Difference Between Sustainable And Ethical Fashion

Difference Between Sustainable And Ethical Fashion

In the fashion-for-good world, the terms "ethical" and "sustainable" are often used interchangeably.

Both seem to express slow fashion and an understanding of the industry's effect on people and the planet.

They have entered the mainstream as tools for social impact and environmentalism, respectively.

Taking a closer look, these terms have distinct definitions, yet they work in a complementary manner — achieving optimal justice requires a symbiotic relationship between both.

The bottom line? Companies can't promote workers' rights while creating products that destroy the environment, and they can't label themselves as "earth-friendly" while endangering their workers.

When one thinks about fashion, words like glamour, style, trend, etc., immediately strike the mind rather than sustainable, eco-friendly or ethical words.

However, in the coming ten to fifty years, the most important question the fashion industry needs to ask is how sustainable it is?

Ethical and sustainable fashion has been gathering momentum globally in the past decade.

Ethical and sustainable fashion is an approach towards sourcing, manufacturing, and designing clothes that maximises the benefits to the industry and society at large and minimises the impacts on the environment.

Ethical means something morally right and acceptable.

Therefore, ethical and sustainable fashion does not start from manufacturing clothes. Instead, it starts from the cotton fields and ends in the consumer's wardrobe.

Therefore, conventional cotton farming cannot be termed as ethical and sustainable as harmful pesticides are used.

Today, sustainability is a way of doing business rather than just a concept. Brands like Stella McCartney and NOIR are the pioneers of ethical and sustainable fashion.

Now many companies have embraced the concept of sustainability and have implemented it in the business. These companies have understood that integrating social and environmental issues with business will yield long-term benefits.

Imagine a world where you can wander into any clothing store to shop and know right away exactly how your purchases will affect the environment, workers, and animals alike.

Then, you could browse through the collections with a light heart, knowing that a lucky find would benefit people and the planet instead of harming them. This is the ultimate goal that drives the ethical and sustainable fashion movement.

We all know this is a utopian scenario, but the industry is making significant progress!

Initiatives like Good On You exist to help you find out which brands behave like our ideal clothing store and which ones don't.

We recognise that the issues in the fashion industry are complex, and the definitions can be confusing, so we're here to break it down for you—what is sustainable fashion exactly? And what about ethical fashion?

Here's a breakdown of some of the most common terms:


Sustainability means the item or action generates environmental, social and economic benefits while not using too many resources or causing pollution.

It refers to the environmental costs of production, including the use of pesticides, dyeing and finishing, water and waste treatment, energy reduction, material choice, and packaging.

To truly be sustainable, a company must consider the impact of a product throughout its entire lifecycle.

Make sure you do your research on companies or products claiming to be sustainable.

There are varying levels of sustainability and no enforced set of rules that must be followed in order for a company to claim that they are sustainable.


The word "ethical" is associated with human rights and the morals of manufacturing.

For example, ethical fashion refers to how a garment was made, from how the cotton was grown to how garment workers are treated and paid to who packages and delivers the products.

If a product or company is "ethically made," it means there was no sweatshop labour, child labour, worker abuse, discrimination, or slavery.

It also means that workers received fair pay, had the right to unionise, and worked in safe conditions.

Sometimes sustainability and animal treatment are also included under the "ethical" umbrella.

Ethical fashion is considered a broader term and can encompass both Fair Trade and sustainable fashion.

Fair Trade is always ethical fashion, but ethical fashion is not necessarily Fair Trade.

There is technically no set of rules, practices, or governing body to ethical fashion, so it's always good to do your research when you come across a brand or product claiming to be ethical.

In theory, it's great — you can buy on-trend fashion for cheap just a few weeks after the styles first appear on the runway.

But, the true cost of fast fashion goes much further than the £5 it costs you to buy a new t-shirt.

In recent years people have become increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of the industry.

For example, some of the most polluted rivers in the world are filled with chemicals dumped by textile factories.

Plus, millions of tonnes of textile waste end up in landfills each year.

As if that's not bad enough, according to the United Nations, the fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industry combined.

Its long supply chains and high energy consumption contribute to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

As people become more aware of this damage, they become more conscious about the brands they buy from and what they support with their purchases.

Just look at what happened to Forever 21.

Consumers are demanding more transparency in the supply chain to make up their own minds about the impact the clothes they buy are having.

But, as it stands today, navigating the industry to find a sustainable fashion option is an absolute minefield.

The Difference 

Sustainable Fashion

Sustainable fashion is perhaps the most commonly used buzzword in the industry right now.

It refers to the impact of fashion on the environment, covering issues such as pollution, water use, and waste production.

