A model walks the runway at the Prada Resort 2019 Fashion Show on May 4, 2018 in New York City.

A model walks the runway at the Prada Resort 2019 Fashion Show on May 4, 2018 in New York City.
Photo: Mike Coppola (Getty Images)

A bill before the New York State Assembly could finally impose some standards on an incredibly polluting but little-regulated industry: fashion. The proposed law, known as the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, would make New York the first state in the U.S. to have any sort of environmental reporting requirements for the fashion industry.

The law would apply to apparel and footwear companies doing business in New York that earn more than $100 million in annual global revenue—a big umbrella that encompasses high fashion brands like Prada and Armani; mall staples like Nike; and fast-fashion companies like Shein and Boohoo. The law itself is essentially an accounting mechanism, designed to force companies to get a handle on their supply chains, all the way from the farms where raw materials originate to shipping an article of clothing to the customer buying.

It’s often all but impossible for customers to figure who supplies raw materials and manufactures garments for major brands. But under the law, companies would have to map out at least 50% of suppliers and producers across the supply chain. Fashion brands would then have to identify at what points on that supply chain they can have the most influence to lower carbon emissions, as well as where they are able to address a host of other points of concern, including worker wages, chemical production, and water use. They will have to create plans to lower carbon emissions and address the other issues identified in their supply chains.

Different types of materials can have vastly different impacts on the environment, depending on production. Companies would also have to disclose the volumes of material types—such as cotton, leather, or polyester—they sell each year. If the law is passed, companies will have a year to map out their supply chains and 18 months to form impact plans. All of this would have to be posted publicly on a given company’s website.

Any companies in violation of the law could face fines equivalent to 2% of their annual profits—a pretty hefty chunk of money. Those fines would be put into a fund to be used for environmental justice projects.

Transparency doesn’t automatically translate to change, but it’s a huge step forward from the environmental and human rights wilderness that fashion is today. The industry is incredibly unregulated, thanks in no small part to how difficult it is to trace the source of something as simple as where the cotton in a t-shirt is grown. Some companies have made a show of touting the ways they’re trying to improve their supply chains, hoping to gain customer trust and brand loyalty. But there are few guardrails that tell customers if a given initiative is actually effective.

Other companies have simply ignored the trend towards more eco-conscious clothing. Shein, an online shopping behemoth that produces incredibly cheap, trendy clothing, only just hired its first environmental and social governance executive a few weeks ago.

The law won’t be put to a vote until the spring, but advocates say they’ve built a strong base of support, including from big environmental nonprofits like the ​​National Resources Defense Council and fashion designers like Stella McCartney. “This diverse and active coalition makes me confident we can pass this legislation in both chambers later this legislative session,” the bill’s co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Anna Kelles, told the New York Times.