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  • Writer's pictureNienke Creemers

The Design of Policy in Fashion

*This article is part of the 'Designing Policy' project in collaboration with the Design Futures Institute.

Policies govern the way we live, they determine what we eat, how we work, how we behave, what products we use and how we can produce these products.

The coronavirus pandemic has given us perspective on several things, two main concepts can be drafted regarding policy; 1) National and international policy have a tremendous effect on our freedoms and behaviour, and 2) Societies are in a constant state of flux, evolvement and change. When applying these learnings to a fashion-lens the main question regarding policy within fashion thus would be; Can we change the fashion industry for the better, using policies? Can we adjust the approach of fashion-makers by implementing more responsible policies?


In order to understand the many issues within fashion, we must understand the different facets that make up this field. Globally, it is estimated that 3.4 billion people work in the fashion industry, of which 430 million in textile production (Common Objective, 2018). Working in this industry reaches far and beyond designing clothes, modelling, retail or marketing. Farming of raw fibre, logistics, factory work and transportation are among the many jobs facilitating the fashion industry. An extremely broad and elaborate industry. It becomes more complicated when we start examining drivers, the drivers of an industry or field are extremely important when looking at policymaking. We found that fashion, is the only field in our study that is exclusively driven by money and profit. the decisions that are made and all products that are produced within this industry have the purpose of gaining capital. This is an extremely interesting premise when we talk about an entire industry that needs to reform its methods due to climate change and ethics but still needs to partake and thrive within the constructs of capitalism.

Let's dig a bit deeper into the idea of fashion as the ultimate form of capitalism. The mass production of clothing was part of the Industrial Revolution’s kick-start (Wilson, 2003). Which gave textile traders the option to make tremendous profits, create wealth for themselves and make the clothing industry flourish. Within approximately 300 years, clothing production has transformed from small scale feudal modes within the home to mass globalised production (Sullivan, 2016), which we can buy in giant retail chains whenever we want.

‘Fashion is among the most hyper-capitalist businesses of the lot – one that produces goods

for short term use (to be updated, or thrown out every six months), sourced from all over the world and generating substantial profits for those at the top, even while those workers at the bottom face the risk of starvation(…) or death.’

- Adittya Chakraborty, 2014

The fashion industry beautifully crafts images of imagination and beauty, which are marketed to consumers to make as much profit as possible, as Elisabeth Wilson put it: ‘Fashion speaks capitalism’ (2003, p.14) According to Wilson, capitalism ‘kills, appropriates and lays waste’ accompanying that, capitalism also creates beauty and opportunity just as fashion does. If we

follow Marx’s mode of production, goods are produced to be sold to create capital for those who own the means of production (Sullivan, 2016).

To make as much profit as possible within the clothing industry, production costs need to be low, and capacity needs to be extremely high. To keep costs low, the supply chain has been fragmented, a t-shirt can be sewn in one factory while the label is sewn-in at another location. Due to the fragmentation of the supply chain, it is nearly impossible to oversee what goes on within it. The manufacturing has now moved almost entirely from developed countries to developing countries (C. Lane, J. Probert, 2009). One of the reasons for producing in developing countries is that labour costs are incredibly low compared to wages in developed countries. Moving labour towards developing countries is not an issue within itself. However, the circumstances at which the work must be done, and the inadequate reward given to the factory workers, who are mostly women, makes the fashion industry have an exploitative relationship with its supply chain. It can be established that the fashion

industry is driven by profit which is an important value within our capitalist system. With that, comes exploitation of labour forces and natural resources. The fashion industry needs to exploit its labour forces to make a financial profit and attain growth, making the fashion industry one of the prime examples of a capitalist industry.

Why is this important to apprehend? When discussing capitalism, we are discussing an overarching construct that guides the way we live, policies are the rules that facilitate our capitalist construct. If we aim to understand and redesign policies regarding fashion, sustainability, and ethics, we need to understand the industry's drivers and the governmental driver, which in fashion's case, is making a profit, not ethics or environmentalism. The debate about fashion regarding climate and ethics is relatively new, even though these issues are as old as the industry itself. This debate is highly politicised, yet, states only recently have started to implement regulations on the industry. Recent regulations include the 'New York Fashion Act' (2022) and the EU Strategy for Textiles (2021) which is part of the 'EU Circular Economy Action Plan', or 'European Green Deal'.

Four categories can be identified within the fashion industry that are affected by either foundational or organisational policy, which needs to be further investigated.

1. Production: includes environmental, human rights, and health & safety policy

2. Digital & Physical retail: includes environmental and privacy policy

3. Trade: includes international trade regulations, tax, and customs

4. Design: includes design decisions regarding sustainability such as circularity, waste and material choice.

Case study: Labels

Throughout our conversations and the general debate around sustainability in fashion, there is a recurring topic: transparency towards consumers and traceability. We have discussed the importance of ownership, and how no one within the fashion-industry seems to be taking it. That ownership is exactly what transparency is all about. An easy way to imply transparency is to give insight into production practices on the label or hangtag of a garment. Fashion designer Bruno Pieters was one of the first to give full insight into his supply chain "Pieters' customers could trace the manufacturer and composition of the garment, fabrics and lining as well as that of the zippers, buttons, thread and even the safety pin holding the hangtag to the item’s care label" (BOF, 2022).

Transparency and traceability communication through labels could be a relatively easy policy to imply. Considerations would be, what needs to be disclosed (e.g., Materials, hours, factories, suppliers etc.), how much of the supply chain should be disclosed (back to farmer or factory)? How should the information be disclosed? Etc.

Transparency and traceability can be costly for a fashion brand. It involves research, and most actors within a supply chain do not want to or cannot disclose their suppliers. So extra attention has to be paid to small fashion businesses.

What now?

Many points on the supply chain could be investigated for policy reform to protect workers, provide equal pay, environmental sustainability, and transparency to customers.

Different agendas need to be prioritised, as of right now, solely an economic driver is considered. Those agendas can be from government or city level policies to suppliers to retail stores, and each business priority could be different. Prioritizing circulatory, waste and environmental impact should become new requirements on every fashion policy agenda.

The foundational and organisational policies should be designed with more voices at the table. An example of this would be speaking to unions within factories, and small fashion labels. How do these policies affect other players – except large fashion corporations – in the fashion industry. Consider small fashion businesses, those that could become disadvantaged by climate and transparency regulations.

While large retailers who sell fast fashion are some of the largest contributors to waste streams and pollution, they also can have the most impact on the industry as a whole. Advocating for climate and environmental policies at these organizations have the potential to impact and influence much of the supply chain.

*This article is part of the 'Designing Policy' project in collaboration with the Design Futures Institute.


BOF (2022) Bruno Pieters. Available at:

Chakraborty, A. (2014) Fashion Likes to Dress Itself Up As Something More, But is One of the Most Hyper-Capitalist Businesses. Available at:


Common Objective (2018), Faces and Figures: Who Makes Our Clothes,

Available at:

European Union (2021) Circular Economy Action Plan, Available at:

Forbes (2022) Fashion Industry Reacts to New York Sustainability

Legislation that Could Upend Transparency Practices, Available at:

Lane, C. Probert, J. (2009) National Capitalisms, Global

Production Networks – Fashioning the Value Chain in the UK, USA and Germany.

Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sullivan, A. (2016) Socialist Review: Fashion: ‘Capitalism’s

Favourite Child’ Available at:

Wilson, E. (2003) Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity.

London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd

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