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New York Bill Wants to Break Fashion Out of its ‘Black Box’

Fashion is one of the least-regulated industries. A first-of-its-kind bill introduced in New York State on Friday is fighting to hold the biggest brands accountable for their impacts on people and the planet.

Sponsored by State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblywoman Anna R. Kelles, the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act , also known as Assembly Bill A8352, has powerful backing, including Environmental Advocates New York, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the New Standard Institute, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, designer Stella McCartney and supermodel-icon-turned-sustainability-champion Amber Valletta.

All agree that apparel and footwear retailers that make at least $100 million in revenue and conduct business in New York must map at least half of their supply chains, disclose their environmental and social impacts and set binding science-based targets to ensure that they’re reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Companies will also be required to divulge the annual volume of material produced, broken down by type, such as polyester or cotton, as well as the median pay of workers as measured against local minimum and living wages.

“The Fashion Act is a critical tool to both avoid our human-caused climate crisis and end fashion’s race to the bottom of labor exploitation,” Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, said at a press conference introducing the bill. “And in so doing [we] will make New York a fashion leader really fit for the 21st century. We often talk about innovation as an electronic product, but as a lawyer working with some really brilliant legislators, I’m here to say the legislative innovations are perhaps even more important as we set up the rules of the game that can allow the planet, its people, the fashion industry and New York to thrive.”

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Bédat described the Fashion Act as a “New York bill with a global reach,” meaning it will affect the Boohoos and Balmains of the world alike. Its broad mandate makes it more similar to the mandatory, though non-industry-specific due-diligence laws that are percolating across Europe than California’s recently passed Garment Worker Protection Act, which specifically guards against wage theft. Both the environmental and social facets of the bill are critical to the overall concept of “sustainability” that brands have been keen to cleave to, she said. In some cases, they’re one and the same, especially with fashion responsible for anywhere between 2 percent to 10 percent of the world’s annual carbon budget.

“The local effects of the climate crisis are disproportionately felt by disadvantaged communities,” Bédat said. “As time goes on, they will suffer the worst impacts of climate change unless we recognize that fighting climate change and environmental justice are inextricably linked.” It’s for this reason that the bill will come with a “meaningful” enforcement provision that fines offending companies 2 percent of their revenues for non-compliance, with proceeds going to disadvantaged communities.

New York has a “moral responsibility” to take the lead in mitigating the fashion industry’s social and environmental repercussions, said Biaggi, a Democrat who represents the 34th district of the Empire State. She said the bill will now make its way to the Senate and Assembly committees for budget negotiations, with a vote anticipated in late spring.

“For really far too long, the fashion industry has operated in somewhat of a black box with little accountability, and frankly, without adequate federal legislation to take action on climate justice,” she said, noting how unprecedented it is to draft a measure that addresses so many systemic problems endemic to a single industry. “What this means for New York is that we have an opportunity to really lead the way, and it is not hyperbolic to say that our state and our country and our world’s future depends on all of us.”

McCartney, one of sustainable fashion’s leading voices, said being “truly modern” means initiating and embracing change. “Fashion is one of the most harmful industries to the planet,” she said in a statement. “Collectively, it’s crucial that we, as an industry, commit now to taking measurable action towards mitigating our impact for a more sustainable, ethical and mindful future. The Fashion Act is an example of a step towards a better, more regulated future. Our duty is clear, and now more than ever, we need to make changes to the way in which we do business.”

The Fashion Act, Valletta said in a recorded message, will create a single standard, meaning that companies that are “doing the right thing” will no longer be at a disadvantage. The bill is “good for the environment, good for workers, good for the industry and good for New York, the world’s fashion capital,” she said.

“I’ve had the privilege to embody the best of fashion design and craftsmanship,” Valletta added. “But I also know the side of the industry that has been kept out of view: the waste that is amassed in landfills in the global south, the microplastics that are infiltrating every part of our world, and the enormous environmental and human resources that are used to create products that are quickly discarded. And the toll this work is taking on garment workers, mainly women struggling in the shadows. We must evolve our industry.”