Notorious for its blinding lights, bustling traffic, and colossal skyscrapers, New York City’s sparkle is further enhanced by its indomitable fashion preeminence. Commonly regarded as the “Fashion Capital of the United States,” New York City offers the perfect breeding ground for aspiring models, designers, and fashionistas. Notwithstanding, on October 8th 2021, New York law makers proposed a bill that has the potential to alter the regulation of the fashion industry forever. At first glance, this ambitious bill unfolds a promising future—fashion retail sellers and manufacturers would be required to disclose environmental and social due diligence policies, map their supply chains, and set targets to improve their overall impact on the environment. If passed by the state legislature, New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, otherwise known as Bill S7428A, could ignite a potential threat to New York’s fashion empire. While some think that this act will help alleviate the climate crises by increasing sustainability, is it actually more likely to provoke defiance and deceit within New York's fashion industry?
For industries that have long reigned supreme in a mostly regulatory free vacuum, the bill proved horrifying: a fact remarked upon by fashion-sustainability expert, Maxine Bédat. In a recent interview, Bédat indicated that “Often there is a knee-jerk reaction by businesses against the idea of regulation.”. The term “knee-jerk” is unusual, but through its definition as an involuntary kick caused by a sudden strain, Bédat uses this connotation to suggest that the newly imposed regulations did not spark a sense of environmentalism within New York fashion companies, but instead uninvited burdens.
Perhaps the most “knee-jerk” aspect of New York’s Fashion Sustainability Act lies in the Supply Chain Mapping and Disclosure requirement, a request that would mandate all New York-based fashion companies—including retailers and manufacturers—to disclose a minimum of 50 percent of their supply chain from raw material to final production. This bill failed to specify which 50 percent of the supply chain is subject to disclosure, and instead advises companies to “use good faith efforts.” This declaration promotes transparency as it forces corporations to disclose their water, fossil fuel, and chemical use. However, upon closer examination, the language used to formulate the bill reveals a worrisome trend for the fashion industry: relying on “trust” and utilizing language based on a company’s individual morality and human sentiment. The phrase “good faith” is commonly used in a religious context, connoting honesty, moral apprehension, and sincerity of intention—sentiments that often are diluted in a profit driven business environment. This specific demand to “use good faith” seems puzzling and erroneous to incorporate in a law, as it promotes the idea of trusting a company's moral compass which does not ensure ethical operations. Authors Amar Bhidé and Homard H. Stevenson offer a compelling analysis between moral trust and business behavior. After performing extensive interviews, on the reliability of trust, Bhidé and Stevenson ultimately repudiate the common misconception that honesty is the best policy, stating, “There is no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word.” Bhidé and Stevenson found that treachery—from a business standpoint—often triumphed over trust because “When we trust others to and keep complexity their word, we simultaneously rely on their [...] favorable external circumstances.” Given that “favorable” does not equate moral, this creates an unhealthy reliance on companies' “good faith” and compliance with the law. The inclusion of vague language open to moral interpretation, New York’s Fashion Sustainability Act leaves room for loopholes and allows for an atmosphere of plausible deniability in the fashion industry.
As environmentalism grows increasingly important and standardized in the business world, the climate crisis appears as an impetus for fashion companies to potentially fabricate information in order to comply with the law and maintain profit margins. The New York's Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act embodies this issue through its Impact Disclosure, obliging companies to reveal environmental and social issues including greenhouse gas reportings, water impacts, chemical management, and material production volumes. Failing to abide in “good faith,” fashion companies resort to greenwashing. Climate change law expert, Sophie Marjanac, offers a definition for greenwashing as “a technique used by certain companies to distract consumers from the fact that their business model and activities actually do a lot of environmental harm and damage.” Serving as a “cover up” to environmental violations, greenwashing disguises problematic figures as appealing in the public eye through false eco-conscious claims or installations. Ph. D student Eric Gane comments on this controversy, proclaiming that “consumers would buy products based on the environmentally marketing messages and would actually pay more for environmentally beneficial products.” Greenwashing offers one example of the many loopholes in the environmental law system. By allowing fashion companies to promote their brand by falsely advertising their products as sustainable, and in return gaining customers and generating profit, Bill S7428A can be counterproductive to its goals of promoting sustainability in the fashion industry. Relaying back to the consequences that Bhidé and Stevenson mentioned when relying on “good faith” in bills like Bill S7428A, greenwashing grants companies latitude to achieve their “favorable external circumstances”. This deliberate juxtaposition between New York’s Sustainability Bill’s expectations for industries' moral values and “good faith”, and the disheartening reality of probable noncompliance furthers the argument that companies based in New York, positioned at the intersection between moral obligation and profit, might rather skirt the law than abide by Bill S7428A.
Despite the probable noncompliance and resulting skepticism by New York's fashion industry towards the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, it is necessary to recognize New York’s desire to assertively address the environmental dilemma. By holding the fashion industry accountable for environmental violations through the legislation and providing a model for other states or even countries to emulate, New York aims to provide a possible solution to an otherwise neglected issue. New York state senator Alessandra Biaggi encourages praise for New York’s mitigation of the environmental and social reform act, referring to the law as “a groundbreaking piece of legislation that will make New York the global leader in holding the fashion industry accountable.” The term “groundbreaking” implies utmost significance and is often used to describe new events that could potentially alter society’s perspective. Therefore, Biaggi’s description of New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act demonstrates the act's ultimate goal as an initiative to improve the relationship between the fashion industry and the environment. Possessing a similar interpretation as Biaggi’s, Aileen Lee, founder of a sustainable fashion e-commerce platform titled Infinite Goods, demonstrates her excitement as New York fashion inches towards sustainability. In an interview, she exclaimed, “I’m working with brands and asking them questions that no one has ever asked before.” Not only has New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act inspired citizens to recognize the absence of impactful regulation in the New York fashion industry, but it has also motivated many to question the accountability of the same brand names that are displayed in Times Square. Though not a complete solution, the creation of Bill S7428A is undeniably a small step in the right direction for New York’s fashion industry.
While small steps are nothing to disparage, we must understand the emphasis on “small” when referring to Bill S7428A’s steps taken towards improved sustainability. As the impacts of the climate crisis continue to escalate, a growing number of individuals will expect larger steps to be taken on the figurative colossal staircase leading to lasting sustainability. As the fashion industry thrived over the last decade, related environmental degradation has only ensued—factory emissions, chemical pollution, and clothing waste. New York’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act offers the potential for a hopeful initiative towards protecting the environment, but it simultaneously presents the question: Will the transparency it requires result in demonstrative change, or will companies be obligated to report on issues that continue to go unsolved? Assemblywoman Anna R. Kelles explains this rationale in her closing remark to the new Bill, concluding that the New York Bill may really “set a trend.” An implementation of the commonly used fashion term “trend” connotes temporariness as well as something with a fleeting impact. Keeping this definition in mind, it is completely ironic that Kelles, in support of progressing towards a future of sustainable fashion, would describe Bill S7428A using a term linked with mass production, over consumption, and the driving factor of fast fashion. Failing to depict the bill in a positive and inspiring way, Kelles controversial comment, alongside the bills pursued “good faith” and the impetus for brand implemented greenwashing, New York’s sustainability bill is plagued with loose ends and likely remains a work in progress. Despite its overall ambition to start a “sustainability trend,” two vastly contradictory words, it remains to be seen whether enough research, planning, and preparation went into this bill in order for it to become law and have a positive lasting environmental impact on New York’s fashion industry. Otherwise, New York’s Sustainability and Social Accountability Act might prove as, just as Kelles declared—a trend: a subject at the forefront for a limited frame of time.