What Are Ethical Issues in Fashion?

What Are Ethical Issues in Fashion?

As the world is bombarded with an unending supply of dirt-cheap clothes, ethical fashion activists in Dubai and the Middle East, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and the United States are voicing their concerns regarding the fashion industry's sustained exploitation of human, animal, and natural resources.

Following the Rana Plaza tragedy that rocked the glamorous world of fashion, international clothing brands were made to reconsider how their manufacturing processes affected their employees, the communities they inhabited, and the environment.

Philanthropists, environmentalists, human and animal rights activists, and conscious individuals worldwide began actively protesting unethical fashion.

Almost all fashion brands, from the haute couture houses to the fast-fashion giants, to the labels that dominate online shopping in UAE, are involved in unethical production practices. 

The fashion industry has complex connections to many other fields, including manufacturing, advertising, raw materials, transportation and retailing.

The tremendous profits that stand to be made in the fashion industry create the temptation to engage in unethical behaviour.

When producers, manufacturers, models or consumers are being exploited or treated unfairly, fashion executives have an ethical responsibility to change the situation.

Ethical fashion brings the basic issues associated with work conditions, animal welfare, fair trading, exploitation, and the fashion industry's environment.

Ethical Issues in the Fashion Industry

Child Labour

In their pursuit of cheap production, major fashion brands often relocate their production facilities to underdeveloped parts of the world, mostly in the Second and Third World.

Here, they employ anyone and everyone capable of working in a factory, including children.

Although child labour is forbidden by law in most countries, it continues to be the source of low-cost production worldwide.

According to the International Labour Organisation, an estimated 170 million children (11% of the global children population) are engaged in work, many of them within the fashion supply chain requiring low-skilled labour like harvesting, yarn spinning, garments production etc.

These children are often exposed to harmful chemicals, subjected to long working hours and stripped of their fundamental right to education and a better future.

Due to poverty and unawareness, the families of these underprivileged children know better than to question the quality in which their sons and daughters are being treated or to demand their rights as workers.

As a result, child fashion workers are not only made to work in critically substandard conditions all day long; they are also stripped of their fundamental right to education.

Many companies attempt to cut down the cost to increase their income. One technique is to hire a cheap labour force.

They achieved that by opening industries in countries with low labour costs and sometimes using child labour.

From an ethical point of view, such practices are deemed unethical. The exploitation of children mostly in such conditions of forced labour in unhygienic places is entirely uncalled for.

Poor Working Conditions

A vast majority of clothing sold daily is produced in developing countries in difficult and dangerous conditions.

Two major incidents – fire in garment factory Tazreen Fashion and collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh – which killed more than 1,200 garment workers combined, were just the peak of an iceberg.

Despite the public attention given to the issues, there remain companies that continue to employ workers in critically substandard conditions, exposed to harmful chemicals, emotional and physical abuse.

Low Wages

The fashion industry argues that it generates employment opportunities in Second and Third World countries.

But, because of this, their so-called sweatshops invariably benefit the lives of their workers, regardless of whether these employees are paid living wages or not.

Garment workers should earn enough income to support themselves and their family's basic needs, including food, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare. Unfortunately, many factories in developing countries do not pay their employees the minimum or living wage.

However, employment generation holds little consequence when the annual wages of the average sweatshop worker are measured, and the working conditions of his job are speculated.

In most of these countries, the below minimum wages, paid to workers by contractors hired by the big fashion companies, do not even cover their basic needs, let alone allow them a budget for emergencies and incidentals.

In the pursuit of low retail prices, the fast fashion companies exploit the cheap labour of millions of garment workers in Second and Third World countries whose wages fall far short of a minimum living wage.

Although the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has defined a living wage as a basic human right, the salaries paid to workers often do not even cover their basic needs, not to mention the emergencies.

Therefore, garment workers are forced to work after hours and can't afford to refuse work in case of illness, pregnancy, or questionable working conditions.

The fashion industry believes they create employment opportunities in Second and Third World countries.

Because of this, their so-called sweatshops continuously benefit from the lives of their workers, irrespective of whether those employees are paid living wages or not.

In most of these countries, the minimum wages paid to employees by contractors hired by the fashion industries do not even cover their primary needs, let alone allow them to make savings for emergencies and incidentals.

