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Fashion & Law: Balancing Style & Responsibility

By Chiara Lamacchia, Founder of lawrketing.com and withoutconsulting.com.


In the heart of fast fashion's frenetic landscape, where trends ebb and flow in the blink of an eye, the intricate dance between consumer desires and the ethical responsibilities of the industry takes centre stage. I would like to navigate the legal and consumer behaviour dynamics in fast fashion, delving into the interplay between consumer behaviour and the legal forces shaping the industry. From the relentless pursuit of trends to the growing desire for ethical choices, each strand in this narrative contributes to the evolving story of fast fashion and its place in the broader legal spectrum.


Fast fashion is synonymous with quick turnovers of styles and accessible prices, transforming the industry's dynamics, challenging sustainability, and captivating consumers globally. I would like to proceed in three directions: 1. Sustainability; 2. Consumer behaviour; 3. Legal landscape. In the end, I evaluate slow fashion and its legal standpoint.


1. Sustainability & fast fashion

The question of whether fast fashion can truly become sustainable remains not up for debate: it can never be sustainable. The fast-fashion industry's profitability is derived from the high volume of inexpensive garments produced and sold at a rapid pace.


Achieving the same level of profitability as fast-fashion companies while maintaining a truly sustainable business model poses certain challenges and is currently virtually unfeasible. Its business model is characterised by several key features that distinguish it from traditional fashion practices.


The fundamental goal of fast-fashion companies is to maximise profit margins by producing and selling clothing at a low cost while achieving high sales volumes. This involves efficient cost management throughout the entire supply chain, from sourcing materials to manufacturing and distribution. By keeping production costs low, fast-fashion brands can offer affordable products, attract a large customer base, and generate substantial revenue.


Here are the few key characteristics inherent in the fast fashion business model that are not compatible with a sustainable model.

  • Low-cost, low-quality materials that lack durability

  • Short product lifespan with items wearing out quickly

  • Extremely rapid production cycles

  • Massive production scale with resource-intensive manufacturing processes

  • Global supply chains involving labour at a low cost and with weak human rights


Some fast fashion brands have started to incorporate more sustainable practices, such as using eco-friendly materials, implementing recycling programmes, and embracing transparency in their supply chains. But achieving sustainability in this industry may require a fundamental shift in business models, prioritising quality over quantity, fostering responsible consumption habits, addressing the broader environmental and ethical implications of fashion production – thus, becoming less “fast.”


2. Consumer behaviour

There is a fundamental principle of economics and business: sustainable or not, the existence and success of any business depend heavily on the presence of consumers who are willing to buy the products or services offered. Then, let’s talk about us, the consumers.


The allure of fast fashion extends beyond the tangible garments hanging on store racks: it's a psychological dance between consumer desires and the industry's cunning strategies. Understanding how consumer behaviour operates in the realm of fast fashion requires a closer look at the psychological mechanisms at play. The craving for the latest styles at wallet-friendly prices propels the industry forward, creating a perpetual cycle of consumption. Once solely focused on meeting market demands, the industry is now under the watchful gaze of consumers who demand transparency, sustainability, and ethical responsibility.


Fast fashion thrives on a few psychological triggers with profound impact.


  • Instant gratification through trends: The industry swiftly translates runway designs into affordable, accessible pieces, convincing consumers about an unnecessary need to buy. Consumers feel the induced desire to stay on top of ever-evolving trends, seek immediate access to the latest styles, with the instant satisfaction of being fashion-forward.

  • FOMO (i.e. Fear of Missing Out): Limited-time offers, exclusive collaborations, and rapidly changing inventory create a sense of urgency. Consumers fear losing the opportunity to own a coveted item, driving impulsive purchasing decisions and ensuring a constant flow of sales for fast fashion brands.

  • Social Media Influence: Platforms like Instagram and TikTok fuel the desire for new styles as users are bombarded with curated images of influencers and celebrities flaunting the latest trends. It creates a sense of social currency tied to one's wardrobe choices and pushing individuals to align with current fashion norms.

  • Perceived obsolescence: Fast fashion cultivates a sense of perceived obsolescence, convincing consumers that their current wardrobe is outdated and needs constant refreshment. As a result, individuals buy more in an attempt to maintain a sense of relevance and avoid feeling 'out of style.'

