France has laid down the law on sustainability: What does it mean for fashion? #653


Brands selling into France are getting a taste of changes to come, as a new wave of sustainability legislation calls for greater transparency and traceability. Experts say the industry isn’t ready.

The fashion industry is moving from self-regulation and non-legally binding pacts to meaningful sustainability legislation, as evidenced by activity in France that’s pushing the agenda forward more so than other countries. The French government’s proactive stance is a sign of things to come in Europe and beyond, says Lisa Lang, director of policy and EU affairs orchestrator at innovation catalyst Climate-KIC, co-funded by the European Union.

Several new pieces of legislation (and additional clauses from older laws) have come into play in the last couple of months, nudging brands towards early compliance with broader EU proposals down the line. This includes greater supply chain traceability, more transparent product labelling to curb greenwashing, and updates to the extended producer responsibility (EPR), aimed at cutting pre- and post-consumer waste.

France is not alone in seeking stricter sustainable fashion legislation — the US has been pushing for progress, too, through California’s Senate Bill 62, the proposed Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change Act (known as the Fabric Act) and the New York Fashion Act. What sets France apart is the speed of change and the focus on waste. It is also applying EU laws earlier than neighbouring countries, laying a blueprint others may follow.

“The French laws are ambitious but realistic,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs. “We are a global business, so we will apply the strictest regulations across the board anyway, but it would be nice to have this minimum standard expanded to other countries.”

France’s focus on fashion is unsurprising, says Climate-KIC’s Lang. Deadlines are fast approaching for the EU’s sweeping climate targets — namely, the Green Deal and Fit For 55 — but action to date has been slow and limited. Against this backdrop — and with European Parliament elections coming up in 2024 — the European government (the Commission, Parliament and council) has started to push for minimal-effort, maximum-impact actions in the most polluting industries. “Construction has the top carbon footprint, followed by transport and fashion,” she explains. “Given that France has a high concentration of fashion brands, it’s the right way to move. In the electronic industry, one per cent of waste is considered overproduction. In the fashion industry, overproduction sits at 30-40 per cent. So the potential for impact is insane.”

What changes? And when?

France doesn’t have the best track record with sustainability. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, by 2016 the country was amassing 4.5 million tonnes of plastic waste in a single year, with 80,000 tonnes of that waste ending up polluting the natural environment. This made France the biggest plastic polluter in the Mediterranean region. It was also destroying €630 million worth of unsold products every year, a practice that generated between five and 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than if those products were reused.

Now, waste is top of the agenda. In February 2020, France adopted its Anti-waste and Circular Economy Law, seeking to eliminate waste and pollution from the product life cycle, cradle to grave. The staggered commitments included phasing out single-use plastic by 2040, promoting better resource management and being more transparent with consumers. On 1 January 2023, a new part of this law came into force, making it forbidden to destroy unsold goods.

Another facet of the Anti-waste and Circular Economy Law, Decree No. 2022-748, was proposed in April 2022, and came into play in January 2023, making it compulsory for brands and retailers selling in France to provide consumers with more information about the environmental impact of products. The requirements vary by product category. For apparel and footwear, labels will need to include the percentage of recycled material by weight; details about the future recyclability of the product; the presence of harmful or hazardous substances as defined by the EU Reach regulation; a warning about microplastic shedding if the garment contains more than 50 per cent synthetic fibres by weight (recycled or virgin); and traceability information such as the country of origin for various steps of the manufacturing process, not just the finished garment. For apparel, this covers where the weaving, dyeing, printing and confectioning took place. For shoes, it means stitching, lasting and finishing.

The timeline for compliance depends on the size of the company. Those with a turnover of €50 million or more, bringing over 25,000 units of product onto the French market each year, will need to comply straight away. The decree will then be rolled out to companies with a turnover above €20 million and more than 10,000 units on the French market from January 2024, and those turning over more than €10 million with 10,000 units from January 2025.

There is a short grace period to account for how far ahead fashion brands produce their collections: products manufactured or imported before 1 January 2023 will be exempt from the new rules. What happens if brands don’t comply is still unclear — officials say there will be financial penalties in place, but the details of this have yet to be confirmed publicly.

The Climate Resilience Law introduced in August 2021 will rank the sustainability of various products from A (the highest standard) down to E, although the methodology is still a work in progress. The EU is also working on this, and is currently exploring the much-debated Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method, which experts have raised concerns about for its exclusion of renewability, biodegradability, biodiversity, social impacts or microplastic pollution.

These will both be consumer-facing rankings, but France is also developing an industry-facing scoring system to decide the financial incentives and penalties for its EPR scheme. France instigated an EPR policy in 2009, years ahead of the EU, but just started its latest five-year plan. Officials have €1 billion of government funding for the period to 2028, of which €150 million will go towards repair for shoes and garments, and €100 million will be allocated to encourage the re-use of clothing. According to officials, France has already increased the collection of used textiles by 40 per cent since the law was first introduced, and it plans to reach 60 per cent by 2028. The ranking — which decides how much brands pay towards the EPR fund based on the environmental credentials of their garments — is due to come into effect from 2024.

Liz Ricketts, co-founder of non-profit The Or Foundation, says the French government could go even further. Instead of just using EPR to fund reuse and repair schemes, and imposing eco-design criteria, it could also set targets to reduce the number of new garments produced, and fund textile waste management in the Global South, which will inevitably continue, she explains. This echoes calls from activists for future sustainable fashion legislation to be justice-led, with a more realistic, global approach.

Traceability takes centre stage

Traceability will be the biggest challenge if brands are to comply with new French legislation, says Shameek Ghosh, co-founder and CEO of supply chain transparency platform TrusTrace, whose traceability playbook is backed by Adidas. “To get this information, you need the name and address of your suppliers logged. Because it’s product-level regulation, both brands and retailers are responsible for it, although it’s unclear how much responsibility retailers will have. That greyzone will likely push people to act faster, to avoid liability.”

Kering has been gathering this information for almost a decade, having published its first consolidated environmental profit and loss (EP&L) report in 2015. But total transparency and traceability is still elusive in some parts of the supply chain, says Kering’s Daveu. “This is an ongoing process. As soon as you choose a raw material or fabric, you have to ask the supplier where it came from, how it was made and in what conditions. Every time you change your processes or materials, you have to re-ask all of these questions.” The process creates a virtuous cycle, she adds, as brands gain visibility over the blind spots in their current sustainability plans, and the potential for further improvements.

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