Understanding Ethical Fashion

Understanding Ethical Fashion

There is no easy definition.

If you’ve been reading The Good Trade for a while, you’re likely familiar with the concepts of fast fashion, sustainable fashion, and slow fashion.

Yet, some of the buzzwords surrounding ethical fashion are understandably frustrating to consumers and industry experts alike.

What is ethical? And how is it measured? We can all agree that ethics help guide us towards being better people—but what does that mean?

While vague, the answers invite us to have a comprehensive discussion about what ethical fashion can mean and how we, as consumers, can help brands become more transparent.

The result is much more about values than it is about rules, not unlike this entire movement.

Sustainable fashion has been moving into the mainstream for years, but we’ve now reached a tipping point where those on the inside and outside the fashion industry can no longer ignore its presence.

The media buzz around sustainable fashion throughout 2019, particularly in the aftermath of Fashion Week events drawing focus on sustainable issues, has created an overwhelming amount of messages.

As a result, there’s a great deal to digest, and in some cases, consumers are having conversations about fashion they’ve never had before.

Well, devastating environmental damage and severe human rights abuses, to name a couple. 

Fashion, as it turns out, is a whole lot more complex than pencil skirts and shoulder pads, and with all the greenwashing, it certainly doesn’t make it easy to find ethical and sustainable clothing.

While the road towards sustainability, in general, isn’t easy, it’s now critical that we all learn what qualifies as truly sustainable and ethical fashion.

This article teaches you just that, from examining raw materials used to the practices implemented all the way down the supply chain.

We hope to educate you (and ourselves) on the problematic status of the industry as it currently stands and provide you with the knowledge necessary to judge whether a clothing company or item is truly ethical.

So What Exactly Is Ethical Fashion?

The overarching definition: Ethical fashion is about designing and manufacturing clothes in a way that cares for people and communities while minimising the impact on the environment.

In a perfect world, a brand would consider human rights, animal welfare, and the environmental impact at every stage of the design process and supply chain. But that’s not always the case.

Ethical fashion bases its movement on the welfare of the labourers and workers involved in the process.

Thus from the points above, we can see how ethical fashion can integrate into sustainable fashion by providing less hazardous places for workers.

As a movement, ethical fashion helps prevent cruel working conditions resulting in deaths, illnesses and slavery.

With the right working conditions, getting paid a living wage is also part of ethical fashion.

Of course, the wages should be able to support the employees and their families, but also they should be able to help improve their daily life in more ways than just one.

ILO estimates that 170 million are engaged in child labour around the world which brings us to another big topic, exploitation of workers and children.

Due to these horrible practices, there are organisations in place to tackle exploitation in countries and factories.

The labourers and workers have the right to fair wages and the right conditions. By buying from an ethical brand, as a consumer, you funding approved practices that help everyone from the bottom to the top.

The Evolving Definition Of Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion is garment design, production, and distribution that focuses on reducing harm to people and the planet.

In the ideal sense, it benefits those working along the supply chain and creates a better future for everyone—not just for those at the top. 

Ethical fashion is concerned with social impact and the ethics behind a brand’s label (though the term “ethics” here is vague).

The phrase, which was coined rather recently, is thought to be the opposite of fast fashion.

Most consumers interpret ethical fashion as a term created in response to an industry that’s notorious for underpaying employees—and in unsafe factories and working conditions, no less.

Ethical fashion seeks to answer questions like “Who made this garment?” and “Is that person earning a fair living wage?” But it’s also much more than that. 

According to WWD, consumers spent more than seven billion hours online searching for “sustainable,” “ethical,” “fair trade,” and “eco-friendly” items in 2020. Moreover, fast fashion had a particularly difficult year.

Edited, a retail market analytics firm, claims “in the U.S. and U.K. combined, new product arrivals for Q3 2020 were 11 per cent lower than in 2019.”

This could indicate a shift and decline in the fast fashion industry or simply that there’s been a pause in production in response to the pandemic. WWD notes it could be a bit of both. 

The fast fashion industry has gripped the world with its promise of never-ending trends, criminally low prices, and the convenience and accessibility that has come as a result.

We’ve grown used to extremely cheap clothing pumped out in new styles every single week, all at the click of a button.

We’re building houses with wardrobes the sizes of bedrooms and consuming “disposable” clothing at a rate never seen before. Fast fashion has become a detrimental environmental and social issue, and ethical fashion is a solution.

The concept of ethical fashion is on the rise, but the question is still asked: why should we bother with ethical fashion, and what does it mean? Ultimately, ethical fashion is defined by different people in different ways. We all have different ethics, and we all emphasise varying morals and values that we, as individuals, resonate with.

Ethical fashion advocates are obviously hoping for the former, though it could depend on how quickly truly ethical brands can get their messaging straight for consumers.

Without clear information from fashion companies on how, where, and by whom clothing is made, consumers often become overwhelmed and easily susceptible to greenwashing, as well as misinterpreting a brand’s specific ethics.