High Natural Resources Use

The fashion industry still relies mostly on non-renewable natural resources that significantly contribute to climate change. The garments we wear daily have been selected for their specific functionality and optimised for cost.

Still, they have notable disadvantages in terms of land, water and fossil fuels required for their production.

Plastic-based textiles use large amounts of energy, while natural materials farming needs high volumes of fertilisers and pesticides (unless farmed organically) as well as significant amounts of water, often in already water-scarce areas.

Dresses are beautiful to put on, but their production raises concerns in many different ways.

Global warming, the extinction of certain species, the dumping of nuclear wastes, and changes in the ecosystem are monitored intently.

They are mostly attributed to the activity of humanity.

The fashion industry has its part of the blame, and opinions vary as to the consequences of human activities on the environment.

Health And Safety Risks

A lot of clothes are made from cotton. Ethical issues regard the hazard posed by the environment when using pesticides while cultivating cotton.

Pesticides are dangerous to people and the environment. Pesticides may have adverse effects on people, including depressions, seizures, headaches or loss of consciousness.

It can also cause air, water, and soil pollution. Finally, pesticides can also lead to the death of pests and also affect other animals.

On top of denying scores and scores of men, women, and children of their basic human rights and of paying its workers' insufficient wages,

the fashion industry poses fatal threats to the lives of its workers and employees as many of these companies are known to build their Second and Third World apparel production units cheaply and shoddily.


Subcontracting is when a factory, who has received the original order, asks a different factory to complete the work without the buyer/customer knowing.

This happens often and is one of the reasons why most high street retailers cannot be 100% sure where their clothing is made.

Animal Cruelty

Animal cruelty often comes to the forefront of activists' schedules. In the fabrication of many kinds of clothing such as shoes, belts and other accessories, the skin of various animals is used.

For instance, the manufacturing of fur coats requires killing mink, foxes, or other animals whose skin can be utilised.

More frequently, these animals are killed using very merciless methods. As a result, their numbers have also decreased in the forest.

Some animals are near extinction because of immoderate killing.

Many textiles are treated with chemical compounds to soften and dye them. Unfortunately, such chemicals are dangerous to the environment and can also cause skin diseases.

Lead, nickel, chromium, and arylamines are some of the chemical compounds used to treat textiles.

Ethical problems in the fashion industry are the cause of many debates. Many industries regularly reply to public concerns by showing their corporate social duty in numerous methods.

Some are radical by being green. Others select a certain issue which they decide to show their responsibility.

For instance, many companies explicitly make known that producing their goods does not involve child labour or underpaid wages.

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, ethical issues keep preoccupying the activists, governments, and society as a whole.

One of the significant ethical issues in the fashion industry is also animal cruelty. Raising and hunting wild animals solely to harvest their fur is a highly inhumane practice.

Furthermore, the pollution of animals' natural habitat often disrupts their food chains and prevents them from living wild and free.

Quick Lead-Times

The quick turnaround of fashion trends found in high street shops causes western buyers to place huge amounts of pressure on their suppliers, often based in Eastern Europe or the Far East, to make and deliver goods as fast as possible, at the lowest price even with last-minute changes.

​​increased Consumerism And Waste

The current fashion system predominantly operates on a take-make-dispose model where high volumes of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short period, after which they usually end up in landfills.

As for highlights the report "A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future" from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the clothing is massively underutilised. Worldwide the average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago and now amounts to only 7 – 10 years.

Considering that only 1% of materials is recycled into new clothing, we shouldn't be too surprised that "one garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second".

Environmental Impacts

Pesticides used for modern cotton farming drain into local rivers, which people use for washing and drinking water. The excess dyes used to colour fabrics and jeans can also pollute nearby rivers and streams.

One of the central ethical concerns of the clothing industry is the relationship between the environment and the people. As a result, many customers want to associate with companies that incorporate fair trade practices with sweatshop-free workforce conditions without causing any harm to the environment or employees by using biodegradable and organic fabrics.

The materials, transportation, and production involved in the fashion industry all impact the environment. Many synthetic materials are derived from petroleum, while many more natural materials are grown on land that could be used for food production.