It's all about creating products that have the lowest possible negative impact on the environment.

As it stands, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be a sustainable fashion brand, especially on a large scale.

However, brands can be transparent about their sustainability mission and do their best to be more sustainable. We can always strive to do better!

Unlike ethical fashion, the term "sustainable fashion" tends to concentrate more on the environmental aspect of garment production.

While it does not centre as much on workers' wellbeing as ethical fashion, it does examine how fashion threatens human health in an environmental context.

Like ethical fashion, the ideology analyses ways to strengthen every level of garment creation in a more eco-friendly manner to achieve environmental justice.

Goals like using efficient and minimal natural resources and energy sources in production, reducing, reusing, recycling, and repairing garments, are at the movement's forefront.

Sustainable fashion aims to both enhance the current practices AND transform consumer patterns.

Brands such as Rothy's integrate innovative sustainability approaches — like vowing to make shoes from only recycled plastics — into their blueprint.

However, while many companies have made strides in environmental sustainability, many fail to support ethical practices.

For example, various sustainable fashion companies have recently come under heat for using organic cotton harvested by forced labour in China.

Sustainable fashion is fashion and clothing produced to last and with the environmental costs of production in mind.

Seeing as fashion is the second most polluting industry globally, sustainable fashion aims to cut down on pollution and the negative consequences fashion production has on the earth.

Sustainable fashion recognises things like pollution (whether into the water systems, the atmosphere or the ecosystem). It also recognises the dangers of the fast-fashion business model. As a result, sustainable fashion brands often provide:

  • Less choice.
  • Focusing on quality rather than quantity.
  • Making the supply chain as eco-friendly as possible.

This is also known as 'slow fashion.

Sustainable fashion brands often use organic fabrics, avoiding the use of pesticides and synthetic materials, which have a damaging effect on the environment (as well as those who live nearby to farms and factories).

In addition, organic and natural fabrics (like cotton or bamboo) are biodegradable, which means they won't cause as much of an issue when disposing of them.

Second-hand and vintage clothing are also considered to be a part of sustainable fashion as it is a form of recycling, meaning the consumer isn't supporting the production of new clothing.

They are used to grow cotton for fabric, pesticides, and its runoffs have caused disproportionately high rates of cancer and congenital disabilities for not only workers but those living miles away from a plant in Punjab, India, both sustainability and ethically-linked concern.

To meet the high demands of fast fashion consumers, most harmful chemical byproducts disproportionately devastate communities of colour, the crux of environmental racism.

Ironically, the glutton of tossed-out clothes often ends up polluting their lands of origins. Aside from clothes shipped overseas, around 11.2 million tons of textiles are discarded in landfills annually.

So, sustainable fashion is simply about fostering a fashion industry that takes a long term approach to the design, manufacturing, and consumption of clothes and accessories.

It's about fashion that both creates good and avoids harm, whether to people, the planet, or animals.

Ethical Fashion

For most purposes, the same thing! Ethical and sustainable fashion are generally used interchangeably.

However, for some, 'ethical fashion' focuses more on what is 'morally right' about treating everyone who inhabits this planet we call home—humans and animals alike.

Ethical fashion is fashion that takes into account the morals of manufacturing. Ethical fashion is generally fashion and clothing produced with the whole production line and supply chain in mind, from cotton pickers to those who seal up, package and deliver.

The belief that all workers and those affected by the production of garments should be treated equally and fairly is the common mindset behind most ethical fashion brands.

Providing a safe working condition, a living wage and a kind and non-abusive work environment are the usual priorities of those producing ethical alternatives to the likes of fast fashion.

Ethical fashion avoids forced, slave and child labour throughout the manufacturing process, and organisations like Fairtrade International can help brands and companies label and guarantee that safe and ethical practices are being put into place.

So often, brands don't just ensure ethical practices, but they also support and improve the livelihood of the workers they employ, especially those of which are in developing countries.

Ethical fashion can also be a term to cover cruelty-free and vegan practices, meaning that no animals are harmed or used as part of clothing production.

An example of a vegan fabric is Peace Silk; Peace Silk is produced from moth cocoons after the moths have emerged and flown away; therefore, it does not disturb or kill the moths to be woven into fabric.

The Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) is a non-profit organisation established to promote sustainable practices, raise awareness among people, provide resources to reduce poverty and environmental damage, and raise standards in the fashion industry.

The EFF has more than 6000 members in over 100 countries supporting sustainable fashion.

Moreover, it has set up criteria for ethical fashion, which needs to be followed.

