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Will the New York Fashion Act ‘Get Over the Finish Line’?

The New York Fashion Act is hurrying to stop the industry’s race to the bottom.

The Empire State’s legislative session comes to a screeching halt on June 6, which means that the bill formally known as the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act has just over a week to make it onto the docket before it has to wait till January to restart the process. It didn’t help that negotiations over New York State’s budget went into overtime by nearly three weeks, narrowing an already small window to call things to a vote. To say that the Fashion Act’s supporters—the coalition includes everyone from academics to brands to NGOs to celebrities like Rosario Dawson and Angelina Jolie—are under extreme pressure to haul the measure to the floor would be a gross understatement.

Still, stranger things have happened. Last week, the New York State Senate passed the Fashion Workers Act for the second consecutive year, with 45 yeas (versus 17 nays) agreeing that model management companies require more oversight and accountability. (It still has to pass the Assembly, however.) The Fashion Act’s Democratic sponsors, Assemblywoman Anna R. Kelles and Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, decided just before a lobby day on May 7 that the bill should be split into its environmental and social components, with the former half taking precedence in order to ease its passage.

Few, after all, dispute that fashion’s biggest names have a responsibility to rein in the 1.2 metric gigatons of greenhouse gases the industry is projected to generate by 2030. Scientists said this week that most people have experienced 26 more days of extreme heat over the past year than they would otherwise have without human-driven climate change. Persistent heatwaves, fatal floods, supercharged tornados and other extreme weather impacts are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

“We are not facing climate change, we are in climate change,” Kelles said. “The fashion industry has never been globally regulated and held accountable for its significant impact on the climate crisis. I’m proud to sponsor the Fashion Act that will establish a legal framework for any fashion brands selling into New York State that have over $100 million gross global income to adopt and comply with standards of environmental sustainability.”

What these standards entail include the mapping and disclosure of at least 50 percent of a company’s suppliers by volume across all tiers. Brands that meet the bill’s threshold must produce baseline and reduction targets for energy, greenhouse gas emissions, water and chemical use. They must also divulge the annual volume of products they pump out, broken down by material type. Everything must be stated in absolute figures, independently verified and conform to recognized standards such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative.

On the Fashion Act’s fourth lobby day, one day after the glitterati strutted outside the Met Museum for fashion’s biggest night, the energy in Albany was palpable. Some 150 people showed up to meet with lawmakers, or more than double the crowd that the coalition usually draws. Varying in ages, ethnicities and occupations, if less so in gender, the predominantly female crowd was a phalanx of sleek black-and-white outfits—all the better to show off their oversized flower pins, which Berkeley College fashion students had crafted using deadstock fabric from Fabscrap and punctuated with “I ♥ NY Fashion Act” buttons. Their bold colors matched the ones on the state flag.

“What do we want?” journalist and Fashion Act ambassador Sophia Li shouted on the steps of the building. “Ethical fashion!” the crowd hollered back. “When do we want it?” “Now!”

“I’ve lobbied before in different circumstances, but this one was especially just so special and just so empowering and energizing,” Li said afterward of her first Fashion Act lobby day. “It was just very uniting and empowering to see this different side of the fashion industry that I think most people don’t see on their TV screens or their social feeds. One side of the fashion industry is very glam, like the Met Gala. We were representing the other side, the day-to-day: the garment workers, the mall business owners, the creators, the ones for whom this is their livelihood.”

Li would later wear her flower pin at the Global Fashion Summit: Copenhagen Edition in Denmark, where she served as emcee of the Action Stage, a couple of weeks later.

Momentum for the Fashion Act has never been greater, said Maxine Bédat, executive director of the “think and do” tank the New Standard Institute and an architect of the bill. The coalition split up into groups to meet with 16 bipartisan legislators—“key folks,” she described—in the Assembly and Senate, who showed a “higher level of sophistication” about the issues raised in the bill than on previous encounters. Much of this is due to the brands that have touted their support for the measure, including Cotopaxi, Eileen Fisher, Everlane, Ganni, Faherty, Patagonia, Reformation, Studio 189 and Stella McCartney, raising the bill’s profile.

“Everybody has hit a wall,” Bédat said of the sector’s glacial progress toward less waste, pollution and exploitation. “Everybody is coming together and realizing that common-sense regulation is a critical piece to get past that wall and shape the industry for a positive future.”

Fashion is one of the least regulated industries, and the fact it’s seen as “unimportant and girly” is one of the reasons why getting legislators to pay attention has been a “hill we’ve had to overcome,” she said. But there’s an opportunity for leadership from New York, which, after all, is one of the fashion capitals of the world. As a “New York bill with a global reach,” the Fashion Act would have a ripple effect, not just throughout the nation but also across the globe.

Despite financial penalties for non-complying companies, the bill shouldn’t be viewed as punitive, Kelles said. One of the pillars of the Fashion Act’s platform is that it will create a level playing field for all brands, so that voluntarily responsible businesses aren’t undercut by their less scrupulous counterparts. What’s needed for this to happen is a common set of rules—with teeth.

“There are many brands who want to be and are producing fashion in a sustainable way, but they struggle to compete financially with fast-fashion brands who produce cheap clothing, with no labor or environmental standards or consequences and who build a model on basement pricing,” she said. “The Fashion Act would collectively set a responsible environmental standard.”

