Sustainability: lawmakers begin to catch up with ‘fast fashion’ industry

Sophie CameronMonday 16 October 2023

The growth of ‘fast fashion’ – typified by the cheap and quick production of low-quality clothing – over the past few years has been aided by the Covid-19 pandemic and by social media influencers. A further factor is that the global cost-of-living crisis means that many consumers now have less disposable income. Despite the increase in jobs resulting from the industry’s growth, critics warn that fast fashion creates a ‘throwaway’ culture – one with a significant detrimental impact on the environment and on human rights. 

The fashion industry more broadly is considered the second most polluting industry globally by the UN Conference on Trade and Development. It’s responsible for ten per cent of global carbon emissions – more than aviation and shipping combined – and 20 per cent of global water use. The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, highlights that 85 per cent of unsold textiles are dumped or destroyed every year. The UN has also named textile dyeing as the second largest polluter of water globally.

Markus P Beham, Treasurer of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and an associate professor at the University of Passau, Germany, explains that ‘part of the machine operating the fast fashion business model is the constant dumping and destruction of goods, exacerbated by online sales and mail order returns. Contrary to the environmental principle of rectification at the source, much of this occurs in Africa or Asia, where it gives rise to additional economic, environmental and social issues’.

Segmented approaches to regulating issues such as circularity, transparency and traceability in the supply chain can go a long way

Roberta Danelon Leonhardt
Co-Chair, IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee

Sahar Iqbal, Membership Officer for the IBA Communications Law Committee and a partner at Akhund Forbes, in Karachi, says that the consumption of fast fashion in Pakistan is rising despite the economic slowdown, the recent flooding and the pandemic. ‘Fast fashion is produced locally as well as being imported’, explains Iqbal. She adds that, surprisingly, the recent challenges the country has faced have led to more cheap goods being purchased, ‘possibly because people’s perspective has changed from saving to consumption’.

In spring, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee adopted recommendations explicitly aimed at ending fast fashion, including rules to combat the excessive production and consumption of textile products. The rules aim to ensure that textile production is circular and sustainable. The circular model focuses on enabling garments to be used for as long as possible, and then reusing or recycling them. Lawmakers on the Environment Committee stress that textile products sold in the EU should be more durable, easier to reuse, repair and recycle, made with recycled fibres and free of hazardous substances. They also underline that textiles should be produced in a manner that respects human, social and labour rights, the environment and animal welfare throughout the supply chain.

Roberta Danelon Leonhardt, Co-Chair of the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee and a partner at Machado Meyer Advogados in São Paulo, believes that comprehensive and well-enforced regulations are crucial to driving lasting change in the industry. ‘Governments and policymakers can target specific elements of fast fashion to eliminate the negative externalities in supply chains’, she says. ‘A more segmented approach could prove easier to enforce and monitor, rather than all-encompassing legislation. Segmented approaches to regulating issues such as circularity, transparency and traceability in the supply chain can go a long way.’  

Danelon Leonhardt also highlights the need to consider the environmental and social dimensions of fast fashion, including human rights and labour conditions. Governments could, for instance, offer tax breaks or subsidies to companies that adopt circular business models.

In 2022, the European Commission presented the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles to address the entire lifecycle of textile products. The Strategy includes proposals for changing how textiles are produced and consumed. The Commission also proposed a regulation for a general framework to set ecodesign requirements for sustainable products, which would repeal the rules in Directive 2009/125/EC – currently focused on energy-related products only.  

Gary Assim, European Regional Forum Liaison Officer on the IBA Law Firm Management Committee and a partner at Shoosmiths, London, highlights the ongoing discussions on circularity by companies in the fashion industry, which stands on the edge of being forced to make substantial changes via regulation. ‘The circle in the manufacturing process starts at the point of design, so that sustainability is baked in from start to finish and applied throughout all stages of the product lifecycle’, explains Assim. ‘Some brands, for instance, are looking at cleaning, repurposing, renting out, repairing or reusing items of clothing to extend their lifespan. Some brands now have programmes in place where consumers can return items to a recycle box in store. There has been a lot of discussion by the fashion industry on circularity, but actual change has been quite slow.’

Florencia Heredia, Chair and LPD Council Liaison for the IBA Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Law Section and a senior partner at Allende & Brea, in Buenos Aires, highlights that ‘designers in Argentina, Chile and Colombia are using very specific materials from unique national animals and promoting natural fibres in their fashion items rather than plastics. It’s a very small movement, but it’s making a difference’.

Key to any regulatory changes targeting fast fashion is the understanding that communities depend on the sector for their livelihoods, and changes could have a negative impact too, for example leading to job losses. Danelon Leonhardt says that regulatory changes will certainly have an impact on jobs in the industry. ‘However, jobs will also be reinvented and new professions – especially for qualified workers – will be in high demand’, she adds. ‘Digital traceability and how it can increase transparency in the supply chain, the digitisation of business processes and operations, as well as exploring upcycling and next-generation textiles are likely the greatest opportunities for the industry and it will demand a new and highly qualified workforce.’

Elena Varese, a partner at DLA Piper, Milan, suggests implementing transition and reskilling programmes for affected workers and promoting the local and sustainable sourcing of materials as examples of how a balance might be struck between sustainability and the preservation of communities.

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