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A legal approach for tackling environmental exploitation in the fashion industry

Written by Natasha Jacobs


The fashion industry is much like marmite, in that it is either loved or loathed. It is undoubtedly one of the world’s most successful industries, with between 80-150 billion garments produced and manufactured annually.[i]


Yet the environmental cost of fashion is a shocking reality that takes a toll on our planet. The fashion industry’s harmful environmental effects are multifaceted, with various types of pollution having negative effects. The overall environmental damage of the fashion industry is concerning not only for its contribution to the overall climate crisis but also because of its secondary effects on the health of garment workers and consumers. Mainstream media as part of their coverage of the climate change crisis, has increasingly focused on the environmental cost of the fashion industry and its exploitation of our planet.


In the first blog of this series, exploitation within the fashion industry was categorised into three groups: 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 approaches including sustainability and ethicalness. A legal approach allows for safeguarding and accountability laws when exploitation is exposed.


In the second of this series of three blogs, this blog considers whether a legal approach is the way forward in tackling environmental exploitation within the fashion industry, by looking at current and proposed laws, and considering what additional law could be proposed to address remaining injustices.


Image Source [ii]


Environment

Consider for a moment the environmental cost of fashion and its further reaching negative impact. The intensive use of harmful pesticides and chemical dyes in textile production poses a significant threat when leached into the environment, with this pollution adversely affecting groundwater, biodiversity and human health. Intensive use of synthetic materials has resulted in half a million tons of plastic microfibres (equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles) annually being leached into our oceans, which have alarming consequences, particularly within aquatic environments and for our food chain. Fast fashion has resulted in a high carbon footprint from the transportation of clothing, with the fashion industry being responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions (more than all the international flights and maritime shipping combined).[iii] Add to that the excessive volume of clothes ending their lifespan in landfills amounting to 92 million tonnes of textile waste each year.[iv] Rather than being recycled, clothes are often discarded and dumped into landfill, which can lead to clothing landfill mountains, as evidenced in the Atacama desert.[v]


Image source: [vi]


It is clear reform and promotion of alternative practices are needed so we can all continue to enjoy fashion and protect our threatened environment. Non-legal solutions suggested for reducing the environmental cost of fashion has included: upcycling, thrifting clothes and buying only natural fabrics.


In the UK, current laws seek to protect the environment, for example, businesses are prohibited from dumping chemical waste into water including rivers, lakes and groundwater,[vii] albeit the Environment Agency reveals it is poorly enforced.[viii] UK law does not define terms such as “sustainable” and “ethical”, with some suggesting this unclarity of terminology results in subjective interpretation and greenwashing of laws and regulations.[ix] Domestically, the fashion industry is significantly self-regulated environmentally via agreed voluntary industry codes,[x] such as the Sustainable Clothing Action plan.[xi]


Current domestic and international environmental law is in its infancy, thus new suggestions for environmental legal protections are often not pursued. The UK’s Environmental Audit Committee report recommended a legal ban on the incineration and landfill of unsold clothing,[xii] yet currently there are no plans to legally implement this. Comparatively, human rights and labour rights have more established legal protections due to substantial legal developments in the aftermath of WW2 and the industrial revolution respectively. Emerging environmental law protection principles, such as the polluter pays principle, suggests businesses polluting the environment are fined and made to pay for clean-up costs.



Image Source [xiii]


Can a legal approach help eliminate environmental exploitation within the fashion industry?

The relative newness of environmental law has resulted in ineffective environmental protections focused on reducing the harmful effects of the fashion industry. It is clear, both in the UK and internationally that stronger environmental protections are needed to ensure that the fashion industry’s impact on the environment is minimised. To achieve stronger environmental legal protections, industry voluntary codes could become the basis of new law and strong accountability laws incorporating the polluter pays principal could be developed so that businesses are deterred from committing infractions of law.

To find out more about exploitation in the fashion industry, read part one and three of this blog series to learn about garment worker exploitation and customer and consumer manipulation. The third blog also considers the overall effectiveness of a legal approach in eliminating injustice within the fashion industry.


[i] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/1/27/21080107/fashion-environment-facts-statistics-impact [ii] Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/veNb0DDegzE [iii] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente [iv] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle [v] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10450221/Dumped-Atacama-desert-mountain-discarded-cheap-clothes-West.html [vi] Image Source: https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/environmental-impacts [vii] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2000/1973/made [viii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/17/rivers-in-england-fail-pollution-tests-due-to-sewage-and-chemicals [ix] https://www.lawcareers.net/Explore/CommercialQuestion/RPC-Fast-fashion-and-the-law [x] https://www.thefashionlaw.com/when-it-comes-to-cleaning-up-its-act-fast-fashion-is-no-fast-fix/ [xi] https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2021/03/uk-government-to-support-sustainable-fashion-in-waste-prevention-programme/ [xii] https://www.lawcareers.net/Explore/CommercialQuestion/RPC-Fast-fashion-and-the-law [xiii] Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/pouTfHUG430

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