The EFF has framed policies in collaboration with the top ethical sourcing and certification bodies made by The International Fair Trade Association, The Fairtrade Foundation and others.

This helps the EFF work in an organised manner with the fashion industry members and develop ethical and sustainable practices.

As a result, ethical companies will manufacture clothes giving importance to the above mentioned sustainable and ethical ideas, which in return will benefit society and earth.

Additionally, there are many instances of 'greenwashing' in the fashion industry.

Greenwashing refers to deceptive use of green marketing and misleading the consumers into believing that the company's products and policies are earth-friendly.

Greenwashing is dangerous to the sustainability endeavour as it takes away consumers' trust, which is very difficult to restore.

The fashion industry would advise people on what one should wear. However, it remains silent about sustainable fashion.

People are aware that green clothing is better than traditional fabrics.

Every time consumers spend money on fashionable clothes, people indirectly tell the fashion industry what they should be doing.

Hence, the consumers should use this right wisely. There are many benefits of ethical and sustainable fashion.

Firstly, it is good for the planet. The fashion industry uses harmful pesticides for growing cotton and toxic chemicals to dye fabrics, which have a huge impact on the environment.

Cotton alone requires a lot of chemicals to make one shirt.

Opting for organic and sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, bamboo or hemp, one can reduce the amount of carbon and chemicals discarded in the environment, which is certainly a good practice.

Secondly, it supports the workers. One should buy clothes labelled under the Fair Trade Act as it is sustainable on many grounds.

For example, one can be sure that the clothing purchased has been produced under proper working conditions and the worker has earned fair wages. Moreover, it also benefits animals.

Making sure that one's closet is not stocked with leather or fur products means stopping cruelty towards animals.

The intersection of Sustainable and Ethical Fashion: A Necessary Relationship

The rise of both ethical and sustainable fashion requires individual behaviour and widespread policy changes.

Both ideologies must be upheld simultaneously to do good for workers and good for the world.

The symbiotic relationship between ethical and sustainable fashion holds more power together than separately.

A single clothing item's footprint indelibly moulds our land, water, air, and each other.

Our purchase power to choose companies is important, but it's not enough.

Sustainable and ethical fashion both call on revolutionising the social, economic, and environmental systems the fashion industry functions.

A shift is needed: companies must treat workers fairly and use earth-friendly materials — not one or the other.

Companies must support the wellbeing of the individual worker and the environment.

Brands cannot be truly sustainable unless they're also ethical and vice versa.

Though using earth-friendly materials is beneficial for all, the persisting unfair treatment of workers exemplifies the sometimes disingenuous nature of modern environmental movements.

The lack of intersectionality in protecting vulnerable populations is the antithesis of sustainability's mission to reach environmental justice.

The production of and access to sustainable products for consumers cannot come at the cost of violence of human wellness.

Buying organic and renewable fibres are the best way to support sustainability. In addition, buying durable green clothing that one can wear for many years would be another step to reduce waste coming from throwing away old unnecessary clothing.

Instead, invest in classic, chic clothes that can be used in the future rather than buying a trendy item and discard it once the fashion is outdated.

For a consumer buying sustainable clothing is the first step towards sustainability.

However, they can further contribute towards sustainability by taking care of small things like washing clothes in cold water rather than using hot water and reducing energy consumption, using biodegradable detergent to prevent pollution in the environment, drying clothes in sunlight rather than using a dryer which saves time, money and resources.

Sustainability will mean different things to different companies in the fashion industry.

Nevertheless, leading companies must practice and encourage others to follow sustainability and embed this concept into the main objectives of the business.

Big brands must be more responsible for sustainable fashion, as they have a global reach and the financial capability to research and develop greener alternatives.

Ethical and sustainable fashion will eventually become a norm to be practised by everyone in the fashion industry.

Frequently Asked Question about Sustainable and Ethical Fashion 

What is ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion is an umbrella term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.

How is sustainable fashion different from others?

A fashion brand can be ethical relating to its human rights but not sustainable with its choice of fabrics and environmental practices. On the contrary, a brand can be sustainable but completely disregard human rights.

How do you choose ethical fashion?

Understand the Sustainable Fashion Consumer

  • Buy less clothing.
  • Buy higher quality items built to last.
  • Buy versatile, staple clothing items.
  • Purchase clothing items from sustainable brands.
  • Buy from transparent brands.
  • Wash clothing with cold water to prevent the release of microfibers and plastic into waterways.

How is sustainable fashion good?

Besides consuming a lot of water, clothing production also pollutes our freshwater, as toxic chemicals from the production process quickly find their way into waterways.

Sustainable fashion is a great way to save on water usage and reduce water pollution.

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