Announcing her eponymous label’s closure on Instagram earlier this month, Mara Hoffman mourned how fashion’s “archaic” structure was “never built to prioritize Earth and its inhabitants.” Instead, its “‘success’ is still bound to harm, unchecked growth and extraction in so many ways,” she said. Meanwhile, Shein, whose critics see it as the poster child of all of those things, saw its profits double to $2 billion in 2023.

Fashion Act Lobby Day

Abrima Erwiah (left) and Rosario Dawson from Studio 189 attend the Fashion Act coalition lobby day in Albany, New York, on May 7, 2024.

Darion Alexis

“I texted Mara Hoffman and I wrote ‘I love you’ to her; I don’t even need to ask because I know her business and I know her team,” said Abrima Erwiah, who co-founded Studio 189 with Dawson and is now a two-time lobby day vet. “And I know the effort that they put in and how hard they try and how they’re so honest and authentic in what they’re doing and in their work. We’re all trying but we’re up against, like, nonsense.”

If Studio 189 has to do its due diligence because someone spotted Ghana, where its clothes are made, on an outdated corruption index, then everyone has to do it, Erwiah said. But it’s also in Ghana that the visible effects of overproduction and overconsumption are impossible to ignore. They’re there in the tangled “tentacles” of discarded clothing, some up to 30 meters long, that snake along Accra’s coastlines. They’re there in the mosquito-borne diseases that thrive because of garment-clogged drainage systems and the broken bodies of young women who transport bales of secondhand clothing on their heads. Fashion has too much “passing of responsibility” and too few guardrails, she added.

For Lisa Diegel, director of global sustainability at Faherty, supporting the Fashion Act simply makes sense, especially since the family-owned label is already doing the work. It was her first time in Albany, but the experience has propelled her from casual advocate to full-on activist.

“I think before I was, ‘O.K., yeah, I support this. I truly believe in all these things. This is my work. This is what I’ve been doing for many years,’” Diegel said. “But I just got really caught up in feeling the energy of every woman out there and walking around and going to these different meetings. It’s almost more personal to me now.”

Lobby days can often influence participants as much as they do lawmakers, said Michelle Gabriel, graduate program director for sustainable fashion at Glasgow Caledonian New York College and one of the coalition’s organizers. People who have attended one lobby day are more likely to sign up for another, this time with friends or colleagues in tow, because of how meaningful their experience was, she said.

“If we can get fashion people who are not used to empowerment in other spaces into one lobby day, where they talk to lawmakers in any capacity, and they’re using their expertise…when people experience that, the change is substantial, and they never go back,” Gabriel said. “Every time we bring people (to this), they understand the totality of the issues, the urgency and the way to actually drive change. You watch people, especially young people, have this catalyzing experience where it all clicks. But you also see people who have worked in the industry for a long time and are seeing this side of that space for the first time and they themselves are also catalyzed.”

While Nate Herman, senior vice president of policy at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, doesn’t think the Fashion Act will “get over the finish line” this session, there’s still a “slight chance” it could move forward. Speaking at a global policy masterclass ahead of the Global Fashion Summit last week, however, he said the trade group has been talking to top legislators in California and Washington State who “have made it very clear” that they will introduce “some form” of the Fashion Act next year if the bill doesn’t make the cut in New York.

The Fashion Act is the “closest thing” the United States has to the European Union’s corporate sustainability due diligence directive, though it goes further in terms of targets that need to be set, Herman said. Even so, its requirements might prove challenging, he said. Because the measure revolves around absolute goals, “if you expand your company or your company grows, that’s sort of impossible to meet.”

Herman’s biggest concern, however, is how different states will legislate around these issues, something that Kelles previously said could be fixed with an interstate compact similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, better known by its acronym RGGI, or “Reggie,” which brings together nearly a dozen Eastern states, including Connecticut, Delaware and New York, to collectively cap and curb greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. Without such a system, compliance could get hairy.

“We have 50 states in the United States,” Herman said. “If we’re going to have legislation in all 50 states that are all a little bit different, it takes a lot of resources and does not solve the problem.”

Bédat said that it was disappointing to hear from legislators on the lobby day that industry trade associations “continue to lobby for an unregulated and unacceptable status quo.” As far as she’s concerned, however, it’s still go time for the Fashion Act.

“The funny thing with the New York legislature and the other legislatures is that a lot of things can happen at the last minute,” she said. “Movement can happen because there is such a strong sense of urgency on this that is clearly being demonstrated. We’ll see where it goes.”

The bar is “pretty low” for fashion, agreed Liv Simpliciano, policy and research manager at the nonprofit Fashion Revolution, who also attended the lobby day.

“Unimpressive progress has sadly become the status quo, characterized by empty promises, pretty words (and) ambitious targets that can be conveniently pushed into the future if needs be,” she said. “The New York Fashion Act is brave and bold. It is tangible, common-sense legislation that can really up the ante. It will not only help protect the people of New York, but by virtue of how the bill is written, have global impacts for the people who make our clothes and the environment.”

The bottom line? “I left the day riding a wave of optimism,” Simpliciano added.

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