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Fit Check: The Need for Regulation of the Fashion Industry in Australia

By Elli Murphy, Co-editor


In the wake of the fashion industry’s rapid expansion, a holistic regulatory response is required to prevent the industry from further harming the environment.




In this day and age, calling fast fashion one of our generation’s most unique and pressing environmental challenges hardly makes me a thought leader. With fast fashion brands seeing quicker growth than the European retail fashion industry as a whole,[1] fast fashion is past being branded as an ‘emerging’ threat. Feeding off our desire for instant gratification and the constant pressure to reinvent one’s identity to align with ever-changing trends — traits that are difficult to detach from for a generation raised on social media — fast fashion’s lightning-fast production is almost single-handily responsible for fashion’s new ability to take on a ‘seemingly contradictory mass exclusivity’.[2]


The phenomenon of costume dressing at Taylor Swift’s ‘Eras’ tour is perhaps the most pertinent current example of our attitude towards fast fashion. Fast fashion’s availability and affordability has made ‘event dressing’ possible on a mass scale; the idea of purchasing a sequinned dress and cowboy boots for one night only of wear, even a decade ago, would likely have been perceived as over-the-top. Yet just weeks ago, scores of Swifties adorned in all sorts of niche, bejewelled (!) costumes stormed into the MCG. There is a dichotomy to this phenomenon: whilst in many senses, it signifies the social power of fashion and its ability to facilitate joy and community, the less glamorous reality is that the vast majority of outfits worn to Swift’s concerts are almost certainly destined for landfill and unlikely to be worn again.


Ironically, it is the dominance of fast fashion that has brought attention to the environmental impact of the fashion industry as a whole, though many people remain unaware of just how grossly the industry aggravates environmental issues. The industry is responsible for producing more greenhouse gas emissions than all international maritime shipping and flights combined, and at this rate its emissions will increase by more than 50 per cent by 2030.[3] The making of a singular pair of jeans results in the emission of the same amount of greenhouse gas as a 129-kilometre trip in the car.[4] In Australia, 6000 kilograms of textiles and clothing are put in landfill every ten minutes, and we have the unenviable title of the world’s second-highest consumers of textiles per person.[5] Though I’ll spare you from further statistics, no aspect of the environment is left untouched by the pollution produced by the industry, which interferes with ecosystems and human health in a myriad of disturbing ways.[6]


The rise of the phenomenon known as ‘greenwashing’ is the clearest proof that our environmental awareness has increased significantly in recent years. Consumers, especially younger generations, are increasingly environmentally conscious, and research shows that the perceived sustainability of a fashion brand impacts upon a consumer’s choice to purchase the brand’s product.[7] Brands are leveraging this aspect of consumer behaviour to — again, ironically — sell more clothing.[8] The labyrinthine nature of the fashion supply chain is difficult to understand as a consumer, which in turn makes it all too easy for brands to get away with claims of ‘green’ practices.[9] As such, claims of sustainability and eco-friendliness by fashion brands should be treated cynically; though brands may purport to be responding to consumers’ concerns about the health of the environment, one study of more than 300 fashion executives found that just ten per cent of them view sustainability as a growth opportunity.[10]


Should greenwashing continue to flourish whilst going unchecked, it will only further compound the contributions of the fashion industry to environmental destruction and eat into any reputability that the industry may have left. The intentions of well-meaning consumers will continue to be exploited as they are misled into paying a premium for ‘conscious’ products by companies making bogus sustainability claims.[11] For brands who are making legitimate efforts to decrease their environmental footprint, the effect of greenwashing within the industry is two-pronged: the impact of a single brand’s greenwashing has the ability to ‘spillover’ and negatively impact consumers’ perceptions of genuinely sustainable brands,[12] and the financial incentive to adopt green practices is minimal when other brands can successfully greenwash their way to profits.[13]


The fashion industry has, for decades, bypassed the kind of regulatory treatment that other mass-polluter industries have attracted, but we can no longer afford to avoid tackling the industry head-on. To continue to rely on consumers to clean up the industry through their purchasing habits is completely unrealistic; the laissez-faire approach that has placed the onus on consumers to navigate a swathe of greenwashing to shop sustainably, which often comes at a much higher cost to the hip-pocket, is completely inadequate to tackle what is a rapidly growing issue, and naively assumes that consumers are readily able to pay for more sustainable fashion.[14]


Last year, a consortium led by the Australian Fashion Council (AFC) announced the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme, operated under the moniker ‘Seamless’ which, if opted into by a fashion brand, requires the brand to pay four cents per item of clothing made or imported.[15] Seamless was developed following a grant to the AFC of $1 million to develop an initiative that increases the recycling rate of the existing Australian clothing stewardship program.[16] The AFC has projected that by 2027, Seamless could divert 60 per cent of end-of-life clothing from landfill, pending participation by 60 per cent of the industry.[17] Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has stated that, should there not be industry-wide participation in Seamless, that she would consider regulatory action, marking the end of June 2024 as the deadline for her assessment.[18]


Considering that just a 6.6 per cent reduction in the amount of textiles going to landfill in Australia would constitute the removal of a pile the size of the Sydney Harbour Bridge,[19] together with the significant influence that the fashion industry will have on Australia’s ability to achieve our commitment to cutting emissions by at least 43 per cent by 2030,[20] I would argue that making Seamless a mandatory program for all brands with clothing on the Australian market is a no-brainer. 