  • Bargain hunting: Who is not driven by the thrill of a good deal? The association between affordability and value encourages repeat purchases. The perception of obtaining stylish items at a low cost induces positive emotions, reinforcing the habit of frequenting fast fashion outlets.


In recent years, consumers have become increasingly aware of the ethical and environmental impact of their purchasing decisions. Consumers are now seeking information about the sourcing of materials, manufacturing processes, and the overall sustainability of the products they purchase.


I believe this holds a degree of truth, but surely it does not capture the complexity of consumer behaviour entirely and the scale of awareness/sensitivity. Surely, consumers start demanding greater transparency, ethical practices, and sustainable options. There is a growing and evident sentiment in this direction. However, we need not forget consumer diversity. This diversity spans a spectrum of factors, including but not limited to age, gender, cultural background, socioeconomic status, education, and geographic location. Understanding the unique needs, values, and aspirations of diverse consumer groups should allow a tailored educational experience about fast fashion products, borderline marketing strategies, emotional triggers, and so on.


Acknowledging consumer diversity leads to a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the varied motivations that drive purchasing decisions, ultimately contributing to the development of more resonant messaging when making the consumers aware.


3. Legally ‘en vogue’

Behind the glittering shopfronts and rapidly changing wardrobes lies a complex legal landscape that addresses various aspects of this industry. The legal aspects of fast fashion are intricately tied to developing consumer behaviour. As consumers demand greater transparency, ethical practices, and sustainable options, legal frameworks are adapting to hold fast fashion brands accountable.


Countries and regions are enacting laws that require greater transparency in labelling, forcing fast fashion brands to disclose information about the environmental impact of their products. Misleading marketing claims and greenwashing practices are also being scrutinised, leading to legal consequences for companies that engage in deceptive practices. I want to delve into five legislative directions that are relevant in the fast fashion context.


A. Labour law – Exploitative labour practices, including low wages and inadequate working conditions, are prevalent in the fast fashion industry, that relentless pursuits low production costs often leading to the exploitation of workers in manufacturing facilities, particularly in developing countries.


  • Rationale: Legal intervention is essential to protect the rights of workers, ensure fair wages, and establish safe working conditions. Without regulations, the profit-driven nature of fast fashion may lead to ongoing exploitation of vulnerable labour forces.

  • Within the EU: The EU's legal framework works to extend these protections to workers involved in the production of goods destined for the EU market. The EU's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) includes the "Everything But Arms" initiative, granting duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market for the world's least developed countries, contingent on adherence to core labour standards.

  • Beyond the EU: The UK Modern Slavery Act requires businesses to disclose efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains, influencing fast fashion brands to address labour exploitation concerns.


B. Environmental regulations – Fast fashion's rapid production and disposal contribute significantly to environmental issues, including pollution, waste, and resource depletion. The industry's reliance on non-renewable resources and unsustainable practices poses a threat to ecosystems on a global scale.


  • Rationale: Environmental regulations are crucial to mitigate the negative impact of fast fashion. Globally, legislation is needed to enforce sustainable sourcing, waste reduction, and responsible production practices, ensuring that companies are held accountable for their environmental footprint.

  • Within the EU: The European Union has implemented stringent regulations governing waste management, sustainable sourcing, and responsible production practices. The Circular Economy Action Plan outlines legal requirements to encourage the fashion industry to adopt circular economy principles.

  • Beyond the EU: In the United States, various states like California have enacted legislation to regulate and reduce environmental impact. California's Proposition 65, for instance, requires businesses to provide warnings about significant exposures to chemicals that may cause harm, impacting the fashion industry's approach to material choices.


C. Supply Chain Transparency – Fast fashion supply chains are often complex and opaque, making it difficult for consumers to trace the origins of their garments. This lack of transparency can hide unethical practices, such as exploitative labour or environmental damage.


  • Rationale: The lack of transparency in global supply chains necessitates legal intervention to empower consumers with information and foster accountability within the fast fashion industry. Legislation should require companies to disclose information about their sourcing and production processes globally.

  • Within the EU: The EU Directive on Non-Financial Reporting mandates certain large companies to disclose information on environmental, social, and governance matters, influencing transparency in supply chains.

