We usually think of clothes as something personal. After all, as the closest thing to our skin, clothes tie intimately with our identities, ambitions, and mental health. We also like to think of our clothes as a matter of personal choices, creativity, and stories.
Clothes are all of that. Yet, at the same time, they are more than that.
Whether we realise it or not, the clothes on our bodies are also political. They are a result of global powers, economy, and exchange. They also influence and shift those same powers. This is why, when we speak about sustainable fashion, we are always talking about multidimensional change. Today, we want to open the conversation about one of the dimensions: policymaking.
This article is the first in the two-part series, where we will discuss the meaning of policymaking and attempt to understand the current EU-level laws. In part two, we will dive deeper into the new promising regulations that we are hoping to see taking place soon.
Sit comfortably, it’s time for some policy talk!
The role of policy making in fashion
A lot of responsibility in the fashion industry is put on the businesses and consumers. And for a good reason. Changing the way businesses work and the way we buy and consume clothes is crucial. Yet, for a very long time, governments have been turning a blind eye to fashion. Unlike other industries, such as food, technology, transport, housing, and so on, fashion is largely unregulated.
Why is this an issue?
As mentioned in the introduction, fashion is a multidimensional affair, and a change requires different actors and sides to move. Put in practical terms, fashion also has an impact on other domains of our lives. It impacts our health, economy, and communities. All the things that we usually hold the governments responsible for, at least to some extent.
"For a very long time, governments have been turning a blind eye to fashion."
Moreover, the government’s decisions, even when not directed towards fashion, impact the way we (as citizens) treat and handle clothes. For example, in most countries in the world, it is very hard to repair, reuse or recycle clothes and textiles. There’s no infrastructure and no laws regarding fashion’s waste. The same goes for what businesses can do. The fact that businesses are able to outsource their production without any legal obligations towards what is happening in the factories they work with is a result of economic policies.
In other words, policies (or the lack of them) have an impact on the fashion industry. That is also the core reason why expecting the citizens to simply behave “more sustainably” nor relying on self-regulating initiatives from businesses is not enough. Policies can have a profound and lasting impact too.
Why should we care about what the EU does?
Fashion is truly a global business and the policies in one country can influence businesses and laws in other places too. Yet, regardless of where you live, there are some good reasons why the European Union’s regulations matter.
Let’s break that down.
The Textile, Garment, Leather, and Footwear sector (TGLF), as the EU classifies it, accounts for only a small portion of the Union’s economy. According to their own estimation, this sector makes about 3% of the total EU manufacturing (by value). Interestingly, the majority of fashion businesses in the EU are small enterprises with less than 50 employees. So, it may not seem obvious at first why the regulations on the EU level have a big global potential.
That is until we realise that some of the biggest fashion retailers in the world have their headquarters within Europe. Big brands like Inditex (Spain), H&M (Sweden), Adidas (Germany), C&A (Belgium) as well as LVMH, Dior, Chanel, Hermès, and other luxury fashion (France) are some of the leaders in the industry. A change in those companies would drive a change in the whole industry.
But it goes beyond just the possibility of regulating a big business. The EU is also a big buyer of fashion and has strong economic power. Europeans consume on average 26kg and waste about 11kg of textiles per person per year. This alone makes the EU a crucial piece of the puzzle towards the future of fashion we want. Additionally, with laws like GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the EU has shown how it’s possible to regulate businesses and practices globally.
The best part is that there are already some great initiatives happening within the EU.
The state of the EU fashion policy
Nowadays, many companies (including the giants mentioned above) disclose their corporate social responsibility reports and even their sustainability strategies. However, these are completely voluntary and, thus, left for the companies to decide what and how they measure and reveal. Two examples of such voluntary commitments are the Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garments and Textile and the German Partnership for Sustainable Textiles. These are great and important steps but experts are increasingly calling for better and EU-wide laws. These would be mandatory for everyone in the industry.
Luckily, some individual countries have been making some progress in that sense.
Perhaps the biggest example is the French ‘Duty of Vigilance’ law from 2017. This law requires all French companies that have more than 5 000 employees domestically, or employ 10 000+ employees worldwide to address environmental, health and safety, and human rights. That goes both for within their own organisation, as well as their suppliers and subcontractors. Of course, this isn’t a fashion-specific rule but it has a big impact on the industry too. Plus, France is the first country in the world to take legislative steps towards reducing microfiber pollution. As of January 2025, all new washing machines in France will need to have a microfiber filter built in.
Though officially not in the EU anymore, the UK Modern Slavery Act (2015) was an early and big step towards greater transparency in the supply chain. Similarly, the Child Labour Due Diligence law in the Netherlands (2019) requires companies to submit a statement on the child labour-related risks throughout their supply chain. In cases where there’s a risk of child labour, the company has to develop an action plan to avoid it.
Such existing regulations, along with other sustainability initiatives are a basis for the new EU Strategy for Sustainable Fashion. Early this year, the European Commission published a roadmap, aiming to adopt the Strategy by the end of the year. The strategy would propose new and improved legal steps towards making the industry circular, as well as invest in waste reduction and textile recycling.
Want to know what this means and what it could imply for you as a consumer and a part of the fashion industry? We will explain this in the next blog post, stay tuned!
Text is written by Tena from Thinking Threads.