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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on sustainability. You can find the whole package at our landing page.

The fashion industry has its ugly side, and policymakers can’t look away anymore.

Despite apparel manufacturers’ woeful record on worker safety and fair labor practices, and evidence of its damage to the environment, the sector has largely been left to supervise itself. The pressure for growth inherent in capitalism and for new items inherent in fashion seem like tall obstacles to overcome, but there’s no reason for either to remain unchecked, according to Kat Eves, a stylist who chooses ethically sourced clothing for her clients, including celebrities and CEOs.

“I could point to societal pressures to always have something new to show off on Instagram, or fast fashion’s heavy reliance on haul-level consumption and throwaway culture,” she said by email. “But in my view, fashion’s biggest sustainability issue comes down to a deeply unregulated industry that isn’t held accountable globally for the amount of waste and exploitation of people and resources it commits every day.”

Governments here and abroad are increasingly stepping up. In the U.S., laws proposed in New York and even Congress, and actually enacted in California, amount to a new trend in fashion, observers say.

“There’s been a sea change, just in the last two years to three years,” Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed” and “The Conscious Closet,” said by phone. She is also director of advocacy and policy at Remake, which advocates for fair pay in the clothing industry and is developing a course on fashion policy as part of the Columbia University Climate School’s Sustainability Management Masters Program. “The fashion industry really was not on lawmakers’ radar, and now we’re seeing this wave of bills being introduced in the U.S. and in Europe and a smattering of other places.”

Fashion on its own

Without much regulation, the apparel industry has been left to decide how to improve its record on human rights and the environment, and that’s had mixed results.

Some players seem reluctant to overhaul their practices even after catastrophe. Organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, for example, continue to report safety issues at factories in Bangladesh similar to those that led to the deadly collapse of a garment factory that killed more than 1,100 people. Yet, nine years after that tragedy, the organization is appealing to Levi’s, Ikea, Gap, Target, Walmart, VF Corp.’s The North Face and others to sign a legally binding agreement with trade unions that furthers safety in Bangladesh and beyond. H&M, Inditex’s Zara and Fast Retailing’s Uniqlo are among the 174 rivals that, at press time, have agreed to sign.


“The fashion industry really was not on lawmakers’ radar, and now we’re seeing this wave of bills being introduced in the U.S. and in Europe and a smattering of other places.”

Elizabeth Cline

Author, “The Conscious Closet” and director of advocacy and policy at Remake


When it comes to the environment, businesses also mostly self-regulate, with varying degrees of accountability. They become B Corps; work toward Climate Neutral certifications that require their operations to meet certain standards; develop products or packaging they claim to be environmentally friendly; and tie executive compensation to sustainability goals, among other steps. But in some cases, advocates have deemed their marketing mere “greenwashing” — that is, quite useful in appealing to concerned shoppers, but less so in addressing climate change, water quality or other environmental problems.

“You don’t solve societal pressures and norms with regulation and penalties, but fast fashion only survives and thrives in an unregulated, unchecked space,” Eves said. “More regulation, oversight, and accountability would make it very, very hard for fast fashion brands to continue business as usual.”

More regulatory oversight

There is increasingly more regulation, oversight and accountability of the industry, both here and abroad.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission this year is set to update its “Green Guides,” rules developed in 1992 and updated periodically, which in part cover environmental marketing claims. Government entities in Europe so far have kept an even closer watch on such issues, according to Remake’s Cline.

Norway’s consumer watchdog agency earlier this month, for example, warned H&M that its use of the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, a tool to measure environmental impacts of materials developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry group of which H&M is a member, likely runs afoul of Norwegian laws prohibiting misleading marketing around sustainability.

“If we come across breaches of the Marketing Control Act from H&M in relation to environmental claims in marketing after 1 September 2022, we will consider if the criteria for imposing economic sanctions towards H&M are fulfilled,” the Norwegian Consumer Authority said in a June 14 letter to H&M, according to a copy published on its website.


“Fashion’s biggest sustainability issue comes down to a deeply unregulated industry that isn’t held accountable globally for the amount of waste and exploitation of people and resources it commits every day.”


The move prompted the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to pause its program and enlist a third party to evaluate its index, according to a notice on its website that, in part, calls out the dearth of regulation.



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