As of Thursday, February 2, 2023
2022 saw an unprecedented level of policymaking that affected, and often targeted, the apparel and footwear industry. 2023 is shaping up to be an even busier year.
State legislatures are in full swing. Proposals to restrict chemical usage, mandate supply-chain due diligence and establish extended producer-responsibility schemes for packaging are among the items already introduced or eagerly anticipated. Despite a divided Congress, movement on items that would target manufacturing in China (e.g., the carbon border adjustment tax) could see bipartisan support. Plus, the European Union is moving at a clip with its own new regulations on circular economy, due diligence, deforestation and more.
The interest from policymakers is welcome.
The apparel and footwear industry has numerous voluntary standards and programs built by brands and stakeholders; however, these cannot wholly address areas where actual governance has been lacking. The need for policy and alignment that truly move the needle on key social and sustainability challenges is greater than ever.
While the industry is committed to working pre-competitively to achieve the highest ethical and responsible standards across global supply chains and production practices, companies alone cannot, for example, ensure the world will meet the targets set in the Paris Agreement or alter the geopolitical factors that enable forced labor.
Clearly we need new policies. The caveat is that new policies need to work. The volume of policies enacted, and the scope of its ambition, is not, in itself, a measure of progress.
The truth is, we already see unintended consequences of well-meaning (if not necessarily well-crafted) proposals. Legislation meant to protect garment workers in California and address longstanding issues with labor compliance in the Los Angeles Fashion District has, in the single year it has been in effect, led to an exodus of apparel manufacturing jobs. Workers who thought they were going to be better compensated now find themselves unemployed.
In another case, Maine has been forced to grant extensions to more than 1,900 companies related to reporting the concentration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of chemicals used to provide water and stain resistance. State regulators were not prepared nor resourced for this charge. Thus, they were unable to produce final implementing regulations by the beginning of 2023. Now, concerned consumers and environmental advocates are angry about the delay; meanwhile, companies are deeply frustrated that they have spent significant resources trying to prepare for reporting instead of focusing on adopting PFAS alternatives. The industry’s most inventive leaders—ready and eager to make changes—still do not know what is going to be expected of them and whether or not those expectations will be possible to meet. Meanwhile, Maine is not any better informed than it was about PFAS pollution in the state.
When poorly designed, policies are set up to fail. Worse, they divert resources away from successful or promising initiatives and instead create barriers to real progress on environmental and social issues affecting the industry.
Fingers are pointed and blame is assigned. Every party becomes more defensive and less willing to collaborate. Companies feel regulators make no attempt to understand how they actually work. Activists conclude they need to push harder and for an ever-increasing number of requirements. Consumers are left in the dark, struggling to understand whether products are safe, sustainable or responsibly made. Actual progress remains elusive while frightening news about the scope and frequency of global crises intensifies.
Policymaking isn’t easy. Instead, it is easy to get bogged down in the details of a proposal and forget to step back and ask, “Will this work?” We need effective policymaking, and the stakes are too high to allow for poorly designed policies to inadvertently push the industry backward.
To support the creation of smart, effective policies, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, along with the Accessories Council, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Responsible Business Coalition have developed the THREADS Sustainability and Social Responsibility Protocol,which identifies core tenets that will enable policymakers to develop practical, workable and effective regulatory proposals. The protocol’s core tenets call for policy that is:
• Transparently Developed and Enforced
• Harmonized Across Jurisdictions and Industries
• Realistic in Terms of Timelines
• Designed for Success
The protocol has been developed on behalf of thousands of brands and organizations. It is our goal that every stakeholder will recognize that policy crafted with these principles in mind has the highest likelihood of meaningfully and successfully addressing concerns regarding worker rights, environmental sustainability, chemical management and human-rights matters in global supply chains.
Quilting a mismatched patchwork of regulations will not stitch together the progress we need to see. As we evaluate future policy proposals, we will use these principles as a framework to assess their merits. And we look forward to working with policymakers to create effective policies that are consistent with the THREADS protocol.
As AAFA’s Director of Sustainability, Chelsea Murtha serves as the association’s advocate and spokesperson on matters of sustainability and product safety. She engages with Congress, the Executive Branch, independent agencies, as well as state and local legislatures and agencies and foreign governments on sustainability, product-safety and chemical-management issues important to the industry. Murtha is also the staff liaison to AAFA’s Environmental Committee and Product Safety Council. Follow on LinkedIn. Find more about this project and others at www.aafaglobal.org and at #THREADSProtocol, #SmartSustainability on social media.