Certifications, thorough reports and honest answers to consumer questions are the best way for brands to help dissipate confusion. 

Ethical Vs Sustainable

Different brands approach responsible production in different ways.

However, it’s important to note that ethically made is not always environmentally sustainable and sustainably made is not always ethical.

A fashion brand can be ethical regarding human rights but not sustainable with its fabrics and environmental practices.

On the other hand, a brand can also be sustainable and completely disregard human rights.

And if you throw in the ethics of animal rights, then you have a whole other issue to consider.

Navigating The Current Ethical Fashion Space Is Difficult, And That’s An Understatement

Is it best to buy a garment made by people paid a living wage, or should I pick this sustainable hemp skirt instead of unknown origins?

Should you boycott a company that have ethically accredited their first and second-tier suppliers but they have no clue who made their zippers? 

Do you buy that vegan ‘leather’ handbag knowing no animals suffered for it, but in the likelihood that it was made in a sweatshop using toxic dyes and polyurethane (PU) that won’t biodegrade anytime soon and can’t be recycled?

It also has a huge climate change footprint, and if we’re going to tackle the existential threat of climate change, the fashion industry needs to address its unsustainable practices urgently.

If we don’t start to address the negative impacts of the fashion industry soon, we’re not going to have an industry in the future.

The fashion industry is one of the largest polluting in the world. However, some brands have recently announced that they aim to become 100 per cent ‘circular’ by 2030. Do you think it is possible to achieve a zero-waste fashion industry?

We must work towards a fashion industry that is working sustainably.

However, we don’t think zero-waste will be a panacea for all of the problems in the fashion industry.

As an industry and as a culture that spans across the world, we’re going to have to look at reducing our consumption alongside moving towards more circular models of production.

But the circular economy is an extremely exciting area that we need to be exploring further.

This year, London Fashion Week prohibited designers using animal fur on its catwalks following pledges by brands such as Burberry, Gucci and Versace to go fur-free.

Meanwhile, companies such as Adidas and G-Star RAW have developed apparel made from ocean plastic, with Adidas selling over a million from its ‘Parley’ range in 2017.

So why is sourcing sustainable materials important?

As you’ve mentioned, large numbers of materials commonly used today in the fashion industry are resource-intensive.

Cotton, for example, requires a huge amount of water, and synthetic materials like polyester are made from non-renewable resources such as oil.

Then there are other materials, like viscose, which on a massive scale leads to deforestation and affects the habitats of endangered species and ancient trees.

So we must move towards researching and developing more sustainable materials because it’s critical to the future of the fashion industry and the planet.

The truth is, we can’t keep using resources the way we are because we won’t have those resources left.

It takes almost 3,000 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt. So how large is the problem of waste, particularly water waste, in the clothing sector, and how can it be reduced?

Waste is one of the most pressing problems in the fashion industry. One hundred billion products are being pumped out of factories every year.

As a result, we now buy more clothes than we have ever bought, before disposing of them in the bin.

In North America alone, consumers throw out the equivalent of the Empire State building in weight every year. This waste is then either being burnt or going to landfills, which is not sustainable.

If you have to burn your product to dispose of it, that’s extremely inefficient, and it shows you’re not using your resources well.

That desperately needs to change. We can’t keep filling up our landfills either, or sending our secondhand clothes to other countries, because there will eventually be no space left.

Waste is our collective responsibility, and it has to be addressed quickly.

Water waste is particularly an important issue. One of the most striking examples of this is the Aral Sea which was once the world’s fourth-largest lake but has dried up largely because of cotton farming.


Fortunately, there are new innovative ways to dye clothes without having to use fascinating water.

What is the difference between ethical, slow, and sustainable fashion?

01: Ethical fashion

Let’s start with ethical fashion.

Ethical fashion is different for everyone and is defined in varying ways. However, the principles of ethical fashion remain the same: the ultimate meaning of ethical fashion is fashion that “aims to reduce the negative impact on people, animals, and the planet.”

Ethical fashion considers the rights of both the people who make the clothing and the animals from which some materials may be taken and the environmental impacts the creation of the clothing may have on the environment.

Ultimately, our ethics are our own, and the ethics we hold with the highest regard can dictate how we participate ethically as individuals.

02: Slow fashion

Slow fashion is both a mindset and a mode of production; it is essentially a movement intended to slow down the process between the consumer’s need for clothes and the end of a garment’s life.

To understand it a little better, we need only look at its opposite: fast fashion.

While the core of fast fashion is to pump out as many styles as possible in as little time as possible, the slow fashion movement intends for consumers to craft a relationship with the clothing they buy.

What’s more, slow fashion brands have a more considered approach to garment production, including made-to-order models and limited runs.

03: Sustainable fashion

Then there is sustainable fashion. Sustainable fashion seeks to create an industry completely devoted to moving fashion towards a more environmentally and socially conscious future.

