Admin Law, Chemicals, Climate Change, Corporate Responsibility, Oceans, Plastic Pollution, Sustainability

Fast Fashion Needs Global Regulation

Cameron Porter

Fordham Environmental Law Staffer ’21-’22

What is fast fashion? Fast fashion refers to apparel brands that use “a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing.” This clothing is made with low quality synthetic fabrics such as polyester, which is a type of plastic derived from petroleum. Fast fashion is ever growing and altering the perception of how consumers view clothing. More importantly, fast fashion results in over-consumption of cheaply-made clothing, which continues to have a drastically negative impact on the environment due to textile waste, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources.

Fast fashion contributes to environmental harms in a vast number of ways. The apparel industry is considered one of the largest polluting industries in the world, with common estimates suggesting that it is responsible for 8-10 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions through the production, manufacturing, and transportation of garments. About two-thirds of our clothing comes from fossil fuel-derived materials which produce harmful waste in the creation and disposal of the materials.

Waste is a significant problem with fast fashion. Clothing manufacturers use cheap fabric in a rushed manner, which means that garments are often thrown away by consumers after only a few wears. Each year, 11 million tons of clothing is thrown out in the United States alone. These garments, which contain lead, plastic, and other chemicals, rarely break down. The disposed of clothing sit in landfills and release toxins in the air.

These decomposing toxins as well as the chemicals used in the clothing production contribute to large levels of water pollution.  Many brands, like Boohoo, use toxic chemicals, dangerous dyes, and synthetic fabrics that seep into local water systems. The resulting toxins can adversely impact the health of both nearby residents and animals.

Over-consumption and the massive demand for more and more new clothing on a daily basis accelerates the process of these environmental harms. Global clothing consumption is predicted to rise by 63 percent by 2030. The fashion industry is being fueled by a massive demand for “readily available, mass-produced, trend-driven fast fashion, and by a growing middle class population with disposable income.”

Current Regulation of Fast Fashion

Fast-fashion regulations are limited and not strictly enforced. Regulators are not holding fast-fashion brands accountable for their environmental impact. Many brands state that they take measures towards sustainability, but little evidence of actual sustainability is provided. Terms such as “sustainable” and “ethical” also do not have legally objective definitions, so they are open to interpretation.

For example, Chinese retailer Shein ironically states “that Shein’s partners must comply with local laws regarding environmental protection and wastewater emissions, and that partners ‘must adopt reasonable measures to reduce or mitigate the impact of their operations on the environment, and be committed to continuously improving the environment.’” Ironic, as Shein prides itself with releasing 1000+ new products on its e-commerce website daily. The company’s claims of sustainability are extremely vague and lack any third-party certifications proving that the brand is making any efforts to combat its growing carbon footprint.

Fast-fashion brands are on a “race to the bottom.” The majority of fast-fashion companies produce and manufacture their products in developing countries without the means to regulate environmental impact. “Countries such as India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh do not have the organizational structures in place to hold apparel manufacturers accountable for pollution, and even if they did, it’s unlikely they would be effective; these industries thrive because of the ability to undercut production costs in developed countries.” It is especially difficult to regulate a global industry without standardized practices.

New Modes of Regulation

Recently, France and Sweden have taken steps in a positive direction to regulate the known effects of fast-fashion on the environment. France has appointed a “Secretary of State to the Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition,” Brune Poirson, who was instrumental in the anti-waste law passed by the French parliament in 2020. This law introduced a ban on the burning of unsold clothing in France. Similarly, the Swedish government proposed a tax on clothing and footwear products containing substances of very high concern (“SVHCs”), in order to “cost-effectively reduce the incidence or risk of exposure to, and spread of, substances in clothing and footwear that are harmful to the environment and human health.”

While it is refreshing to see France and Sweden take initiatives to combat the detrimental impact that fast

fashion has on the environment, the global nature of the fashion industry demands that the world must co-operate on this pressing issue. Fortunately, we have seen progress in the United States. New York has the potential to make history if the newly proposed Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (“Fashion Act”) becomes law. The general aim of the Fashion Act is to hold major brands accountable for their environmental and social impacts. The Fashion Act would require all fashion companies that sell their products in New York and generate more than $100 million in revenues to map a minimum of 50% of their supply chains and disclose impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, water footprint, and chemical use. These brands would also be required to publicly report the total volumes of materials they produce and make concrete plans to reduce their carbon emissions.

As consumers, we can do our part by avoiding fast-fashion brands and shopping more consciously, however it is important to not place the blame solely on those who buy fast fashion. It can be difficult to shop ethically when the market is oversaturated with fast fashion, and many cannot afford to shop with sustainable brands due to the higher price point. Real change lies within government action and regulation.