A Look at the Movements Making the Fashion Industry Cleaner, Kinder, and Safer

Fashion has gotten a bad rap lately — disastrous environmental impacts and unfair labor practices abound. But change is on the way.



When we talk about the future of fashion, design and new technologies are often the first things that come to mind. It makes sense, of course, because beautiful clothing that makes us feel something is what capital "F" fashion is all about. And while that's all part of it, there is more to the story. Fashion is an ecosystem made up of millions of people around the world. From the farm to the factory, the warehouses and the runways, so many individuals are part of what we see in our closets. 

For years, they have been overlooked in favor of profits for corporations. What's worse is that fashion doesn't have oversight of laws protecting its workers from the unique challenges in the business. That’s why I spent the last year speaking to workers and advocates for my book Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins. In my reporting, several women detailed stories of abuse and harassment at the hands of management, working in unsafe conditions, and being paid extremely low wages while making clothing for brands that reported profits in the billions. One woman, in particular, shared that she would go days without ever seeing the sun, and still her pay wasn’t enough to feed her family. Her manager threatened and harassed her regularly, and she couldn’t do anything to stop it for fear of retribution. 

These abuses are not abnormal, many people explained to me. They are pervasive throughout fashion and have been ignored for too long.

Recently, though, there has been a shift. Labor unions, advocacy groups, policymakers, and grassroots organizers are gaining ground in all parts of the fashion industry and seeking real change. The Model Alliance, for example, aims to change how companies are allowed to work with models and creatives in part to address how contractors (which includes models) have been taken advantage of through dishonest management tactics. A recent piece of legislation moving this work forward is The Fashion Workers Act, a New York State bill written by Brad Holyman.

Some of the proposed policy changes would consist of seemingly simple things, like requiring contracts be approved by models and creatives and whose consent is given before renewing any contracts or partnerships with a client. It would also forbid the management company or client from engaging in discrimination or harassment based on race or ethnicity, in line with ​​Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Models working as contractors has made it easier for agencies and clients to skirt already existing employment laws. If passed, this bill would give them a way to report these violations.

Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff spoke on the need for change during a Fashion Week press conference. “New York derives huge benefit off the backs of young women and girls who are essentially indentured, working off a debt they can never repay to predatory management agencies,” she said.  

“It's time to take bold action on the Federal level to change the fabric of the American garment manufacturing industry.” — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

On the garment worker side, laws like California's SB62 have been the start of sweeping change for the people who actually make our clothing in the United States. Before the law's passing in September 2021, workers had no recourse when their employers paid them what is known as a piece-rate. This meant that workers were paid an extremely small amount per item they made (rather than an hourly rate), which resulted in wages of around $200 per week – well below the legal minimum wage. Now, because of organization efforts led by workers and advocates at The Garment Worker Center and organizations like Remake, violations can be reported and dealt with by the state government. 

On the Federal level, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced The FABRIC Act in May 2022, which extends the anti-wage theft law of SB62 nationwide, and also offers grant programs and tax incentives for brands seeking to produce in the U.S.

"From the fashion industry to the halls of Congress, support for the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act is only growing stronger. The FABRIC Act has over 150 endorsers from around the country including states like Texas, North Carolina, Michigan, and Tennessee in addition to our partners in California and New York," the Senator told InStyle in a statement via email.

"As we continue our education efforts on this issue, people understand more and more that it's time to take bold action on the Federal level to change the fabric of the American garment manufacturing industry, and since the bill's introduction earlier this year, several of my congressional colleagues have come on board to support this bill and the investments it makes in our domestic manufacturing economy." 

While policy may not be the most glamorous part of fashion, it can make our clothing meaningful. Fashion has the ability to tell stories and change the way we feel. No one should suffer for that, though. It's because of the work of grassroots organizers and advocates that, in the future, they may not have to. 

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