Longevity surrounds every aspect of a forward-thinking, sustainably operating business, from its finances to its environmental features; sustainable fashion companies are no different.

It is only these businesses that we have room for on this earth.

Although ethical fashion, slow fashion, and sustainable fashion each hold immense importance individually, when combined, the three are unstoppable—kind of like Destiny’s Child.

If every one of the principles ruling each of these fashion ideas were merged to create some miracle business model, there would be no need for abuse, exploitation, or sweatshops in our supply chains.

Ethical, slow, and sustainable fashion may differ in their aspects, but the overall goal behind each remains the same.

Why is ethical fashion important?

Ethical fashion is important because the mode of consumption we have become used to is completely unsustainable.

The long term effects are detrimental to the health of the planet and the people on it, and we already see just how bad they can be.


According to The True Cost, the world’s population is consuming 400% more clothing than it was at the start of the millennium, cotton production is responsible for 18% of the world’s pesticide use and 25% of its insecticide use, and the amount of resources used to raise cattle for leather production is dramatically impacting the health of our planet.

In addition, the production of fast fashion contaminates all forms of water bodies, and “is responsible for producing 20% of global wastewater”; and 97% of fast fashion garments are produced overseas, with emphasis on developing countries (thank you for this info, 7Billion for 7Seas). These are just a few of the reasons why ethical fashion is important.

Garment workers

On the 24th of April 2013, the Dhaka garment factory collapse, otherwise known as the Rana Plaza tragedy, occurred in Bangladesh. The structure that contained clothing factories and other businesses collapsed, killing 1,134 people.


More than half of these people were women, and this number also includes children who were being cared for whilst their mothers were working in the factory.

Cracks were discovered in the building the day before the collapse.

Still, the building owner ignored warnings to discontinue using it, forcing garment workers to resume business as normal.

This tragic event should never have taken place and serves as a cruel reminder of just how important ethical production is.

Fast fashion is responsible for the abuse and exploitation of the planet’s natural resources and the people who make our clothing.

Garment workers, 80% of whom are women, are subjected to every form of abuse, as well as unsafe and unfair working conditions, and the Rana Plaza tragedy is just one of the many examples of why ethics in fashion matters.


We all know that the skin is our largest organ. We’re so careful with and spend hundreds on the products we put onto our skin, though something does not make sense.

What we seem to be forgetting is that the clothes we’ve purchased from our favourite fast-fashion boutiques were soaked with chemicals at every stage of their production and have ended up on our bodies. That’s just some food for thought.

From both a social and environmental viewpoint, ethical fashion is the only fashion model that should exist on this planet.

First, we should bother with ethical fashion because we’re human. Second, we should bother with ethical fashion because we want to continue existing on this beautiful planet.

The rate at which we’re using resources isn’t sustainable for mother earth. Finally, we should bother with ethical fashion because “there is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.”

The Solution Is More Brand Transparency

From what I’ve gathered, the conclusion is twofold: Let consumers define what ethical fashion means to them according to their set of values, and have brands commit to transparency instead of buzzwords.

The fashion industry at large is ever-evolving, and attempting to pin down one evergreen definition for categories such as ethical fashion is a moot point. 

Certainly, there are givens—like fair living wages and safe working conditions. But there is so much more that can fall under the umbrella of “ethical.” Maybe you can’t justify the cost of a new, ethically made garment, and secondhand goods are a priority for you.

Or perhaps vegan garments are your top priority. It isn’t easy to pin down when not everyone’s values are the same. The movement is still learning and growing, making it nearly impossible to simplify the issue or offer a clear-cut definition.

Instead of looking for what they think consumers want to hear (a tall order), clothing companies must choose what values matter most to their brand. It’s in their best interest to lay out all the facts—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

An honest company is more likely to receive interest from Millennial and Gen Z consumers who care about transparency and authenticity. The more information brands provide, the more likely they are to be praised instead of criticised.

Frequently Asked Questions About Ethical Swimwear 

What is ethical fashion ?

Ethical Fashion aims to address the problems it sees with the way the fashion industry currently operates, such as exploitative labour, environmental damage, the use of hazardous chemicals, waste, and animal cruelty.

Why is ethics needed in fashion?

It is important that brands which practice ethical and sustainable fashion must stay true to their commitment. This way they can win the trust of the consumers and uphold the company's ethical values. ... Sustainability is not limited to environment but the entire fashion business, from production to the retail stores.

Why is ethical sustainable clothing important?

Clothing is made using natural energy and avoiding pollution. While ethical fashion may not solve all of our problems with unsafe chemicals, water shortages, energy consumption, or overflowing landfills, it allows you to reduce your impact on the environment and invest in safer, more sustainable practices.

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Why Is Ethical Fashion Important?

Why Is Ethical Fashion Important?

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Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

Difference Between Sustainable And Ethical Fashion

Difference Between Sustainable And Ethical Fashion