State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Meet the Woman Pioneering Sustainable Change in Fashion

For years, Maxine BĂ©dat, the executive director of the New Standard Institute, has been leading the charge to revolutionize the fashion industry, aiming to establish sustainable and ethical practices as the norm.

A key force and co-developer behind the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (S7428A), Bédat helped introduced this bill into the New York legislature in January 2022. Referred to as the New York “Fashion Act,” the legislation would require apparel and footwear companies to not only disclose their environmental and social impacts, but also set and meet science-based targets on carbon emissions, perform human rights due diligence in their supply chain and correct water pollution issues stemming from harmful chemicals and dyes.

Headshot of a woman in front of white backdrop
Courtesy of Maxine BĂ©dat

Currently, the majority (69%) of all clothing is crafted from synthetic fibers, notably polyester, which originates from crude oil. Collectively, the fashion industry churns out a staggering 100 billion garments annually, contributing to 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions—equivalent to the combined emissions of France, Germany and the U.K., per EarthDay.org. At this pace, projections indicate that the fashion industry’s carbon footprint could surge to 26% of all emissions by 2050. In alignment with this year’s Earth Day theme, “Planet vs Plastics,” legislative efforts aim to enhance transparency regarding synthetic material usage and mitigate these statistics before there is irreversible damage to the environment.

For Bédat, the New York Fashion Act represents a culmination of her expansive career researching the fashion industry. While her professional journey began in law, she narrowed her focus to apparel when she founded the Bootstrap Project, a nonprofit dedicated to helping artisans in developing countries. As her interests in supply chains and textile production evolved, Bédat transformed the project into a for-profit venture, Zady, with a mission to educate consumers about the garments they purchase. She also wrote the acclaimed book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, which follows an American wardrobe staple—blue jeans—through the entire supply chain.

The Fashion Act has been gaining momentum, with over 80 legislators supporting it, but as the legislation is in its third session at the New York State legislature, Bédat’s work isn’t done. After three years of effort, Bédat is still actively lobbying and rallying behind the legislation to garner greater awareness among citizens.

When I called BĂ©dat at her office, I could hear members of the New Standard Institute buzzing like bees in the background, a reminder of the power of collective action. Below is a condensed version of our conversation.

Can you tell me about your past research and engagement with stakeholders throughout the fashion supply chain? How did this lead you to co-develop legislation?

My understanding of the issues stemmed from the research I conducted for my book. I traveled extensively across the supply chain and it became increasingly evident that voluntary sustainability initiatives alone wouldn’t be sufficient to overcome market forces.

It also became clear that legislation was the only viable solution—and not just for the fashion industry; it was a broader societal reminder of the purpose of laws—to establish regulatory frameworks that guide market behaviors. The fashion industry stood out glaringly as a sector lacking these fundamental regulatory safeguards. We found ourselves trapped in a relentless race to the bottom.

What pieces of legislation helped inspire and shape the NY Fashion Act?

We looked at California in a few ways. The California Transparency Act, which sparked interest for Alessandra Biaggi (former Democratic senator for New York State in her home district of Bronx/Westchester), for instance, requires companies selling in California to disclose their modern-day slavery policies, but it hasn’t shown much impact due to limited enforcement by the attorney general. It’s more about disclosure than driving real change.

However, California inspired us in another way, particularly with its fuel efficiency standards legislation, which laid the groundwork for companies like Tesla and the broader electric vehicle revolution. This demonstrated the potential of state-level legislation in driving global change, given the significant market size of states like California and New York.

As one of the largest economies in the world, and a global fashion capital, New York has the opportunity to hold fashion companies that sell in our market accountable to the planet and its people, and help drive global change to the industry.

Our aim was to ensure that New York didn’t chart its own course by establishing separate standards that would only increase reporting requirements without fostering real action. With the Fashion Act, it was crucial for us to increase accountability while aligning with the broader efforts in the U.S., where feasible.

Because the legislation has global implications, we reached out to various stakeholders worldwide, including cotton farmers, labor groups, manufacturers associations and brands.

We’ve also built a strong coalition that includes ambassadors and celebrities [Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and more] who are actively engaging with citizens on this topic.

piles of clothing in a warehouse ready for disposal
Fast fashion results in tons of textile waste. Photo: MPCA

Are there any provisions you think will prompt changes to purchasing behaviors?

There are environmental requirements in place, such as the mandate for companies to set and achieve science-based targets, aiming to reduce emissions within planetary boundaries. However, a single-use fashion company, for instance, will struggle to meet these targets with its current business model.

It’s often argued that consumers aren’t driving change. But how much marketing is promoting a disposable shopping culture? It’s an unfair battle. In fact, a significant portion of Meta’s growth in the last quarter came from platforms like Shein and Zara alone. These companies heavily influence consumer behavior, making it unrealistic to expect individuals to resist a system bombarding them with messages to consume disposable products.

Are there socioeconomic implications to these changes in business models?

The messaging [about keeping prices low] is often used by the industry to push back against anyone advocating for change. However, when you delve deeper into the issue, you realize that these garments are of such low quality that they can’t be worn more than once. This raises questions of equity. Why are companies selling products that don’t last?

There’s also a problem with how sustainability is perceived and regulated. It’s often used merely as a selling point to justify higher prices. I understand that sustainable brands tend to have higher price points, but implementing sustainable practices shouldn’t automatically translate to exorbitant costs. It’s about finding a reasonable middle ground where quality garments are accessible to everyone.

In your opinion, what responsibilities do citizens have in holding brands accountable?

Through my work, I’ve seen the impact of a simple email from a citizen to a legislator or of participating in advocacy activities like rallies or advocacy days.

Legislators are often inundated with information from vested interests, so it’s crucial that they also hear from citizens. We need to realize that while it’s our responsibility to act, we also have the power to drive change. This understanding wasn’t ingrained in me while growing up, but it’s something I’ve come to appreciate through this work.

All stakeholders, including garment workers, labor unions, environmental organizations, brands and manufacturers, must understand each other’s perspectives. We need to grasp their world and their concerns. While we may not always see eye-to-eye or agree on everything, it’s imperative that we acknowledge and respect each other’s viewpoints.

What are your hopes and expectations for the intersection of legislation, brand accountability and consumer behavior in the next decade?

I really hope we can reach a point where we have sensible regulations in place, where consumers don’t need to become experts just to make a purchase decision. We need common-sense rules that allow the industry to thrive while staying within planetary boundaries and respecting labor rights. It might seem like an ambitious goal, but it’s definitely achievable if we work toward it together.

Mary Austin Harrelson is an M.S. candidate in Sustainability Management at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies.

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