By Tania Arrayales and Shannon Cosentino-Roush
In an open letter to President Biden, brands, experts, and organizations came together to urge the President to appoint a Fashion Czar to spearhead much needed policy change in the fashion industry. This appointment would signal to the country and the world that President Biden intends to make this issue a priority.
For a long time when activists spoke out about equity or environmental issues, the fashion industry went unthought of or unmentioned. Now we’ve seen a dramatic shift in consciousness, with core stakeholders and the fashion industry — valued at $2.5 trillion — starting to speak about and coming to terms with its impact on communities, the environment, and the world, something which Covid-19 only has further exposed.
It’s exciting that there’s now an understanding that voluntary efforts won’t be enough, and that we can’t shop our way out of the problem.
But awareness and acceptance are only the first steps, and now the fashion industry has the unenviable task of tackling a laundry list of complex challenges from unfair labor practices and exploitation, to poor worker safety, mounting textile waste, rising emissions, and water pollution, all exacerbated by the plague of fast and ultra-fast fashion. With all these issues facing us, the rallying cry behind the idea of appointing a Fashion Czar makes perfect sense.
The hope is that the position of Fashion Czar, as an expert and insider within the Executive Branch, could help establish priorities and set an actionable agenda for the administration and government agencies. The Czar would also be tasked with building and consulting a roundtable of stakeholders, experts, and thought leaders that includes industry leaders from brands and factories, workers, environmental groups, and consumer advocates.
But regardless of how it’s often viewed, fashion isn’t a singular or siloed industry. It’s intersectional and cross-disciplinary, as are its challenges, and they need to be treated as such. Fashion impacts so many different areas, related to equity and environmental impact, that the conversation can’t be held solely inside the design ateliers and garment factories, but instead must be considered within the context of the broader dialogue on these issues, the various stakeholders they touch, and the associated industries. Addressing the challenges of fashion has to be a group effort, forged by robust leadership that’s not afraid to be associated with, ahem, unfashionable industries and activists, like farmers, unions, and energy researchers.
At Fashion of Tomorrow, we’ve been working to draw attention to the urgent need for sustainable and equitable fashion to be on the political agenda. We were inspired, prior to the 2020 election cycle, to establish and launch the #Vote4Fashion campaign, and for the past six months, we’ve been working to enlist leading organizations and thought leaders to sign on to our political action statement, and to stand together and demand that the Biden team and Congress treat fashion as a political priority. (Visit us here to learn more and get involved).
Since our efforts align so closely, we fundamentally support the idea of appointing a Fashion Czar. It would be a major step in the right direction. But we also are advocating for more — not just a person and a position, but a list of priorities that the Czar should include in their plan if/when they’re appointed.
We would like to see:
Expanded Investment into Research and Data Collection
Detailed research and data are key to better understanding the true extent and scale of fashion’s impact, from its environmental footprint to the workers laboring to make our clothes, plus what is driving these impacts. Currently, independent, accurate and peer-reviewed or published data does not exist. How can we find informed solutions without it? The Czar will need to prioritize and fund independent research and expand public access to this data.
Commitment to Interagency Collaboration
The Fashion Czar will need to commit to robust interagency collaboration. It will be critical to engage the Secretaries of Labor, Health and Human Services, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and Consumer Product Safety Commission to work together to define and implement solutions across all aspects of the fashion industry.
US Leadership to Explore International Agreements
It is not possible for the U.S. to tackle these complex issues alone. The fashion industry is globalized, crossing geographic and jurisdictional boundaries. The Fashion Czar will need to consult with established intergovernmental organizations such as The United Nations and European Union, analyze current international agreements, and invite other nations to be a part of the solution.
Systems that Support Transparency and Traceability
The Fashion Czar will need to explore national systems that could support transparency and traceability, such as requiring products to have clear sustainability and labor reports on their website, or have key data accessible on packaging. This will provide watchdog organizations and journalists more visibility into fashion’s supply chain, encourage improved practices, inform further legislation, and enable consumers to exercise their purchasing power with confidence.
Robust, Cross-disciplinary, and Industry-wide Standards
The Fashion Czar will need to lead the way on building rigorous, cross-disciplinary, and industry-wide standards related to manufacturing, production, labor and waste. This process will need to be consultative and collaborative, engaging the fashion industry as well as additional stakeholders, including environmental, labor, and consumer groups, thought leaders, and informed citizens.
What if Biden Doesn’t Appoint a Fashion Czar?
Even if a Fashion Czar is not appointed, the conversation shouldn’t stop here. From this groundswell of support, we’ve realized that when the fashion industry and its stakeholders come together, there is a unified voice that’s harder to ignore. The momentum that’s been built can be harnessed and transferred into the next political goal, even one that is not exclusive to the fashion industry.
For example, we can advocate for the Farm Bill to increase support for regenerative cotton and leather. We can direct resources to universities and research grants to fund innovative and sustainable fashion research, similar to how Scandinavian countries have funded sustainable textile innovation. We also can support efforts to combat climate change and marine plastic pollution, of which factories’ climate footprints and synthetic fibers are a subset. The list could go on and on, but you get the point.
If we want the US government to start listening to our demands and move fashion onto the political agenda, whether through a Fashion Czar or a more diffuse set of political priorities, we must continue to unify our voice and treat fashion as the climate, sustainability, labor, equity, economic, and international issue that it truly is. Undoubtedly, it will take hard work. And it won’t always be glamorous or Instagrammable.
Are we — including the fashion industry — ready to get our hands dirty? We sure hope so.
Tania Arrayales is a co-founder of Fashion of Tomorrow, an advocacy organization that strives for a fashion industry that is sustainable and free of exploitation, and founder of Sustainably Stylish, an instablog that covers sustainable living and fashion.
Shannon Cosentino-Roush is a board member of Fashion of Tomorrow. She works domestically and internationally at the intersection of sustainability and high-level policy and field-level implementation within government, non-profits, academia, and consulting.