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Does the Law Move Too Slow to Stop Fast Fashion?

Fashion and textile production is well known to be full of unsustainable practices. The United Kingdom is especially complicit in generating waste both retailers in churning out new ranges every season and consumers who buy more items of clothing per year than any other European country. Historically, designers released seasonal collections, but today, brands offer over fifty “microseasons”, to keep customers coming back. A staggering demand for new clothes is generated, despite the fact that clothes are rarely worn out before they are disposed of; the number of times a garment is worn has declined by 36 per cent in 15 years. As a result of these consumer habits, the production of goods is excessive, with more items created than can be used in a constant, repetitive cycle. Stock that is left unsold is often not used effectively most often, it is either sent to landfills or burned.

There is widespread consumer criticism of these practices and recently there have been movements advising what individuals can do to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Many brands have recently released “sustainable” lines, often made of recycled or sustainably produced textiles, which go some way to appease consumer criticism. Unfortunately, these lines fail to target the source of the problem; they do not decrease or inhibit the overall pace of clothing production and consumption. Therefore, they do not do enough to break the constant cycle of overconsumption.

The commercial environmental practices of large industries are generally governed by contractual law. For example, in existing supply and purchase agreements it is common to have clauses which guarantee goods are not produced using slave or child labour. These contracts give a store the right to terminate a contract with a supplier who is responsible for such unethical practices. Therefore, contractual law proposals could be a way to change the practices of the fashion industry by creating binding regulations which require clothing manufacture and disposal to be done sustainably by law.

The difficulty with implementing binding regulations of this kind is that they can only be applied to a local extent. The actions of one governing body (whether a national government or an entity like the European Union) to implement standards can only go so far. The global scope of supply lines goes far beyond any single jurisdiction. It is well known that manufacturers in countries such as India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh are favoured for their ability to undercut the production costs in developed countries. As a result of this, the several processes involved in the production of textiles are spread internationally. So, if the UK government were to increase regulation upon manufacturing practices, it could even have the effect of further incentivising companies to outsource and avoid those requirements. This would be entirely counter-intuitive because moving manufacturing to such countries with fewer regulations could increase the carbon footprint of the product. Additionally, it may impact the viability of UK jobs and firms, as well as potentially driving up prices for clothes (as only those companies who favour sustainability over profit margins and can afford to, will remain in the UK).

Many of the existing regulations in place are not binding but are voluntary certifications instead. These are not required by law in any sense but are a type of incentive. Companies receive certification as recognition for their sustainable practices. In this sense, these will only motivate retailers who already possess sustainable aims.

For example, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) established an index by which companies self-assess environmental and social sustainability throughout their supply chains. Similarly, the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) has signed UK companies to pledge to reduce their environmental carbon footprint (with their signatories representing 65 percent of the clothes produced in the UK by volume). Additionally, environmentally responsible actions are promoted by Principles 7 and 8 of the United Nations Global Compact Goals. Unfortunately, many of the efforts towards voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives have failed significantly to reduce waste. Voluntary certifications are not particularly effective and, like binding regulations, they also fail to establish adherence worldwide due to a lack of substantial legal repercussions.

So how can we make legal regulations effective? There is a need for substantial change, in addition to proposed legal regulations, to promote adherence to sustainable aims. To be effective there needs to be a shift in culture and mentality. This must begin with individual shopping habits and attitudes so companies that work towards feeding consumers’ desires follow this change as well. Legal incentives need to make preserving the environment fashionable for consumers. Only then will the business models of large corporations also change away from fast fashion culture. This culture includes high volume and frequency production, with minimal design focus on durability, culminating in a “throw-away culture” which generates large profits. To minimise environmental impact, however, business models should value durability and quality over high volume and quick season changes.

Other important values that the law should seek to promote to advocate for sustainable practices are transparency, mindfulness, and innovation. First, transparency involves corporations acknowledging and being held accountable for all the practices in their supply chain. This is one of the things voluntary certifications may be able to encourage. Second, mindfulness of a company’s consequences and impact is vital. To be mindful is to take a holistic approach, and consider the entire life cycle of an item of clothing. This is linked to innovation. Manufacturers of clothing can take into account an item’s durability and functionality which transcends seasonal trends, whether textiles can be recycled or ethically disposed of, and several more considerations. Ideally, retailers should work towards a “closed-loop” system, which is where products are designed, manufactured, and used with the aim of creating maximum usability throughout their lifecycle. It would also include minimising environmental costs, waste generation, and use of resources (such as water, energy, and textiles). For instance, some retailers have launched “take-back” schemes (as seen in the electronics industry) where sellers provide a method of disposal for their customers. This would be a step towards creating a culture of corporate responsibility in the fashion industry and establishing a “closed-loop” system.

Given these goals for sustainable practices, how can the law make them a reality? To begin with, certain practices should be banned. For example, there should be bans on landfill disposal and incineration of unsold stock that can be donated or recycled. Moreover, taxes should be placed upon unsustainable practices as a measure to dissuade such actions. For example, similar to a proposed tax on virgin plastics, the UK government could apply a tax to textile products that contain less than 50 percent recycled PET. Or, they could charge one penny per garment produced. Then, revenue can be used to take positive action to reduce waste, for example by investing in clothing sorting, recycling, and collection schemes. Alternatively, an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme could be established, which would ensure retailers become mindful of their impact on the environment. This is a strategy which totals the environmental costs associated with creating a product into the market price of that product. For example, France has an active textile EPR scheme which has doubled the proportion of clothing diverted from landfills. A huge advantage of a strategy like this is that even though the regulation is applied nationally, it takes into account the environmental impact incurred across the entire supply chain, including international manufacturing.

Finally, some practices that have a positive impact should be incentivised. For instance, companies that take positive actions to minimise their waste generation (by implementing take-back schemes, for example) could be rewarded. The same encouragement could be applied to clothing repair. This can already be seen in Sweden, where there is reduced VAT on repair services to encourage mending and reuse of items, thereby disrupting a “throw-away” mindset. As well as incentives, these values can be taught by making mending and repairing lessons a part of the UK educational curriculum. Education can also create long term change by informing students about the waste involved in the lifecycle of an item of clothing, from creation to disposal. This could make future generations more mindful of their impact on the environment.

We have seen a variety of legal measures that could reduce the impact on the environment, and discourage the disposable, fast fashion mentality. These are not only within contractual law but in tax and education sectors too. They focus on what regulations can be applied within local jurisdictions, with some also taking into account the impact of the entire supply chain before items reach a retailer. Ideally, customers need to change their habits and shopping mindsets so that retailers will also change their practices. That being said, changing a mindset is probably one of the hardest impacts to make. Moreover, incentives will be most effective if they do not compromise the pleasures fashion brings. Therefore, legal measures which satisfy fashion and style habits by maintaining the access to and novelty experience of obtaining new items, whilst reducing the need for additional products, are amongst the most promising. It must also be acknowledged that sustainable shopping practices are simply not available to everyone, whether due to convenience, socio-economic costs, or other factors. But, there is a place for law to help universalise and standardise sustainability across retail markets.


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