Does France’s anti-fast fashion bill have legs? #848


The proposal leaves experts with more questions than answers.

France’s lower house of parliament advanced a new bill last week aimed at curbing fast fashion’s runaway growth and ruinous climate impact. It’s the latest in a wave of French legislation heeling players in the largely underregulated textile sector, but how it would be executed remains up in the air.

The French proposal would penalise rtextile climate offenders at annually rising increments of up to 10 euros per garment by 2030. In practice, it would make it more costly for these companies, who run on a business model of rock-bottom prices, to operate in France. The bill would also ban fast fashion companies from advertising in the country, and would require affected apparel companies to place information on a product’s reuse, repair, recycling and environmental impact near the listed price on their websites and apps. Last month, French politician Antoine Vermorel-Marques posted a TikTok promoting the bill, in the style of an “unboxing” video using Shein packaging, to raise awareness about the chemicals associated with fast fashion production.

The proposal joins French bills that also aim to tackle textile waste head on coming out of France, including the longstanding extended producer responsibility law, the AGEC Law promoting a circular economy and waste mitigation, along with the corporate sustainability due diligence directive, better known as the CSDDD, which is awaiting a final vote by the European Commission. Bills attempting to clean up fashion are also springing up in the US, where the California Garment Worker Protection Act became law in 2022 and the New York Fashion Act and the Fabric Act are trying to win lawmaker approval.

Some industry watchers say the fast fashion bill represents the government’s attempt to circle the wagons around a national fashion sector buffeted by the new and nimble ultra-fast clothing giants coming out of China, which have muscled in on European fast-fashion incumbents such as Sweden’s H&M and Zara, the global powerhouse owned by Spanish giant Inditex.

It presents a useful vehicle to fulfil France’s goal of shielding its storied domestic market against the rise of fast-fashion giants, including high-growth challengers like Shein, says Neil Saunders managing director, retail for GlobalData. The Singapore-headquartered juggernaut pumps out 7,200 new items daily, according to the bill.

“I wish I could say these anti-fast fashion policies were motivated by an interest in protecting the environment and in shielding young people from aggressive marketing, but they’re mostly a reflection of conservative, anti-China, and protectionist posturing,” says Elizabeth Cline, professor of fashion policy and consumerism and sustainability at Columbia University.

A murky definition of ‘fast fashion’

As it’s currently written, the fast fashion bill leaves some critics with more questions than answers.

Greg Tulquois, a partner with DLA Piper who advises consumer goods clients on marketing and advertising issues, says exactly which tier or tiers of clothing sellers would be affected by the proposed law remains unclear for now. He explains that the bill describes fast fashion in terms that leave the loosely worded definition open to interpretation. A fast-fashion business, according to the measure’s language, distributes or makes available for sale a high volume of garments, a threshold that the French government will decree when the bill clears the remaining parliamentary hurdles, says Tulquois. This threshold will factor in the number of new clothing items a business launches daily or the number of different styles and the brief period when they’re offered for sale.

Depending on the threshold that’s used, the bill could apply only to ultra-fast fashion disruptors like Shein and Temu, or also cover more traditional fast fashion companies, which could rope in Zara and H&M, says Tulquois. “Certain non-governmental environmental organisations have already stated that they will push to have the new law apply to [the] fast and ultra-fast fashion category,” he adds.

The bill’s murky definition of fast fashion offers little clarity around who is responsible for tracking a clothing company’s sales to gauge if it falls under this category, says Dr. Sheng Lu, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.

Because fashion retailers frequently adjust their prices, sometimes several times a week, and slash tickets during the holidays to generate sales, these fluctuations further muddy the prospect of using price to qualify fast fashion, says Lu. He sees a “huge challenge” with defining the scope of products subject to the extra penalties and collecting these charges.

David Hachfeld, a textiles expert with Swiss environmental and social watchdog Public Eye, says that taking a high number of new styles in a timeframe as a proxy for fast fashion will be difficult in practice. “It’s a too-simplistic perspective on the phenomenon [of ] fast fashion,” he says.

Is it legal?

The proposal could put France in legal hot water, says Lu, particularly if the government is interested in prioritising the national industry at the expense of all others.

One of the bill’s most surprising inclusions, says DLA Piper’s Tulquois, is its ban on advertising fast-fashion products, which he calls extreme. He says lawmakers could instead have prohibited certain ad content or messages that seek to stimulate behaviours that have a negative environmental impact, such as encouraging consumers to frequently purchase textile products.

Saunders says shutting off promotional channels would be devastating to companies like Shein and Temu, which heavily rely on digital marketing to drive online shoppers to their apps and sites.

Next steps

Whether the measure truly has any teeth remains to be seen. “France can enact whatever legislation it likes, but the fashion world is global and interconnected,” says Saunders. “Presumably French consumers could bypass the law by ordering their fast fashion from another EU country and having it shipped to them in France. While traditional sales tax would apply, it is debatable as to how France would apply additional levies on things sent from other EU countries.”

Cline believes the bill could backfire, creating more problems than solutions. “The danger of creating policies aimed at one corner of the fashion industry is it will create piecemeal solutions with negative side effects,” she says. “Companies will simply find workarounds. We need policies that address the environmental and human rights impacts across the entire apparel industry and that hold all companies regardless of where they’re headquartered to the same standards.”

Tulquois says fashion should prepare for the possibility that the European bloc could follow France’s lead. “French environmental laws adopted over the course of the past four years have inspired the EU to adopt similar laws as part of the EU Green Deal,” he says. “This approach vis-à-vis fast fashion risks being ‘exported’ to other EU Member States for harmonisation purposes.”

France will elect new members to the European Parliament this summer, suggesting that policymakers are keen to stand out during a politically charged year, says Lisa Lang, director of policy and EU Affairs Orchestrator for Climate-KIC Holding B.V.. This could explain why they’re targeting a top global polluter that “is not organized enough to lobby,” she says. If the proposed law supports local brands who are truly aiming to operate sustainably by reducing overproduction and producing closer to market, “this could be a good first step to demonstrate that ‘sustainability means good business’,” says Lang.

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