The most common environmental concern facing the clothing industry is the dangerous impact on the environment and the world at large since the fashion industry forms the second-largest environment polluter after the oil industry.

This is because the clothing industry engages in large production, which leads to huge disposals and consequently amounts to high levels of waste, increasing the challenge of shortage of natural resources.

Also, customers' high demand for clothes has made most clothing firms manufacture low-quality clothing mostly made from artificial fibres and unsafe dyes that lead to negative impacts on the environment. 

When the rivers are contaminated local fish stocks die, which affects the amount of food available for people who rely on it to survive.

The fashion industry creates a huge amount of pollution, including shipping goods around the world, often by airfreight, which is the quickest method.


Most cloth companies have been accused of sweatshops internationally. Apparel companies have been accused of subjecting their workers to unacceptable conditions that violate human rights.

Most of the companies pay their employees lower wages than the minimum wage limit set for international corporations.

Also, most of them pay their workers based on pieces rather than a guaranteed hourly payment. Furthermore, there have been complaints concerning force overtime, safety and health risks, and violations of rules as a result of negligence.

Also, since most of the employees are casual, most apparel companies disregard employees' welfare willingly to avoid expenses.

Poorly paid people in developing countries manufacture many fashionable clothes.

This practice, known as sweatshop labour, has come under major scrutiny and condemned by a wide range of critics. Particularly concerning is the employment of young children.

In some instances, workers get dismissed from their work without salary payment regardless of working for months.

Also, most companies do not get into any written agreement with the workers, hence terminating their services anytime without giving them notice.

Although most companies within the clothing industry claim to comply with ethical standards, customers have been pushing them to offer fashion with a conscience.

Despite cutting prices to customer-friendly prices, customers feel that these companies are responsible for ensuring practices that do not violate the set standards for the welfare of employees.

As a result, most customers have been going for products from the companies which adhere to supporting and observing human rights practices against their employees. 

Exclusivity And Inequality Issues

A large part of the appeal of expensive, fashionable clothing is that it's exclusive. The vast majority of people can't afford to buy it, so it grants a level of status and glamour to those who can.

Why Is Ethical Fashion Needed?

The high street clothing industry accounts for a massive share of Western retail. Every year, 100 million shoppers visit London's Oxford Street alone.

Globalisation means that materials and labour can be purchased in different parts of the world where costs are very low. Also, industrialised methods of growing cotton mean that fabrics can be produced quickly and cheaply and in very large quantities.

These savings are passed on to the customer, meaning that high street fashion is available at increasingly low prices, and much of it is regarded as disposable.

However, Ethical Fashionistas would argue that all this has a cost that we cannot see on the price tag.

Ethical Fashion Starts With You

It isn't hard to see that the mainstream fashion industry is desperately in need of an overhaul.

Thankfully, various concerned organisations, influencers, and companies have started acknowledging and taking action toward spreading awareness on these matters and holding the perpetrators accountable for their harmful and often criminal industry practices.

In recent years, most businesses have been assessed based on their ability to produce high-quality products that satisfy customers' needs and their ability to uphold ethical practices in their operations.

However, the clothing industry has been having ethical issues over the years, especially environmental and social factors.

Under environmental issues, the apparel industries have been blamed for producing low-quality fibre clothes and using unsafe dyes and chemicals on human beings. Also, there are complaints about inhuman processes through which these companies obtain animal products, including fur, wool, and leather, to use in the production of clothes.

Ethical fashion is well on the rise as more new and existing fashion brands are either born with or transitioning to sustainable, ecological, and ethical clothing supply chains and production methods.

Leading this fashion revolution are consumers and individuals who have woken up to the evils and injustices that mainstream and fast fashion companies inflict on millions of lives, both human and non-human, around the world.

So let's all take a stand and spread the message that no living soul should have to suffer or die in the name of fashion.

Sooner or later, brands will need to take individual responsibility for all the ethical and environmental issues raised in their supply chains. Still, only the collaborative effort of consumers will transform the industry. So what can we do? 

FAQs About Ethical Fashion 

What are ethics in 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.

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.

Why is it important to shop ethically?

The great thing about ethical consumerism is that the more demand we create for ethically made products from great companies, the more supply there will be. So, shopping sustainably not only supports your values in the short term, but it paves the way for more similar options down the road!

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