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In 2019, Maxine Bédat went rummaging through a mountainous, burning landfill site outside of Accra, Ghana, as it belched toxic fumes. It was filled with foreign-label apparel and accessories—a stark illustration of the billion pounds of used clothing that the U.S. exports each year as Americans continually purge their overfilled closets, the result of “the gross overproduction and undervaluing of garments,” as Bédat writes in her book Unraveled.
Published last summer and widely reviewed, Unraveled follows the globe-spanning life of a pair of jeans from the farms where their cotton is grown, to the global factories where they’re made, and finally, to their disposal, showcasing the intimate and enormous ways that the apparel industry is reshaping the world. “We can hear facts. But our psychology works with story,” says Bédat, a former lawyer, fashion entrepreneur (she founded the now-defunct brand Zady), and founder of the three-year-old New Standard Institute (NSI), a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the fashion industry.
But she didn’t stop with the publication of Unraveled. In February, the NSI worked with a pair of New York State lawmakers to introduce the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (or Fashion Act), which would compel footwear and apparel companies with more than $ 100 million in revenues to map at least half of their supply chains and disclose where their biggest social and environmental impacts are—and reduce their emissions to be in line with the Paris Agreement.
If passed when New York legislators meet again next year, the Fashion Act would catapult New York into leading the effort to bring much-needed accountability to the fashion industry. In the meantime, lawmakers from other states have reached out to NSI to explore how similar legislation might work in their states.
For Bédat, the book and the legislation go hand-in-hand: One illuminates the issue while the other mobilizes people to act. “We have been trained to see ourselves as consumers,” she notes. “But we are citizens: We are the ones who can change the laws.”