Governments should regulate the fashion industry – Fast Company

By on January 23, 2020

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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