack of substantial legal repercussions prevents adherence worldwide.
Perhaps, then, we must play to the second largest part of the fashion industry: marketing. Fashion, arguably, consists more of marketing than of actual clothing itself — so how can we employ that to our advantage?
With such a vast network of manufacturing and an ever-competing battleground of branding, there’s confusion among the masses of what’s good for the environment. Cotton is bad, but bamboo is good? Well sure, if the cotton is harvested unethically and with chemicals, and the bamboo is harvested ethically and without chemicals — but those can easily be reversed, depending entirely on the method of production and the labor involved!
“When the experts can’t agree on the big issues for fashion, it’s that much easier for the consumer to turn a blind eye and buy that new shirt.” (Mark Sumner)
If companies start to push for adherence to regulations, regardless of legal requirements — and truly market them as a trend as they would a new fashion trend, we could experience a massive shift in fashion’s overall effect on the climate. Ideally, this shift would trigger local and global governments to adopt the voluntary standards of certification programs as laws of the land in the textile and fashion industry.
The truth is, humans will forever be motivated by ego, and marketing will forever cater to the psychology behind igniting that ego’s desire to buy, buy, buy.
Yes, as consumers, we vote with our wallets and can train ourselves to exercise control, but if that control isn’t trendy — if that control doesn’t stroke our collective ego as a society, we’ll turn to something that does (like that fancy new bag, regardless of how it’s made). The answer isn’t necessarily in shutting down the fashion industry: it’s in inciting consumers to desire a higher standard of production and transparency, and making it “weird” to accept anything less.