New York bill enlists fashion industry in fight against climate change

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New York is the widely recognized fashion capital of the United States, and it may soon use that influence to combat climate change.

A bill, which has been introduced in both houses of the state legislature, would require large clothing companies to disclose and reduce their environmental footprints. The latest push comes amid the ongoing rollout of top designers’ latest outfits at New York City Fashion Week, which wraps next Wednesday.

The Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, known as the Fashion Act for short, would force clothing and apparel manufacturers with more than $100 million in annual sales to disclose on their websites the amount of energy, water, plastics and other chemicals they use, as well as their emission levels of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. It also contains standards to include fair labor practices. This requirement would be applied to the entire supply chain, including the farms where the raw materials such as cotton are grown and the process of shipping those materials. After disclosing this information, the companies would then be required to begin reducing their ecological footprint.

People standing on a sidewalk.
Models, photographers, attendees and others gather between fashion shows in New York City in September 2021. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images) (Corbis via Getty Images)

For greenhouse gases, the emissions reduction targets will be determined by independent energy auditors who, following the guidance of the Science Based Targets Initiative, set a pathway to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“It’s really important that you find some of the greatest contributors [to climate change] and address those, because we’ve run out of time,” Assembly Member Anna Kelles, who co-sponsored the bill with state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, told Yahoo News.

One typically doesn’t think of clothing among the top contributors to climate change, especially compared to industries like energy, transportation or agriculture. But the process of growing cotton is very energy- and water-intensive. Then there is the globalized and very wasteful process of shipping raw materials to energy-hungry factories and the finished products to markets. A 2018 study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimated that fashion is responsible for 2 to 8 percent of global carbon emissions.

“That is a really big chunk of all greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kelles. “If we can change that impact, it is a big step.”

The fashion industry has other significant environmental impacts, according to the UNEP: Dyeing fabrics is the second-largest polluter of water globally, and textiles cause approximately 9 percent of annual microplastic ocean pollution. “Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned,” the UNEP says.

“It’s a very unregulated industry,” Rich Schrader, the New York legislative and policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is part of the coalition supporting the proposal, told Yahoo News.

Protesters gather outside. One holds a sign reading: Climate Can't Wait.
Climate change protesters gather outside the New York governor's office. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Companies that refuse to comply would be barred from selling their products in New York state, one of the largest markets — and easily the most high-profile market — in the country for the fashion industry. Companies that continue selling in New York but don’t meet their targets will be publicly named and shamed by the state attorney general — and fined if they don’t shape up.

High-fashion designers like Louis Vuitton and mass-market brands like Old Navy and Levi’s all would have to comply. The bill’s supporters say that many in the industry welcome the proposal.

“There are people in the industry itself that are asking for regulations,” Kelles said, citing designer Stella McCartney and the high-end garment manufacturer Ferrara. Kelles argues that even companies that aren’t covered in the New York law — whether because they’re too small or they’re not present in the New York market — could have their carbon footprints reduced by the bill because they rely on the same supply chain as companies that would be regulated.

“This will hit 200 or 300 companies; obviously their supply chains are much bigger,” Kelles said.

No clothing labels have come out yet in opposition to the bill, nor have any of the industry trade groups. “USFIA does not have a position on the NY bill, at least not yet,” United States Fashion Industry Association President Julia Hughes, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “We are still reviewing the details of the legislation.”

The clothing industry isn’t the only one that may soon be facing new climate regulations at the state level. The New York state legislature and officials in other states such as Connecticut are mulling new climate-focused regulation of the insurance industry, requiring them to disclose the climate risks in their portfolios. Schrader says banks should also be required to disclose their loans to fossil fuel projects — a move the Securities and Exchange Commission is currently contemplating. And Kelles introduced a bill last year that would put a moratorium on cryptocurrency mining, pending an environmental review.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Whether the bill will actually pass in this legislative session is largely up to the three people who decide most of what happens in the New York state government: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Gov. Kathy Hochul. All are, like Biaggi and Kelles, Democrats who enthusiastically support the state Climate Act, which requires emissions reductions and which this bill is meant to complement. However, none have taken a stance on the bill publicly — or privately, according to supporters.

And if it does pass, whether consumers will actually choose lower-carbon clothes when they learn of a company’s emissions is unknown. Schrader, who previously served as New York City’s commissioner of consumer affairs, conceded that requiring restaurants to post calorie counts hasn’t been demonstrated to have any effect on what people eat. But, he noted, smoking rates went down after cigarettes were required to add warning labels, and some consumers do choose cleaning products without chemical agents.

“It doesn’t always work, but it has worked,” Schrader said. “This will be a meaningful piece of information.”