In February, three weeks after President Biden's inauguration, fashion began calling for its own "czar" in the newly-elected cabinet. The idea was — and is — an appealing one: Fashion has long been profoundly problematic, with ills that range from environmental degradation to labor trafficking. To date, the industry is responsible for between 8 and 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, depending on who you ask. A fashion czar would help regulate that, at least in theory. But in practice?
"You need action on different levels," says Tori Curbelo, program director and co-founder for advocacy organization Fashion of Tomorrow. "It's great to have someone directly in the administration who has the president's ear. The question is, though, then what? What can that person do? It might be fairly limited. They'd be able to pass executive orders, but you still need folks in Congress and your local governments to actually pass laws."
Curbelo's thought process is this: A fashion czar could advocate for policy change until the end of time — but without corresponding support from both lawmakers and an engaged electorate, could these measures hold weight in any sort of long-term, systemic sense? The answer isn't as clear. Which is why it's time to get democracy, the institution, on board.
Enter Fashion of Tomorrow's #Vote4Fashion campaign, a grassroots initiative that aims to cement fashion policy as a core part of the political agenda on the local, state and eventually, federal level. #Vote4Fashion's approach is twofold: First, the campaign plans to activate its community to demonstrate the demand for policy change that supports a more sustainable industry; then, said community engages legislators by sharing information through educational channels, including via social media.
#Vote4Fashion only just launched on May 25, but it's been in the works since early 2020, stemming from the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election.
"The whole world was focused on politics and a potential new administration, and we wanted to bring the issue of fashion from a broader perspective to the attention of new legislators and those legislators already in place," says Curbelo.
#Vote4Fashion's ethos isn't exactly dissimilar from that of Fashion of Tomorrow's: How can we mobilize citizens to advocate policymakers for their support of a fashion industry that's more transparent, accountable, sustainable and equitable? The difference now is that time is of the essence. While the Biden Administration hasn't gone so far as to appoint a fashion czar quite yet, it has enacted policies that directly affect fashion's future, like tackling the climate crisis and strengthening worker organizing.
To help draft #Vote4Fashion, Fashion of Tomorrow tapped a collective of 14 like-minded organizations and leaders, such as The New Fashion Initiative and NYC Fair Trade Coalition, that advocate for specific agenda items, like promoting the circular economy and requiring fair pay for garment workers.
In the case of the latter, #Vote4Fashion specifically calls out for the support of Garment Worker Center (GWC), a Los Angeles-based worker-rights organization and a member of the campaign's coalition. Since its founding in 2001, GWC has been organizing the tens of thousands of low-wage garment workers in L.A. in the fight for social and economic justice.
Like Fashion of Tomorrow, GWC emphasizes the need for direct policy change, using organizing as a means to develop leaders who can demand enforcement of strong labor laws and accountability from factory owners, manufacturers and fashion brands. As of the last year, the group has made major inroads: In December 2020, California State Senator María Elena Durazo introduced a piece of legislation that would hold garment retailers responsible for labor violations occurring down the supply chain. At press time, the proposed bill, called SB 62 (or the Garment Worker Protection Act) has 140 endorsers, including GWC.
"California and Los Angeles have the largest remaining garment workforce in the country," says Marissa Nuncio, director of GWC. "'Made in the USA' often means 'Made in CA' or 'Made in LA.' Ensuring workers are paid minimum wage and a broader accountability across the supply chain is essential."
Annie Shaw, GWC's outreach coordinator, explains that SB 62 passed the Senate floor "with flying colors." ("We're very proud of that," she says.) Next up is a vote in the California State Assembly, followed by the final stage of the legislative cycle in which Governor Gavin Newsom will be asked to support the bill. Ultimately, GWC believes he will, but Shaw expresses that in politics, nothing's a sure thing unless there's appropriate pressure from the electorate.
"What we really need is for campaigns like #Vote4Fashion and our allies to make sure we're loud and clear about this need for better accountability for workers," she says. "We need U.S. consumers to actually vocalize their opinion and demand better policy."
If SB 62 were to pass state-wide, it wouldn't have the glossy, national capabilities that a fashion czar's executive orders may be able to authorize. But with more than 45,000 garment workers in L.A. alone — many of whom are paid less than half of the minimum wage in the city — SB 62 would establish significant accountability for those brands that profit off low wages and wage theft.
"Even though SB 62 is local law in California, the whole country is watching," Curbelo says. "There are still garment industries in New York and Tennessee that can look to this bill and see it as a positive example."
#Vote4Fashion offers a number of different ways to participate — and thereby support GWC (and the full passage of SB 62) — depending on your level of interest. With the help of Resistbot, concerned citizens can send a pre-drafted letter to their representatives asking for support in "advancing sustainability in the fashion industry, as a critical and urgent policy issue, for both people and the planet." Fashion of Tomorrow will also hold organized lobby days in which constituents are able to meet with their legislators to speak to tangible policies, like SB 62, that the campaign supports.
In all, Curbelo is hopeful that #Vote4Fashion will receive noted recognition from lawmakers, and with enough of a groundswell, will lead to some measures of accountability, too. In October, journalist and author Elizabeth L. Cline wrote about the need for fewer "ethical consumers" who hold themselves responsible for fashion's climate problem and more "consumer advocates" who hold brands, businesses and in the case of #Vote4Fashion, policymakers themselves accountable.
"It's wonderful if people on an individual level want to hold themselves accountable, but it shouldn't just stop there," says Curbelo. "Where are our legislators? Where's the government? The only way we can hold them accountable is to be organized and to bring these issues to their attention. It's really about showing your legislators you care."