Should Minister Plibersek decide that participation in Seamless not be mandated, there is plenty of regulatory action that could be taken to tangibly reduce the impact of the fashion industry on the environment. Though in their infancy, there are a number of regulatory and legislative frameworks that have been developed by other nations that are now being implemented, and these frameworks serve as well-developed models for Australia to consider as methods of preventing greenwashing and reducing the environmental impact of the fashion production cycle at every step.


By the end of the 2024 financial year, companies within the European Union will be subject to its Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD).[21] The CSRD requires companies that fall under its scope — around 49,000 of them — to report according to the European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS), which mandate that these companies make available to the public a wide variety of information regarding their impact on both people and the environment.[22] The CRSD accompanies the European Union’s strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, which began its implementation in March 2022 and contains measures to combat textile waste at every stage of the lifecycle, including the promotion of the use of higher-quality textiles at affordable price points and increased availability and use of repair services.[23]


Momentum is growing within the United States for the adoption of a model based on the European Union’s regulations.[24] A regulatory framework has already been theorised, which aims to eliminate greenwashing and promote sustainable fashion by creating a certification that brands can display on their garments’ tags to inform consumers about the kind of sustainable practices that a company is employing.[25] This ‘Green Fashion Certifications’ program would utilise the US Environmental Protection Agency as a body through which to provide these certifications to brands that comply with material processing, carbon emissions, and disposal standards.[26] 


The Australian government has indicated a willingness to develop something akin to the CSRD; in a consultation paper released earlier this year, the Treasury queried the possibility of extending climate risk reporting to cover broader sustainability metrics, and requiring non-financial, non-publicly listed institutions to comply with such reporting requirements.[27] These suggestions were framed as possible expansions for a yet-to-be-implemented climate reporting framework for large financial institutions,[28] so such reporting requirements would appear to be a long way off unless Minister Plibersek decides to design a similar reporting framework for the fashion industry.


Consumers and brands should work together in order to ensure that the fashion industry successfully reduces its impact on the environment. However, the continued hypocrisy of the industry in encouraging consumers to shop sustainably whilst exploiting them for profit, calls for drastic action to be taken. If we want to make even a smidge of the necessary impact to remedy some of the carnage wrecked on the environment by the fashion industry, it’s time to harness the power of regulation.


[1] Annamma Joy et al, ‘Fast Fashion, Sustainability, and the Ethical Appeal of Luxury Brands’ (2015) 16(3) Fashion Theory 276.

[2] Ibid 275.

[3] ‘How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost to the Environment?’, The World Bank (Feature Story, 23 September 2019) <https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente>.

[4] Allison Denton, ‘The Cost of Looking Good: How Fashion and Trend-based Consumerism Impact the Economy, Law, and Environment’ (2023) 30(2) Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 384.

[5] Australian Fashion Council, Fashion Evolution: From Farm to Industry (Report, 9 May 2022) 15 (‘Fashion Evolution’).

[6] Alexandra L. Bernard, ‘The Hidden Costs Behind Cheap Clothing: Addressing Fast Fashion's Environmental and Humanitarian Impact’ (2023) 25(3) Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law 545.

[7] Doroteja Mandarić, Anica Hunjet and Dijana Vuković, ‘The Impact of Fashion Brand Sustainability on Consumer Purchasing Decisions’ (2022) 15(4) Journal of Risk and Financial Management 5.

[8] A. M. James and B. Montgomery, ‘Engaging the fashion consumer in a transparent business model’ (2017) 10(3) International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education 296.

[9] Ashly Riches, ‘The Fashion Industry Is Not As "Green" As It Would Like You To Believe’ (2022) 33(1) Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum 88.

[10] Brooke Roberts-Islam, ‘The State of Fashion Report—Sustainability Is No Longer Top Priority’, Forbes (Editor’s Pick, 8 January 2021), https://www.forbes.com/sites/brookerobertsislam/2021/01/08/the-state-of-fashion-report—sustainability-is-no-longer-top-priority/?sh= 2c0d88d07ef6 [https://perma.cc/XS8N-L9W7].

[11] Kasey A. West, ‘Goodbye to Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry: Greater Enforcement and Guidelines’ (2023) 101(3) North Carolina Law Review 850.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Riches (n 9) 94.

[14] Bernard (n 6) 557.

[15] Australian Fashion Council, Seamless: Scheme Design Summary Report (Report, 2023) 13 (‘Seamless’).

[16] ‘National Product Stewardship Investment Fund’, Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (18 May 2023) <https://www.dcceew.gov.au/environment/protection/waste/product-stewardship/national-product-stewardship-investment-fund>; Seamless (n 15) 10.

[17] Seamless (n 15) 16.

[18] Jake Evans, ‘Plibersek warns clothing industry must turn back on 'fast fashion', as she considers intervention’, ABC News (21 February 2024) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-02-21/plibersek-warns-fast-fashion-considering-clothes-levy/103492154>.

[19] Fashion Evolution (n 5) 22.

[20] Seamless (n 15) 24.

[22] Ibid.

[23] ‘EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles’, European Commission (5 July 2023)

[24] Bernard (n 6) 564; Riches (n 9) 99.

[25] Riches (n 9) 99-102.

[26] Ibid 102.

[27] The Treasury, Climate-related financial disclosure (Consultation Paper, December 2022) 16.

[28] Ibid 8-9.


 

Elli Murphy is a penultimate year Law (Honours) / Arts student and a member of the Monash Law Student Society’s  Social Justice and Equity Publications Subcommittee.


She is keenly interested in popular culture, sustainable and ethical fashion, and the media industry, and enjoys analysing the impact of law and policy on these spheres.

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