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It’s Not Easy (or cheap) Being Green: Why Legal Remedies to Pollution Are Not Enough 

At present, being green is “on trend.” Green smoothies and recycled materials, among other things, are on the rise. Even kale is hip (do not ask me, I do not get it either). Ironically, however, what is not fashionable at present is green fashion-also known as eco-fashion or sustainable fashion. The advent of “fast fashion” and the ability to outsource production have made it easy to access clothing at all time low prices. In 1960, about 95% of the clothing purchased by the average American was made in the U.S. Today, America makes around 2% worn by its citizens.[1] You can imagine why—in the 70s chains like J.C Penney and Gap Inc. began designing their clothes in the U.S and making them abroad to cut costs. A cluster of trade liberalization policies in the 90s—most famously NAFTA-essentially removed import restrictions and duties on foreign-made clothing. There was no reason to keep the manufacture of apparel in America when confronted with dirt-cheap alternatives. Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion, estimates that what clothing manufacturing employees do remain in the United States make roughly 38 times the wage of their counterparts in Bangladesh, where a significant portion of American clothing is made.[2]


In 2013, the Danish Fashion Institute conducted a study that found that the fashion is only second to petroleum in terms of industry generated pollution. World fabric production is now at 82 million tons, which requires 145 million tons of coal and approximately between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water to produce. Here’s a slightly less daunting but still staggering statistic: an average cotton shirt takes about 700 gallons to make—enough to sustain a person for 900 days.[3]


These clothes are made at low cost for H&M, Forever 21, Old Navy, and other retailers. But low cost to whom? Approximately 8,000 synthetic chemicals are needed to make raw materials into textiles. Many of these chemicals will be released into freshwater sources, and for every ton of chemicals produced, 200 tons of water are polluted.[4] The environment is paying the price, as are the severely mistreated and underpaid laborers overseas who make these clothes. The U.S. National Labor Committee provides statistics showing that some Chinese workers make as little as 12–18 cents per hour working in poor conditions, many of whom are forced laborers or the victims of human trafficking.[5]


In part, the ravenous global consumer culture is to blame. The clamor for cheap goods is louder than the call for sustainable manufacturing methods. Consumer disregard for the issues caused by their demand created a disregard for laws surrounding these concerns. In his book Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes,Michael Lavergne names unsustainable clothing pricing as to why many factories are not compliant with the laws surrounding health, safety, labor, environmental and human rights issues. In order to be competitive, offshore factories cut corners on infrastructure costs.[6]


The problem is not that the laws do not exist, it is that it is not economically or politically feasible to enforce them. In India, for example, environmental legislation is very strict but rarely followed, though India is the first country to integrate the protection and improvement of the environment into its constitution.[7] In Bangladesh, the government faces a similar issue. The government is responsible for shutting down factories that fail inspections, violate safety, health, labor standards, and so on. The corrupt political system ensures that local authorities choose to continue unsafe practices rather than lose income in poverty stricken regions. The effects are devastating: in 2013, a factory called Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,200 workers and injuring others, despite the fact that the workers informed the local factory of cracks in the foundation of the building months prior.[8]


A Democratic staffer with the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee notes that the fashion industry has created a system that allows companies to easily relocate in order to reduce costs. Factories in this supply chain feel “pressured by this global race to the bottom, and, to remain competitive, far too often compromise basic labor rights by abiding poor health and safety conditions, engaging in wage theft, and in violent repression of unions”.[9]


In 2014, Rep. Carolyn Maloney proposed the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, which would require companies to disclose their measures to eliminate human trafficking in their SEC reports.  This is similar to a recent California law requiring retailers and manufacturers who do business in the state and gross at least $100 million annually to disclose the efforts being made to eradicate human trafficking in their direct supply chains..[10]


Despite bipartisan support, the bill already faces opposition from the fashion industry. Julia Hughes, president of the United States Fashion Industry Association, supports the idea, but argues it will not help. The fashion industry objects to the bill because, while the California law scrutinizes measures being taken at the top-tier of the supply chain, the federal bill demands action every step of the way. Furthermore, such legislation would expand the scope of U.S. law to include the “worst forms of child labor,” an International Labor Organization term the industry finds unclear. Hughes also questions whether the SEC is even equipped to handle human trafficking concerns.[11]


The Clean by Design initiative spearheaded by the National Resources Defense Council has had more success than legislation, because it aims directly at the source of the problem: standard industry practices. The NRDC has collaborated with manufacturers to implement new, less toxic methods in textile mills around the world, reducing one mill’s water use by 36%.[14] In fact, dozens of worldwide alliances and initiatives to create and implement sustainable manufacturing alternatives have had infinitely more success achieving sustainable business practices by working directly within the industry than by attempting to legislate: the National Association of Sustainable Fashion, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Organic Exchange, the Ethical Trading Initiative, and the Organic Trade Association, to name a few. Better Work, for example, is a partnership between the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation that helps garment-industry workers understand their rights and demand better working conditions.


Ultimately, changing the industry from within has had the most success. Legislation attempting to impose outside influence has had limited success, or has limits to what statutes can be enforced, particularly when retailers are so detached from their own manufacturing processes. Consumers can provide the strongest impetus for change, as they may demand higher standards from retailers. Consumer awareness about the life cycle of clothing may be the strongest hope for sustainability in the apparel industry.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] Katz, Stephanie. “Why America Stopped Making Its Own Clothes.” The Lowdown. KQED News, 24 May 2013. Web.


[2] Cline, Elizabeth L. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. Print.


[3] Drennan, Kelly. “How the Fashion Industry Is Picking Up the Threads After Rana Plaza.” Alternatives Journal: Canada’s Environmental Voice. AJ Online, June 2015. Web.


[4] Picardie, Justine. My Mother’s Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes. New York: Bloomsbury Pub., 2006. Print.


[5] BLS. Spotlight on Statistics: Fashion. Tech. U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 2012. Web.


[6] Lavergne, Michael. Fixing Fashion: Rethinking the Way We Make, Market and Buy Our Clothes. New Society, 2015. Print.


[7] Indian Constitution art. 47 § A


[8] Butler, Sarah. “Bangladeshi Factory Deaths Spark Action among High-street Clothing Chains.” The GuardianOnline. The Guardian, 22 June 2013. Web.


[9] Claudio, Luz. “Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry.” Environmental Health Perspectives. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Sept. 2007. Web.


[10] Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015, H.R. 3226, 114th Cong. (2015). Print.


[11] Sneed, Tierney. “Why Cleaning Up the Fashion Industry Is So Messy.” US News. US News and World Report, 16 July 2014. Web.


[12] NRDC. “Clean By Design: Apparel Manufacturing and Pollution.” Clean by Design. National Resource Defense Council, Web.


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