  • Beyond the EU: The United Kingdom's Modern Slavery Act requires companies to publish annual statements outlining steps taken to ensure slavery and human trafficking are not present in their supply chains, encouraging transparency.


D. Consumer Protection Laws – Fast fashion often involves marketing tactics that may mislead consumers, such as false advertising or unclear product information. Consumers may face issues like poor product quality, misleading sizing, or deceptive pricing strategies.


  • Rationale: Globally, consumer protection laws are essential to safeguard consumers from deceptive practices. Legal standards are necessary to hold fast fashion brands accountable for providing accurate product information and protecting consumers' rights.

  • Within the EU: The Consumer Rights Directive in the EU establishes a legal framework for consumer protection, ensuring clear information, fair contracts, and transparent pricing.

  • Beyond the EU: In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices, impacting how fast fashion brands communicate with consumers and ensuring accurate representation of products.


E. Intellectual Property Rights and Counterfeit – Fast fashion is often criticised for imitating high-end designs, blurring the lines between inspiration and infringement. This can lead to intellectual property violations and challenges the creativity and originality of designers.


  • Rationale: Protecting intellectual property rights is crucial for fostering creativity, innovation, and fair competition. Legal frameworks help maintain a balance between affordable fashion and preventing outright copying of designs, ensuring that designers are rewarded for their creative efforts.

  • Within the EU: The EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) provides a unified system for trademark and design protection across EU member states, offering legal avenues to address infringement cases.

  • Beyond the EU: In the United States, the Lanham Act serves to protect trademarks and trade dress, providing legal remedies for fashion designers to combat counterfeit products and imitations.


Addressing fast fashion issues through legal interventions is essential for creating a more ethical and sustainable framework within the fast fashion industry. Legal measures serve as a critical tool to promote responsible practices, protect workers and consumers, and balance the competitive landscape.


Going slow: the other side of fashion

Slow fashion is a conscious and deliberate approach to clothing production that emphasises quality, sustainability, and ethical practices. In stark contrast to the fast-paced, disposable nature of mainstream fashion, slow fashion focuses on creating timeless pieces that are durable, versatile, and made with meticulous attention to detail. This movement places a strong emphasis on craftsmanship, often involving skilled artisans and traditional techniques.


Slow fashion brands prioritise transparency in their supply chains, opting for sustainable materials and ethical labour practices. The philosophy encourages consumers to make thoughtful, long-term wardrobe choices, fostering a deeper connection with the garments they wear. By advocating for a more mindful and sustainable approach to fashion, slow fashion aims to counter the throwaway culture prevalent in the industry, promoting an enduring appreciation for clothing that stands the test of time.


The legal framework for slow fashion is characterised by a synergy between ethical principles and existing regulations. While there may not be specific concessions, slow fashion businesses can leverage existing legal structures that support sustainability, fair practices, and transparency.


Environmental regulations: Slow fashion brands, prioritising sustainable practices, often comply with existing environmental regulations. Some regions may offer incentives or certifications for businesses engaging in sustainable practices. These can include tax breaks, grants, or recognition for adhering to environmentally friendly standards.


  • Case study: Patagonia, a prominent slow fashion brand, aligns its values with environmental sustainability. The company complies with existing environmental regulations by actively incorporating eco-friendly practices into its supply chain. Patagonia's commitment includes using recycled materials, reducing water consumption, and minimising the environmental impact of its production processes. Patagonia has benefited from regional incentives that promote sustainability. For instance, the brand operates under California's regulations, a region known for its environmentally conscious policies. The state's focus on sustainability aligns with Patagonia's ethos, and the brand may receive recognition or incentives for its efforts, fostering a mutually supportive relationship.


Labour law: Slow fashion is inherently committed to fair labour practices, ensuring workers are treated ethically and paid fairly. This aligns with international labour standards and human rights principles.


  • Case study: Eileen Fisher, a leading slow fashion brand, places a strong emphasis on fair labour practices. The company ensures that its workers are treated ethically and paid fair wages. By adhering to international labour standards and human rights principles, Eileen Fisher demonstrates a commitment to social responsibility. Eileen Fisher actively participates in fair trade initiatives, obtaining certifications that highlight its ethical labour practices. The brand holds Fair Trade USA certifications for several of its collections, signifying adherence to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. This not only enhances the brand's reputation but also appeals to conscious consumers who prioritise ethically produced clothing.


