We often talk about the connection between fashion and politics as it relates to the outfits worn by political figures. In January, we saw Vice President Kamala Harris support young Black designers, potentially highlighting her intention to prioritize much-needed diversity and inclusion in the United States. We saw First Lady Jill Biden wear a young designer from New York, perhaps signaling her intent to support small production and up-and-coming creatives. I even wrote a story hoping for a Biden-Harris effect, where we see more ethical and inclusive brands making their way onto our political stages.
But while it's important to pay attention to the message leaders send with their clothing, it'd be even better if someone could hold them accountable to it.
Last week, journalist Elizabeth Segran put out a call for the Biden Administration to tackle the fashion industry's ever-growing environmental and labor problems head-on. In an article for Fast Company, Segran's suggestion was straightforward: Biden should appoint a fashion czar in the United States government.
This person, she said, could work on programs and laws that would slow down waste and overconsumption, reduce carbon emissions, and tackle labor issues like unfair wages and unsafe conditions for garment workers. The reason being that while the fashion industry's issues may be global, the United States is one of the largest consumers of textiles in the world, and therefore is a key player in exacerbating the problems.
The fashion community's reaction to the 'fashion czar' idea was resounding. These issues have been around for decades; perhaps this lack of official oversight is part of the reason they never seem to get addressed in a meaningful way. A fashion czar could do that.
As a result of the feedback, Segran took what started as an article and made it into a letter to the Biden Administration asking for this role to be made official — so far, 23 brands have signed it including, Mara Hoffman, All Birds, Eileen Fisher, Timberland, Everlane and more. "A high level advisor is needed to coordinate the policies and people of the fashion industry. We, the undersigned fashion organizations and advocates, implore you to create a fashion czar position within your Administration," the letter reads.
"I think that the reason that this story took off is that it articulated something that was on people's minds: the fashion industry is causing harm," Segran told InStyle over the phone. "And lots of brands are doing their little bit, but what we really need is larger, coordinated action. The fashion czar, much like the climate or Covid czar, encapsulates the importance of these issues. They are crisis issues."
She's right — they are absolutely crisis issues. Over the course of the pandemic, garment workers across the United States, many of whom were making PPE like hospital gowns and masks, were some of the hardest hit workers. In Los Angeles, there have been reports of women having their wages withheld or working without being provided PPE themselves. One factory was even forced to close in July after 300 workers tested positive for Covid-19.
On top of that, in 2017, the Senate's Joint Economic Committee estimated that Americans accounted for $380 billion of the spending in a $2.5 trillion industry. And in 2018, the EPA estimated that over 17,000 tons of textile waste comes from the United States alone. That number is increasing by the thousands of tons every year, and the waste ends up in landfills and creates greenhouse gases.
"We don't see a lot of progress. We don't see leaps forward," Segran adds. "It's exciting to think about how the government could actually make changes. Wouldn't it be nice to move to how we can really create things like a national recycling program for fashion? Now we can't even think about that while we tackle small issues one at a time."
Segran and other supporters are currently working to get a change.org petition together so that anyone can sign on to the movement.
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