If you think the idea of a “fashion czar” sounds like a joke, you may soon be in the minority. It’s an idea that’s gaining steam—and isn’t nearly as farfetched as it sounds.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a story asking President Biden to appoint a “fashion czar” to support the fashion industry’s efforts to become more sustainable and humane. Hilary Jochmans, a political consultant who has spent 15 years in politics and specializes in sustainable fashion, read the story and decided to turn it into an official letter. The letter, which will be delivered to the White House and members of Congress this week, was cosigned by more than 70 experts, organizations, and fashion brands, including ThredUp, Eileen Fisher, Everlane, and Allbirds. Others are continuing to add their names to the list.
Jochmans, who’s the founder of consulting firm Politically In Fashion, says the concept resonated with her because it gave voice to ideas that had been bubbling in the sustainable fashion community for some time: That the government needs to address the immediate harm that the industry is causing to the planet and human beings. She points out that for the last century, presidents have deployed czars to address crises ranging from World War I preparedness to the AIDS epidemic. These individuals have coordinated across different parts of the government to bring about swift action. “Czars have been senior-level advisers tasked with tackling immediate crises,” she says. “The call for a ‘fashion czar’ makes sense because it suggests that this is a current crisis that needs to be addressed immediately using a multifaceted approach.”
After she drafted the letter, word spread about it in the sustainable fashion community, quickly swelling into a grassroots movement. Some sustainable fashion journalists signed on, and stories were published everywhere from Women’s Wear Daily to GQ to The Hill. A range of companies got on board as well, from eco-friendly brands such as Aday and Cuyana to bigger names such as Rebecca Minkoff and Timberland.
When the Fast Company article first circulated on social media, some pointed out that President Biden has a number of pressing issues on his plate right now, most notably COVID-19 and the economy. Jochmans understands this perspective but points out that things tend to happen slowly in Washington, so it’s important to put it on the president’s radar now. In the meantime, she wants this letter to spur members of Congress to create a “fashion caucus” to advocate for more sustainable and humane practices in the fashion industry and to lobby the White House for a czar. Jochmans, who has worked in politics on Capitol Hill and New York State, says there was a similar caucus five years ago, but it eventually fizzled out.
For now, the goal is to continue building support from elected officials and the fashion industry so that the Biden administration realizes how crucial it is to have someone in the White House devoted to fashion issues. Then, if this effort proves persuasive, it would be fairly straightforward for President Biden to establish a fashion czar. The president has a lot of freedom when it comes to appointing advisers; he wouldn’t have to go through Congress to create such a position. Two signatories to the letter–Lynda Grose, a professor at the California College of the Arts, and Caroline Priebe, founder of The Center for the Advancement of Garment Making–are creating a working group to continue campaigning for a fashion czar and identifying top priorities for such an appointee.
For years, sustainably minded fashion labels have been doing their part to cut down on the industry’s negative environmental impact, but there’s a growing awareness that individual efforts aren’t going to make a dent in such a vast, global problem. ThredUp, for instance, has digitized thrifting, but even though the company now has several football fields’ worth of warehouses that process millions of garments every day, there are many more clothes that end up in landfills.
Elizabeth Cline, who has been reporting about the fashion industry’s environmental and human impact for a decade, believes that legislation could address some of these issues. France has passed a law that by 2023 will make it illegal for companies to destroy unsold consumer products, forcing brands to either donate, reuse, or recycle those goods. This is particularly relevant to the fashion industry, where luxury and fast fashion brands alike have been known to burn millions of dollars worth of unsold clothes. “In some ways, Europe is ahead of the United States,” Cline says. “But the Biden administration now has a chance to catch up.”
But a fashion czar wouldn’t just be focused on regulating the fashion industry; this person would also be tasked with ensuring fashion remains a thriving part of the American economy. Since the late 1980s, fashion manufacturing has been offshored to countries such as China and Bangladesh, where labor is cheaper. It’s unlikely that this manufacturing will return, but Cline says that textile mills could. Right now, there are several tech companies focused on fabric recycling, and when they’re ready to scale, U.S. mills could spin these recycled fibers into fabrics. “The government could help create green jobs in the fashion industry,” says Cline. “It could be part of the country’s economic recovery.”