A group of 20 human-rights, labor and fashion sustainability organizations is urging New York lawmakers to strengthen a measure that could make the Empire State the country’s first to hold fashion’s biggest names legally liable for their social and environmental impacts.
The problem with the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, also known as Assembly Bill A8352, in its present form, the coalition said, is that it primarily focuses on disclosure, meaning that brands and retailers that rake in at least $100 million in revenue and conduct business in New York will only be found in violation if they fail to report on various facets of their supply chains, such as greenhouse-gas emissions, energy use and wages, not if they fail to mitigate or redress any shortcomings in accordance with international guidelines.
Neither does the bill, despite its sweeping scope, currently place any requirements on businesses to provide or cooperate in remediation for damages they cause or contribute to, wrote the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Fashion Revolution, Fibershed, Human Rights Watch, Remake, War on Want and others in a letter to State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblywoman Anna R. Kelles, the legislation’s Democrat sponsors.
While the coalition “wholeheartedly agrees” with the lawmakers that it’s time for New York, one of the world’s fashion capitals, to take “strong action” to make the industry more ethical and sustainable, the Fashion Act as it stands is “far weaker” than measures passed in California, France and Germany, putting the state “behind instead of ahead of the curve” in terms of improving the lives of garment workers and reducing environmental destruction.
“We are concerned that this bill falls short of what is needed to protect people and the environment from the multiple harms caused by the sector,” the organizations wrote in the Jan. 14 letter. “We know from failed policies like the U.K. Modern Slavery Act that disclosure bills often do not drive corporate accountability or protect human rights and the environment.”
The group’s recommended amendments include a stronger and expanded labor-data disclosure requirement that relies less on corporate self-reporting and more on metrics that labor groups and human-rights experts “recognize as useful” in a publicly accessible and readily parsable format.
Instead of asking businesses to divulge how they are incentivizing supplier performance on workers’ rights, the Fashion Act should require them to report on whether their commercial practices allow their suppliers to provide employees with decent work, the letter said. Companies should reveal whether they are ring-fencing labor costs to make living wages possible in order negotiations, or shelling out an additional living-wage contribution on every order placed as the Wage Forward campaign has proposed. They should also disclose whether they’re paying for at least 30 percent of their orders upfront to “even out the risk” between buyers, suppliers and garment workers, conferring final payments within 30 days of delivery and committing to paying for in-production orders if cancelations happen.
“Does business conduct reward suppliers for safeguarding workers’ rights (example: higher prices, repeat business, higher value)?” the letter said. “Is there a public commitment to set prices high enough to cover investments in sustainability, decarbonization and water and energy efficiency, safety and other compliance demands at the supplier level? Does the company publicly commit to address concerns and grievances in a manner that prioritizes the human rights of supplier factory workers?”
Equally important, the coalition said, companies must perform their due diligence, not just report on it, while incurring fines that are commensurate to the scope of their influence if they’re non-compliant. The Fashion Act’s current wording “does not sufficiently hold brands and retailers accountable” for potential human-rights and environmental harms, it said.
“The current accountability section includes penalties for failures to report on impacts, goals and due diligence, but does not include any penalties for harm caused by, contributed or linked to a brand or retailer, or for failing to meet the targets that brands and retailers set,” the letter said. “That means brands and retailers could, for example, set climate-change or waste-reduction goals and goals to pay a living wage, market their commitments to NY consumers, never meet them, and still be in compliance.”
New York, home to 10,000 garment workers, could also draw lessons from the California Garment Worker Protection Act, a joint-liability, anti-wage-theft measure that Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed into law. “As written, there are no incentives or protections for New York’s own manufacturing base,” the organizations said. “Expanding this protection to workers in the international supply chain in alignment with labor unions work across Asia is strongly recommended.”
“At Remake, we believe policy must be rooted in serving the communities most impacted by fashion—both garment makers and those on the frontlines of fashion’s environmental impacts,” Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of the advocacy group, told Sourcing Journal. “We know from a decade of mandatory human rights due-diligence efforts that legislation must include liability and accountability in order to be effective. We therefore worked to offer amendments that would not just focus on reporting on fashion impacts but addressing these impacts and offering remedy.”
The Fashion Act’s sponsors, along with supporters such as the New Standard Institute, said they were open to engaging with different stakeholders to develop a bill that fosters the most robust environmental and labor improvements. There’s plenty of time: the measure still has to wend its way through the Assembly and Senate committees for budget negotiations before a vote can be called, likely in late spring.
“We are glad to have engagement from a wide group of stakeholders related to the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, as we work to craft legislation that has the greatest positive impact on the environment and the workers impacted by the global apparel industry,” Assemblywoman Kelles told Sourcing Journal. “We’ll be speaking in detail with the authors of this letter, and others who have reached out, to incorporate their concerns into a final bill, as is commonly the case with complex, groundbreaking legislation like the Fashion Act.”
Senator Biaggi concurred, noting a “common goal” of ensuring that the Fashion Act “drives the most positive change for the people most impacted by the fashion industry,” she told Sourcing Journal. “Since announcing this bill, we are grateful for the attention and input we have received from all stakeholders, including those on this letter. The success of this legislation is dependent on a wide coalition of support, and we look forward to meeting with as many stakeholders as we can to advance the strongest piece of legislation that can be passed in New York.”