Intellectual property rights: Slow fashion often emphasises unique designs and craftsmanship. Intellectual property rights protection is crucial to prevent unauthorised copying or imitation of distinctive designs. Some jurisdictions may offer recognition and incentives for the protection of artisanal designs, acknowledging the importance of preserving cultural heritage.


  • Case study: Kuna, a slow fashion brand specialising in luxurious knitwear, places significant emphasis on unique designs and traditional craftsmanship. Kuna benefits from intellectual property laws, including trademark and design protection, to safeguard its traditional designs. Kuna's efforts contribute to the global appreciation of traditional craftsmanship within the legal framework.


Supply chain transparency: Slow fashion inherently values transparency in its supply chain, emphasising locally sourced materials and craftsmanship. The focus on traceability aligns with growing consumer demands for ethical and transparent practices.


  • Case study: Everlane, a slow fashion brand, places a premium on transparency in its supply chain. The company emphasises locally sourced materials and craftsmanship, aligning with the growing consumer demand for ethical and transparent practices. Everlane has received industry recognition and awards for its exceptional transparency. The brand's commitment to openness in the supply chain has earned it certifications and accolades.


Consumer protection: Slow fashion often builds long-term relationships with consumers based on quality, durability, and ethical considerations. Honest and transparent communication is integral to slow fashion's ethos.


  • Case study: Stella McCartney, known for its ethical and sustainable practices, builds long-term relationships with consumers based on quality, durability, and transparency. The brand prioritises honest and transparent communication about its sourcing, manufacturing, and environmental impact. Stella McCartney benefits from consumer protection laws that recognise and support businesses prioritising transparency. By consistently providing clear and honest information to consumers, the brand maintains a positive image and instils confidence in its clientele. Legal frameworks that encourage such transparent communication contribute to the success of ethical slow fashion brands.


Access to markets & certifications: Some markets may recognise and value slow fashion, providing opportunities for businesses with a commitment to sustainability and ethical practices. These certifications signal the brand's adherence to specific ethical and environmental standards, providing assurance to consumers and gaining recognition in markets that value sustainability. Certifications act as facilitators, opening doors for businesses committed to responsible practices within the slow fashion landscape.


  • Case study: People Tree, a pioneer in fair trade and sustainable fashion, operates in markets that recognise and value slow fashion. The brand's commitment to sustainability aligns with the values of consumers who prioritise ethical and environmentally friendly choices. People Tree utilises certifications like Fair Trade and organic labels to facilitate market access. These certifications signal the brand's adherence to specific ethical and environmental standards, providing assurance to consumers and gaining recognition in markets that value sustainability. Certifications act as facilitators, opening doors for businesses committed to responsible practices within the slow fashion landscape.


Looking forward

As we peel back the layers of this frenetic landscape, it becomes evident that the evolving story of fast fashion is not just about trends and consumer desires but also about ethical responsibilities and legal dynamics.


The convergence of fashion and law is an ongoing narrative. The fast fashion industry is at a pivotal moment, facing the dual pressures of consumer demands and legal scrutiny. The legal landscape adapts to address the ethical and environmental implications of fashion production. The future of fashion lies in finding a delicate equilibrium where the allure of trends meets the ethical imperatives of a conscientious consumer and a responsible industry.


Slow fashion is a compelling alternative. Its emphasis on quality, sustainability, and ethical practices, stands as an inevitable choice to the fast-paced, disposable nature of mainstream fashion.


 

About the Author


Chiara Lamacchia is a consultant in legal, marketing & legal forecasting, working in corporate strategy for global organisations across different sectors, after an LL.M. from Bocconi University (Milan, Italy) and an MSc in Marketing from Edinburgh Napier University (UK).


Chiara is the Founder of lawrketing.com and withoutconsulting.com, promoting the adoption of ground-breaking ways of using the law for innovation and competitive advantage.


Besides, among other things, she authored and published the book "Lawrketing – What Business Never Realised About Law", introducing the concept of “lawrketing” through a unique combination of law, business, marketing and innovation..


> Connect with Chiara on linkedin.com/in/chiaralamacchia


> Find more articles on The Legal Edge Series on LBW


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