Written by Natasha Jacobs
The omnipresence of the fashion industry within the UK is certainly undeniable, with £32.5 billion spent annually in the clothing sector and 1.5 million tonnes of new fashion bought annually.[i]
The fashion industry has received criticism for its manipulation of customers and consumers, particularly regarding fast fashion, the short durability of clothing and the use of hazardous materials. (Here, customer is used to describe the person buying the fashion product and the consumer as someone who wears it, an example might be a parent and a child.) Growing public awareness highlights the negative impact fast fashion can have over people, particularly with media focusing on its potential dangers for Gen-Z youths being encouraged by social media to over consume fashion.[ii]
This is the third and last of a series of blogs, considering whether a legal approach is the way forward in tackling fashion industry exploitation. The first blog categorised exploitation within the fashion industry into three groupings: garment workers, the environment, and customers and consumers. In considering solutions in eliminating fashion industry injustice, law was considered as a prominent solution to be used in conjunction with other solutions such as sustainability and ethicalness. With the benefits of a legal approach allowing for safeguarding laws and accountability laws when exploitation is exposed. This blog will consider how a legal approach can eliminate customer and consumer manipulation within the fashion industry, looking at current and proposed laws, and consider what additional law could be proposed to address remaining injustices.
Image Source [iii]
Customers and Consumers
The evolution of the fashion industry to one where cheap low-durable material is used during cost-minimised production, perpetuates a cycle where more durable materials are less affordable. The decline in garment quality results in a shortened lifecycle, where low durability results in garments becoming faded, shapeless and worn out more quickly, and repetitive buying of clothes is necessary, resulting in customers spending more on clothing. Negative effects of larger businesses in the fashion industry also negatively impacts on small independent businesses, who are unable to compete with their bigger rivals’ circular fast fashion business culture offering lower prices due to mass production.
The dawn of online shopping has furthered the use of cheap materials, enabling overconsumption and a throw away culture. Compared to 20 years ago, 400% more clothing is now produced.[iv] The rise in overconsumption has arisen with the popularity of fast fashion and continuously changing trends, leading to customer manipulation, by feeling unable to keep up to date with new trends and FOMO (fear of missing out).
Image Source: [v]
Consumer health is negatively impacted by the use of hazardous materials and toxic textile dyes in garments, which also have consequences for the environment and garment workers’ health. Clothing containing harmful chemicals, such as carcinogens, are absorbed by our skin, and can lead to harmful health consequences, with research suggesting prolonged exposure can lead to skin irritation, allergies and potentially formation of cancerous cells.[vi]
A non-law based approach for eliminating customer and consumer manipulation is raising awareness about the fast fashion industry, to encourage customers and consumers to make smarter purchasing decisions. For example, thrifting has been suggested as a method for tackling overconsumption of the fashion industry in an affordable manner. Increasingly, during the Covid pandemic, sustainability and eco-friendly materials have become a more popularised fashion trend, seeking to avoid manipulation; although concerns have been raised about lack of inclusivity due to the expense of these garments.[vii]
Existing UK current laws protect against extremely harmful chemicals and toxins being used in agricultural growth of crops and garment production, such as nonylphenol ethoxylates.[viii] European Union regulations place limits on maximum concentrations of certain chemicals, due to concerns of skin contact with mutagenic or toxic for reproduction substances.[ix] Further suggestions for banning materials containing harmful chemicals, plastics and toxins has been suggested by some. Other new laws suggested have focused on making fast fashion production practices more difficult, such as new tax systems to reduce overconsumption, similar to the Swedish chemical tax on clothes.[x]
Reflections and conclusion on whether a legal approach can help eliminate exploitation within the fashion industry?
Concluding this series of three blogs, it is clear the status-quo of exploitation within the fashion industry needs changing, injustice is widespread and solutions must be found. Greater transparency and accountability is needed to improve garment worker rights and environmental protections. A legal approach can offer a turning point to help eliminate exploitation of garment workers, the environment, and customers and consumers.
Legally binding safeguards can provide improved protection for garment workers human and labour rights, for example, by establishing a liveable minimum working wage. Legal safeguards are preventative, and to be effective current safeguarding laws need strengthening and enforcement. A strengthening of UK laws is also needed to punish exploitation; more punitive laws would act as a deterrent and force accountability when businesses do exploit, both domestically and abroad.
An issue with the legal approach in eliminating injustice within the fashion industry, is the slowness of laws being amended and adopted, for example within the UK the process of a proposed bill of law becoming a legally binding Act can be a complex and lengthy process. Furthermore, internationally, a legal approach to eliminate the fashion industry’s exploitation can lead to inequalities in different countries, with different protection levels against exploitation existing. As such, the legal approach should be used alongside other measures aiming to eliminate the fashion industry’s exploitation, such as consumer education and public pressure for business to have corporate social responsibility aims, for example using eco-friendly production for garments and ensuring garment worker rights. A legal approach together with other methods may ameliorate excessive greenwashing, and prevent voluntary measures not being adopted because of business aims for profit maximisation.
Safeguarding laws targeting the exploitative nature of the fashion industry’s trends of overconsumption and fast fashion, can have multiple effects, for example, legal safeguards strictly regulating the use of harmful chemicals and dyes, can prevent environmental pollution and toxins being absorbed by garment workers and consumers.
The linked nature of the fashion industry’s exploitation of garment workers, environment and customers and consumers, mean laws tackling one area of exploitation can also help reduction in other areas within the fashion industry.
A legal approach offers an opportunity to eliminate overall exploitation, and hope for a future with justice in the fashion industry.
[i] https://makeitbritish.co.uk/uk-manufacturing-2/the-british-clothing-market-10-shocking-statistics/ - quoting facts included in the book Lucy Siegle’s book ‘To Die For’ [ii] https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2021/oct/06/out-of-style-will-gen-z-ever-give-up-its-dangerous-love-of-fast-fashion [iii] Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/Nv1-l_xZnV4 [iv] https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry [v] Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/4hWPlZcJ_Y8 [vi] https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/6889/toxic-threads-the-big-fashion-stitch-up/ [vii] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/survey-consumer-sentiment-on-sustainability-in-fashion [viii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/21/eu-countries-agree-textile-chemical-ban [ix] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32018R1513&from=EN [x] https://luxiders.com/the-fashion-pacts-new-laws-and-pacts-to-change-the-future-of-fashion/ [xi] Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/mz5I5In8zxE