Imagine the following hypothetical: You just shot someone, knowingly. They died. No one else knows you did it, but in your area of the world if you tell someone about your secret you won’t be at fault. Tell people you have taken someone’s life and you’ll walk away without even a slap on the wrist. Shucks, you may even get applause for publicising it.
But don’t tell anyone and there’s your offense. Forget to tell your secret and you’ll be charged, not for the act itself but for not telling.
Sound crazy? Well, when it comes to fashion’s social and environmental impact, we don’t even hold the industry to the standards of this low-bar scenario. Fashion’s responsibility practices are so borderline lawless that a bill has just been introduced in the State of New York to make brands accountable for reporting their offenses. New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (or Fashion Act), if passed, will punish fashion brands for not disclosing their offenses, but it will not punish them for the offenses themselves. Rather than something to applaud, the proposed bill shows just how far away we are from true accountability.
Why should the industry be held to account? Because it is wasteful and a significant contributor to climate change: fashion emits at least 4 percent of human global emissions, or 2.1 gigatons of CO2 per year.
This bill politely asks the industry to stop this nonsense. It asks global apparel and footwear brands with over $100 million in annual revenue doing business in the State of New York — from Nike and Zara to Gucci and Chanel — to “disclose environmental and social due diligence policies” and “disclose targets for prevention and improvement.” But this is as good as asking you to set a goal to not kill more people. It’s just a target, so don’t worry too much about it, but do remember to post updates either way.
The bill asks that at least 50 percent of a brand’s supply chain be mapped out, listing known suppliers from raw materials to final production. This effectively means you only need to talk about half of the crimes you may have committed. Again, you won’t be punished for any actual crimes, just whether or not you disclose them. And you’re welcome to not tell us about half of these.
What is scary is that most brands don’t even have this much information available, and they will need to dig hard for it. They may not even be aware of crimes they are involved in. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has been pushing hard for brands to gather and disclose this information since the collapse of the Rana Plaza, nearly 10 years ago, and all that they have been able to issue are guidelines.
The bill goes on to explain that any disclosure should be available on a brand’s website, if possible. Most brands will be happy to post what they are able to cobble together (after heavily branding it) because, whether or not it’s good news, any “sustainability report” is almost invariably considered positive. We are at the point in our collective sustainability journey that gathering any data on our negative practices and putting them into a beautiful PDF is considered worthy of a huge pat on the back. Maybe this bill is meant to encourage enhanced greenwashing? Brands were, after all, consulted in the bill’s creation.
If consumers do research and vote with their wallets, the brands that set clear goals and make a concerted effort to hit them will eventually win. But not quickly enough. Brands that have no reliable reporting in place today, like Shein, are still winning.
ReMake and 20 other fashion policy organisations, including Fashion Revolution and Human Rights Watch, agree that mandating reporting is unlikely to change consumer buying habits and therefore make real impact, and have pushed to toughen the Fashion Act, extending its reach beyond disclosure.
To be clear, I am grateful that this issue is getting legislative airtime in the US, where government action on fashion’s social and environmental costs has been slow, and I will be rooting for this bill to pass. But we need to admit to ourselves that it doesn’t do enough to hold brands accountable.
If accountability means taking responsibility, and taking responsibility for an action only goes as far as admitting to the action then there is no hope for us in saving ourselves from climate change.
Beth Esponnette is co-founder, creative director and chair of unspun.
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