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Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.
“Fashion has basically operated in this black box for so long,” says New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi. She’s talking about the way that, unlike the finance, food, and automotive industries, fashion has been able to operate mostly without governmental oversight in the United States. There’s no equivalent of the FDA for fashion. And, she admits, “it’s not the industry that is on the top of many regulators’ minds.” While there are individual designers and fashion houses who seem firmly committed to change, she believes self-regulation isn’t enough. And if her new proposed legislation passes, it won’t have to be.
A younger, often more progressive cohort is entering politics, bringing with it a keen sense of urgency on the climate crisis. Biaggi is in that category; when it comes to this particularly pertinent issue, she believes that “what is at stake here is our entire world.” She first became passionate about the intersection of fashion, climate, and social justice after taking classes at Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute, which opened her eyes to the connections between those subjects. She rattles off statistics, including the fact that fashion is responsible for between 4 and 8.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. A number of brands have recently touted carbon neutrality or outlined steps to green operations, but, Biaggi says, “self-regulating does not lead to good outcomes. I don’t care if you are the most well-intentioned person or entity, it’s not ethical to self-police.”
About a year ago, she says, Maxine Bédat and Alejandra Pollak of the New Standard Institute, a non-profit geared toward sustainability in the fashion industry, reached out to her. “They said, ‘We’d love to work on this with you. Are you willing?’ And I said yes. We spent the past year really getting into the nuts and bolts” of what became the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (the Fashion Act for short), introduced by the NSI and sponsored by Biaggi and Assembly Member Anna R. Kelles. They’ve also accumulated a big tent of backers: Stella McCartney has endorsed the Fashion Act, while others showing support for the proposed legislation include environmental groups like the NRDC and EarthDay.org.
The Fashion Act, which went before the New York State Senate last week, would require fashion companies with over $100 million in revenue that do business in the state to “map their supply chains, disclose environmental and social impacts, and set binding targets to reduce those impacts.” They would also need to publicly disclose the materials they are using and the wages they pay workers. Those who don’t do so within a year’s time could face fines up to 2 percent of their revenue, which would be donated to environmental justice organizations.
If passed, the Fashion Act would become the first legislation of its kind in the United States. But “the bill is not intended to be an ‘I got you’ to the fashion industry at all,” Biaggi is quick to insist. “We wanted to do it in a way that didn’t scare companies, but made them want to be part of this and also kept them following the standards.” She emphasizes the fact that New York is our nation’s fashion capital, and that among those who’d stand to benefit are her Bronx- and Westchester-based constituents. Some of them work in these industries, then at the end of the day, they “travel home to their environmentally justice-impacted communities,” so it was crucial for her to make sure that the Fashion Act addressed both the labor and environmental aspects of the industry.
The law, which Bédat has said she hopes can be passed by this summer, has been met with some skepticism; Women’s Wear Daily quoted unnamed sources doubting it would sail through because of industry counter-lobbying. When I ask Biaggi about that report, she says, “Almost every single bill that is introduced will have resistance. That is not an unusual thing. I think it’s fair to expect that some companies that are impacted by this legislation are not going to initially support it because they’re new standards and for them it’s probably like, ‘Can we even comply with this? We have to figure out if we can even comply with this, let alone support it.’…I don’t think every company is a harmful actor, but I think that there will be companies that will initially not support this, given that they’ve gained success by engaging in harmful practices and also overlooking their environmental and social impact.”
She adds: “What I know for sure is that we will be able to build a wide coalition, and that happens through conversation. I have never passed a bill that did not involve conversations that were really tough, that were uncomfortable, and I think it’s important that the companies thinking about opposing the bill understand: New York state and New Yorkers have really given these companies their success…I think it’ll take time, a lot of hard work, a lot of input, and back-and-forth on language, as it always does. But I feel confident, because there is no getting around this issue. There is not one company on this planet that can ignore the issue of their environmental impact.”
When it comes to governmental oversight of fashion, some European nations are already ahead of us: France’s circular economy law, passed in 2020, went into effect Jan. 1 of this year, and the French government will also now require a “carbon label” to be affixed to clothing; Germany’s equivalent, the “green button,” was instated in June. If the Fashion Act succeeds, could this bring about larger federal legislation stateside? “My gosh, if the federal government thought about this issue, I would be thrilled. However, we have an absence of the federal government taking action and we don’t have adequate federal legislation.” Biaggi says. “If the entire country was regulated, that would be just remarkable, but that’s not where we’re at right now. And that’s why I think New York, being the fashion leader that it is, has this opportunity to lead the way. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that our state and our world depend on it.”
If it passes, the bill would have a ripple effect well beyond New York, since Biaggi points out that any sizable fashion house that does business in the state, including international companies, would have to comply with the standards. (“That’s a little policy wonk-y maybe, but it’s really cool.”) Also cool? The star power that descended on Albany in support of the bill. “It’s not every day that you see fashion designers coming to a state capitol,” she admits.
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