Is Your Government Doing Enough?


A major piece of the puzzle that has to happen in order for sustainable living to become mainstream is consumer awareness. And blogs like this are doing a fantastic job at raising our level of awareness and knowledge to make smarter purchasing and behavioral choices. However, another important component to this going mainstream, is government involvement – whether that be guidelines, legislation or the willingness to collaborate with corporations and non-profits.

When the government steps in and creates guidelines and standards for an industry – ones that are built with the help of the corporations who are leaders in that very industry – then that is where real change begins to happen. And it is important that we as consumers recognize this.

At the Ethical Sourcing Forum in NYC this past spring, I had the opportunity to witness such collaborative discussions taking place between government, corporations and NGOs. It was exciting to be a part of those conversations and to recognize that this really is the future of business. We can all learn a great deal from each other.

But when it comes to government involvement, there are only a few countries leading the way. The United Kingdom is by far the global leader in this regard. (A little side fact: according to Harold Tillman, Chair of the British Fashion Council, the U.K. fashion industry is the country’s second largest employer).

Most of us are familiar with the success stories of household U.K. brands Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Marks & Spencer. Lesser known however, is the U.K. government’s commitment to sustainable fashion, and to the creation of guidelines and standards that the rest of the world can learn from.

One example is the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that produced the Green Claims in 2003. Widely used by U.K. apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers, it was created to help businesses make clear and accurate environmental claims, so as to not confuse or misinform consumers.

But more impressive is DEFRA’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, last updated in February 2010. The Plan is a collaborative effort between several organizations such as The British Fashion Council, MADE-BY, Oxfam, Ethical Fashion Forum, WRAP and Forum for the Future, just to name a few. Together this group identified five key areas for improvement within sustainable fashion that address consumer trends and behavior, media and education, market drivers and traceability along the supply chain.

And it doesn’t end there…

In case you are wondering, no I’m not English. But I am a huge fan of what they are doing. They seem to have it all figured out. Or at least more figured out than most.

The U.K. was also the first country to offer a Masters in Sustainable Fashion through the London College of Fashion. Many important industry events come out of the UK such as Fashion Fusion Expo, Esthetica and the RE: Fashion Awards to name a few. And most recently, the British Fashion Council is spearheading a campaign that will create tax incentives for fashion businesses to work in a more sustainable way, and striving to make eco fashion more affordable and accessible to consumers.

Other countries are much slower to adapt policies and standards, and some might even say that despite years of lobbying, their efforts fall on deaf ears. Canadian Jon Cloud of The Organic Cotton Company, has dedicated his life to organic production. He is fed up that the government refuses to deal with organic standards and that certification organizations, whose standards he feels are weak, are picking up the ball and running with it.

Cloud belonged to the now defunct organic cotton activist group COATS (Canadian Organic Apparel & Textile Standards) who together formed a set of organic standards a few years ago, which were then presented to the federal government. “More than 125,000 people have lost their job in the last five to six years in textiles” states Cloud. “Everything has moved offshore and we really need to pay attention to this. We need standards in Canada that lend integrity to the product in order to make it viable for regional trade”.

Despite Canada’s reluctance to take action on the organic standard, they, along with the U.S. and Japan have chosen to address the labeling of clothing that is being marketed as sustainable.

Canada’s Competition Bureau first announced its legislation of the mislabeling of rayon as bamboo in March 2009, and then later enforced it in August. Considering the large number of bamboo textile suppliers and retailers in Canada, the government worked in partnership with the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Apparel Federation to facilitate the compliance process.

On the heels of Canada’s legislation, the United States stepped up enforcement when the Federal Trade Commission laid charges on four bamboo clothing businesses in 2009 who were making false marketing claims that their product was environmentally friendly. And earlier this year the FTC sent warning letters to Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart on the same topic.

Over to Asia, the Japanese government has recently issued a series of guidelines for the labeling of organic cotton products, out of a response to the growing concern over inconsistencies that lead to misunderstandings and confusion over the production, distribution and consumption of organic cotton products. Labels must now comply with the Household Goods Quality Labeling Act and should indicate the percentage of organic cotton content of the product as a whole if the product is labeled as organic cotton.

As consumers, we rely on our government to help us distinguish right from wrong. The good from the bad. And now more than ever, we lack trust in corporations. We are increasingly becoming skeptical of loosely backed environmental claims. And while many fashion businesses are not being held accountable for their actions, or how they market their product to us, through continued awareness, government standards, and collaboration, this will change. And we can look to the U.K. as a benchmark for this change.

Image: UK in Italy