France could soon pass a decree requiring every item of clothing sold in the country to carry a label detailing its exact impact on the climate.
The European Union is considering a similar rule for the rest of its members.
A multitude of factors determine a piece of clothing’s sustainability credentials, from where and how its raw materials were grown, to what dyes where used in the colouring process and how far it travelled before arriving in store.
The French Agency for Ecological Transition is currently testing 11 proposals for how to collect and compare this data. It is using 500 items of clothing to determine what the new labelling system might eventually look like.
“The message of the law is clear — it will become obligatory, so brands need to prepare, to make their products traceable, to organise the automatic collection of data," says Erwan Autret, one of the coordinators at the French agency.
"Some say the models are too simple, some say they're too complicated, but it's a sign of the maturity of the debate that no one questions the need for these calculations anymore.”
The agency is expected to collate the results of its testing in the coming months, before handing the results to lawmakers.
According to the United Nations, the fashion industry contributes between 2 and 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its expansive supply chains and energy intensive production processes. "The fashion industry produces about 20 per cent of global wastewater, while 85 per cent of textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated when most of these materials could be reused," the orgianisation says.
"Overall, the industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined, which highlights the importance of emissions reductions across the sector."
In response, the UN set up the Fashion Charter in 2018 "to provide a clear pathway for the fashion industry to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050".
Initiatives such as this latest one in France can play an important role in tackling the problem, by encouraging brands to be more transparent and shoppers to be more conscious and cautious with their consumption.
"It will force brands to be more transparent and informed ... to collect data and create long-term relationships with their suppliers, all things they're not used to doing," says Victoire Satto of The Good Goods, a media agency focused on sustainable fashion.
"Right now it seems infinitely complex. But we've seen it applied in other industries such as medical supplies.”
But for some activists, the decree does not go far enough. "It's really good to put an emphasis on life cycle analysis but we need to do something about it beyond just labels," said Valeria Botta of the Environmental Coalition on Standards.
"The focus should be on setting clear rules on product design to ban the worst products from the market, ban the destruction of returned and unsold goods and set production limits. Consumers should not have to fight to find a sustainable option — that should be the default.”