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Sustainable Fashion Policy Sparks Heated Texworld Debate

Texworld Evolution NYC picked up right where it left off.

Continuing its Summer 2022 conversation surrounding recent wins in legislation and policy for sustainable and ethical fashion, Sharon Perez, Lenzing Fiber’s senior business development manager, moderated a panel revisiting these topics, exploring how far the industry has come and how much further there is to go.

“[Fashion] is a $2.5 trillion industry; the view of it is fun, it’s glitzy, it’s glam. But a lot of us know there’s a lot of issues that we need to address,” Perez said, naming pervasive problems like chemical use and carbon footprints. “If we don’t do anything about it, it will just continue to grow and have that negative impact to the world that we live in. So because of this issue we need to not only self-police—because there are a lot of companies and organizations that are trying to do their best to do the right thing—but we can all agree that we need some type of oversight at the government level.”

Take, for example, the New York Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. The proposed Fashion Act is first-of-its-kind legislation in the United States as it would require global fashion sellers (with global revenues over $100 million) to be accountable to standardized environmental and social due diligence policies if they want to peddle their products in the Empire State.

“There is not one policy, there is not one idea, there is not a silver bullet to solve our problems,” Michelle Gabriel, graduate program director of sustainable fashion at Glasglow Caledonian New York College, said. Rather, it will take multiple policies, she went on to say, to solve the range of issues plaguing the industry simply because of how complex the industry and its activities are.

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But the Fashion Act is possibly a good start.

“New York state is the biggest global market right now for fashion goods, and so [the Act] aims to use that market opportunity as a gate for standards, for a global floor of practice across social and environmental standards; it aims to basically force businesses to report things that they keep behind closed doors,” Gabriel said. “We frankly know almost nothing granularly about the industry. We do not know what our greenhouse gas emissions are specifically, we do not know what our water usage is specifically, we do not know what our chemical usage is—we have broad strokes, [but] that is not enough to drive specific change across specific geographies for specific issues. So we hope [the Act] is the first of many.”

It’s frustrating—sad, even—that the fashion industry lacks these fundamental details to make real change, Zara Ahmed, head of sustainability at Artistic Denim Mills, said. Brands are left to their own devices to try and prove their sustainability mettle, but with a lack of standardization across the industry, there’s an array of labels and certifications that can skew credibility.

Rankled by this conundrum Chelsea Murtha, director of sustainability at the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), went to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on behalf of the members upset that the agency hasn’t updated the rules around making green claims. The FTC, Murtha said, will be updating the rules and requirements later this year, it’s hoped.

“Hopefully we can kind of start moving this greenwashing discussion into a better place where folks who are trying cool and innovative things and want to tell customers about them, want to tell investors about them, are able to do that in a way that’s accurate and substantiated, and everyone is held to the same standard,” she continued. “And so you know, this is an area where industry is really excited and interested in being involved in the policy conversation. I’m excited to see folks kind of getting there and pointing out places where actually more governance would be useful.”

Those places being standardization—harmonization, specifically. The main reason is that it’s just simpler from a compliance standpoint.

“It’s much easier to educate people within your company, educate all of your suppliers, build on the education that other brands have done with their suppliers, if the rules are the same and consistent,” Murtha said. “And theoretically, we should be having the same rules if something is damaging to the environment. If something’s unsafe, it’s unsafe no matter where it’s happening.”

Gabriel challenged this idea, seeming to disagree with the proposed THREADS Protocol that Murtha was alluding to.   

“I think it’s really important, especially in a space with not a ton of expertise yet, is that we are asking what is the perspective of anyone tell me what policy should be? What is the perspective of the organization? There’s a lot of organizations coming out and saying what their perspective is on policy—and AAFA is one of them—on what is good policy. We should be reasonably skeptical of anyone telling us what is good policy,” Gabriel said. “It’s not to say the AAFA doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but they are one voice amongst many and the other voices are not always heard in the conversation. AAFA actively uses its money to campaign against legislation. So just keep that in mind, you know, we’re not all good actors in this space.”