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4 Policy Steps Biden and Harris Can Take to Protect Garment Workers, Environment

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As the Biden-Harris administration settles into office, some corners of the greater fashion industry urge the new leaders to prioritize policies that champion a new chapter in the sector’s sustainability and environmental responsibility:

President Biden and Madame Vice-President Harris,

Your inauguration was a showcase of fashion and creativity, from the president’s sharp, tailored suit, to Madame Vice President’s bold suffragette hues and Bernie Sanders’ meek, hand-made mittens.

Yet at the start of your administration in 2021, the United States’ fashion industry and its global supply chain are under pressure from social justice movements globally and egregious corporate practices that threaten their very future, compromising consumer trust and safety, and detrimentally impacting the livelihoods of the workers that support them.  Your newly established administration has the opportunity to support a policy environment that incentivizes and rewards sustainability and ethical practices and should urge the private sector to adopt a risk lens and multi-stakeholder approach rather than lower costs and maximize profits.

Inauguration breakout star Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” could also double as a metaphor for the apparel industry, which has a lot of work to do.  The nation’s youngest poet laureate is a major public advocate for sustainable fashion.  She has argued that “whether you shop at Prada and/or your local thrift shop, each dollar we spend on a sustainable product is an investment in the future we stand for.”

Gorman is speaking on behalf of a new generation of consumers demanding fair trade and ethically produced goods.  The time is now for international retailers to act and focus efforts on helping to establish supply chain transparency, better environmental practices, fair working conditions, living wages for workers, safeguard freedom of association and enshrine anti-harassment, abuse and gender-based violence policies across their supply chains. From farmers’ protests in India to garment workers’ demonstrations in Bangladesh and beyond, there is clear evidence that many millions of workers involved in the garment supply chain believe that they are neither being represented nor treated fairly by the corporations they work for and the governments entrusted to protect them.

Your future work must encompass and prioritize garment workers and the environment.  We summarize four policy ideas and steps to drive positive change, from consumers to corporations to cotton farmers.

1. Improve labor laws and necessary company disclosures in support of garment workers in the United States.

The U.S. Labor Department has found that 90 percent of garment workers in Los Angeles do not receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week, and 60 percent are paid less than minimum wage. Fast fashion is characterised by unethical practices, and whilst most production is overseas, it occurs onshore, too.

Similar to what garment workers experience offshore, wages are squeezed downward for workers who are already vulnerable, considering 60 percent of workers in regions like the New York City metro area are immigrants. Apparel and textile factories in the United States have traditionally been the most consistent offenders when it comes to minimum wage violations compared to other industries employing low-wage workers.

In response to abuses by local retailers like Forever 21, the 2020 Garment Worker Protection Act sought to tackle exploitation issues and importantly force retailers and brands whose manufacturers and subcontractors engage in wage theft, to be held liable. The bill ultimately never made it to the Senate in part due to the pandemic, and the new administration must prioritize its review and enactment in 2021.

2. Scale green tax incentives for companies and consumers who take action on driving more responsible garment supply chains.

Market incentives like taxes can drive changes in behavior from corporates to customers. Companies that invest in solar power plants can claim a credit of up to 26 percent of their capital costs against their corporate tax liability. The new administration should now incentivize supply chain partnerships globally, where U.S. retailers can co-invest in green factories initiatives that upscale suppliers’ and facilities’ technology globally to better mitigate water pollution, enact better dyeing practices and restrictions on chemical pollutants.

Focus should particularly be around the production of cotton, which is the most widely used natural fiber in the world and consumers large amounts of water during production. What’s more, 90 percent of the world’s cotton is produced in low-income countries where capital investment is sparse at the supplier level.

Multi-stakeholder initiatives can play an important role in battling climate issues. For example, European fashion house Kering has partnered with a wildlife and conservation focussed NGO to help farmers globally (including the United States) to transition to more regenerative agricultural practices. Additional tax incentives for U.S. companies could bring momentum for these types of collaborations with non-profit organizations and manufacturers.

There should also be incentives for consumers with income tax relief on sustainable practices like recycling, upcycling and repairing garments. At the federal level, finally implementing a fast-fashion tax where taxes imposed per item could help catalyze slower production practices or encourage retailers to implement resale schemes where used clothing is sold alongside new lines.

3. Push for the California supply-chain transparency laws at the federal level and increase their scope.

It was then-Attorney General Kamala D. Harris who passed the California Transparency and Supply Chains Act in 2010, among the first supply chain transparency laws in the world. She emphasized how human trafficking and modern slavery are often “hidden in plain sight” where unsuspecting consumers across the United States unwittingly perpetuate these practices through their purchasing and business choices. While the laws advocate for transparency, they have fallen short on action—they are self-certified by corporates, need to be expanded federally, and do not require corporates to implement better practices.

The new administration should now take steps to strengthen the SEC’s role in mandatory due diligence and require all U.S. public companies with annual worldwide revenue over $100 million to disclose all policies and measures a company is taking to identify, address, and remedy human trafficking, forced labor, and child exploitation occurring within its supply chain. This encompasses how they verify downstream and upstream contractors to attest that materials and labor used are in compliance with laws and corporate standards, and timelines are in place to implement better practices with the aim of raising standards.

4. Drive industry coalitions and stricter policy interventions to support women in the apparel supply chain.

Vice President Harris is a woman of South Asian ancestry who can use her influence to call for marginalized workers’ rights internationally. South Asian women dominate production in the textile and apparel supply chains and have been historically disenfranchised via gender-based violence, sexual harassment and low wages. In India, the Sumangali system imposes slavery on women and girls in spinning mills, and in Uzbekistan and the Xinjiang region in China, children and women are forced to work by an authoritarian government.

More than 50 percent of consumers in the United States say fair labor practices are very important to them and can catalyze a shift in a retailer’s purchasing practices. The recent boycott of imports from the Xinjiang region is an important step, despite reports of retailers like Nike reportedly lobbying against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

Jag Gill is an entrepreneur working at the intersection of technology, supply chains and sustainability, and Liv Simpliciano is an academic in sustainability and modern slavery.

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