New York Could Make History With a Fashion Sustainability Act

While similar legislation regarding due diligence is being debated in the European Union, and while Germany, France, Britain and Australia have laws requiring due diligence when it comes to human rights and slavery, there is no general legislation in any country governing the greater social and environmental actions of the fashion industry and mandating change.

In 2010, California passed the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which addresses modern slavery, in 2019 banned sales of new fur products, and last year passed the Garment Worker Protection Act, but the New York act focuses on the manufacturing end of the business, broadly defined.

“Fashion is one of the least regulated industries,” said Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standard Institute. In part that is because its sprawling supply chain can include multiple countries and continents. As a result, efforts at sustainability vary widely. Imposing government regulation would regularize the reporting and “make sure there isn’t a competitive disadvantage to doing the right thing,” Ms. Bédat said.

Though many brands have become increasingly vocal in acknowledging their own responsibility when it comes to climate change and human rights violations, efforts to rectify the situation have been left up to the companies and an assortment of nongovernmental watchdog consortiums like the Fair Labor Association, which addresses wage issues, and Higg, which addresses supply chain reporting. They can vary widely.

Ralph Lauren, Kering, LVMH and Capri Holdings, for example, are among the companies that have already committed to using the Science-Based Targets Initiative, a tool for reducing carbon emissions created by the CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature. But Shein didn’t hire its first environmental, social and governance (ESG) head until December.

“Often there is a knee-jerk reaction by businesses against the idea of regulation,” Ms. Bédat said, noting that numerous stakeholders were consulted in drafting the Fashion Act, including retail brands and manufacturers such as Ferrara, which is based in the garment district and has endorsed the bill. But, she continued, “even the auto industry, which initially rebelled against fuel efficiency standards, has now embraced them.”