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It’s time to regulate fashion the way we regulate the oil industry

France now has an “unofficial fashion minister” tackling the massive pollution produced by the fashion sector. Other governments should follow suit.

It’s time to regulate fashion the way we regulate the oil industry
[Source Images: Nerthuz/iStock, Vectalex/iStock]
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When we think of the world’s most polluting industries, we tend to focus on obvious culprits like oil and gas. After all, here in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency takes an active role in regulating industries that the government deems dangerous to the environment, including agriculture, oil and gas, transportation, electric utilities, and construction. But why not the $1.4 trillion global fashion sector, which is responsible for an estimated 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions?

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In France, fashion is getting the scrutiny it deserves, thanks to Brune Poirson, one of three secretaries of state within the ministry of “ecological and inclusive transition.” Poirson has been systematically addressing various forms of pollution generated by her country’s fashion sector. The New York Times recently declared her France’s “unofficial minister of fashion.”

Brune Poirson [Photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images]

Her role is not explicitly focused on waste generated by apparel and footwear, but in her three years on the job, she has worked to prevent fashion labels from destroying unsold merchandise and drafted a zero-waste law that, in part, makes washing machine filters mandatory to stop microplastics from leaching out of clothes and into the water stream.

Her role prompts the question: Why don’t more governments have a minister of fashion, official or otherwise?

No doubt, part of the reason is that the scale of the industry’s environmental footprint is a relatively new problem. When the EPA was established in 1970, the global fashion industry was far smaller than it is today; fast fashion didn’t yet exist. But as brands focused on making clothing as inexpensively as possible—effectively transforming clothes into disposable objects—the sector ballooned.

Today, fashion is a global industry, with a complex supply chains whose tentacles extend around the world, as companies seek out the cheapest possible place to buy raw materials and make clothes using low-cost labor. Resources like cotton and wool are typically produced in one country, then shipped to another to be turned into fabrics, then shipped to yet another to be cut and sewn into clothes. The finished garments are distributed to markets around the world. In 2000, Euromonitor estimated that 50 billion units of apparel were manufactured worldwide; by 2015, that had doubled to 100 billion. There are new business models, like clothing rentals and online secondhand markets, that aim to cut down on the total number of clothes manufactured every year. There are brands that have been producing environmentally conscious goods for years, like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, and some startups have attempted to regulate themselves, like Everlane’s decision to replace all new plastic in its supply chain with recycled plastic, and Allbirds‘s decision to impose a carbon tax on itself. But ultimately, consumers and brands can only do so much to impact such a vast, global industry. A more impactful way to create change would be for governments around the world to begin regulating the fashion sector, much like they regulate oil or agriculture.

What might that look like? Perhaps it would be a matter of following the French example by devoting a minister to a special department within the state and federal government, or alternatively within a branch of the EPA, to tackling fashion pollution. This person would be focused on understanding the environmental harm caused by the fashion sector, regulating companies, and punishing those that don’t comply. Might we suggest this role be officially called the Minister of Fashion. Here’s how the government could dramatically change the face of the industry.

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Gathering data

For decades, the fashion industry’s impact on the environment wasn’t well understood, partly because governments weren’t funding research. Some experts estimated that the fashion industry was the second biggest polluter on the planet, after the oil industry, but it was hard to ground this figure in data. Environmental nonprofits and other organizations are now beginning to study the problem, and the data they’ve uncovered is staggering. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that textile manufacturing consumes 98 million tons of nonrenewable resources—from oil that goes into synthetics fibers to fertilizers to grow cotton, and 93 billion cubic meters of water annually. And the International Energy Agency estimates that the textile industry also generated 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping trips combined. This is just scratching the surface of the problem. Government agencies could go a long way toward quantifying this impact on the planet. In the end, governments have the incentive to do this because it will fall on nations to clean up the mess that companies create, from paying for recovering efforts from natural disasters caused by climate change to cleaning up toxic chemicals in waterways from toxic textile dyes.

Writing legislation

All of this research could help governments write laws about how fashion companies should conduct business. In the case of France, for instance, Poirson spearheaded legislation to prevent companies from burning goods. But there are plenty of other policies that they could put in place. Fashion brands are notorious for wrapping their products in single-use clear plastic as they work their way through the supply chain: The government could force brands to use recycled plastic for this packaging, or find a way to use reusable bags. Another policy could be to forbid brands from using virgin plastic, now that high-quality recycled polyester is available. This would increase the price of recycled plastic, which would compel plastic recyclers to get their hands on as many discarded plastic bottles as possible.

Creating consequences

It’s going to take a lot of money to build infrastructure to deal with fashion’s waste. For instance, the technology for recycling fabrics into new fabrics is within our reach, but governments still haven’t developed systems on par with say, aluminum recycling or plastic recycling. (Though our plastic recycling infrastructure isn’t great, either.) The government could tax companies that don’t comply with regulations, then use these taxes to fund the creation of apparel and footwear recycling. And with these systems in place, governments could force companies to create products that are recyclable.

Brands like Levi’s are already beginning to think about how to create recyclable clothes, like creating fleece trucker jackets where the synthetic fleece is recycled in one system and the denim can be separated to be recycled in another. This would usher in a new era of circularity in fashion, where we wouldn’t need to produce new cotton, wool, synthetic fibers, and other raw materials, but use materials that already exist. This would dramatically reduce carbon emissions since the majority of emissions are generated early in the supply chain, from the sourcing of raw materials.

France is a well-known fashion capital, and the fashion sector is the second most profitable sector in the nation after aeronautics. And its initial efforts to address fashion’s pollution problem within the government are laudable. But given the international scale of the problem, governments around the world need to get on board, too. Concerned citizens should lobby leaders to devote more resources to the problem.

Here in the United States, this may seem like an uphill battle, since the current presidential administration has focused on reversing environmental protections, and has already rolled back nearly 100 laws. But in the midst of all of this, states have been stepping up to protect the planet. California, for instance, is actively working to increase fuel emissions standards so they are higher than the federal government’s. Hawaii and New York are among the states that are phasing out single-use plastics. State and local governments could play a role in establishing clothing recycling facilities or compelling washing machine companies to include microplastic filters or punishing companies that burn excess inventory.

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It’s easy to think of fashion as frivolous. But the truth is, it’s an industry that is actively destroying the Earth. If we are going to have a livable planet to pass on to our children, we need to overhaul the industry. Government regulations are a crucial part of that effort.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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