What Is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion and Why Does It Matter
Sustainable and ethical fashion may sound like a trend. However, it’s more of a long-term commitment than a passing fad. Sustainable and ethical fashion considers every aspect of fashion, from sourcing and manufacturing to designing clothes that have less of an impact on the environment while supporting improvements in society. Sustainable and ethical fashion are two different concepts; one focuses on sustainability, while the other focuses on the ethics of the fashion industry to support communities.
Unfortunately, fashion is one of the least sustainable industries. When people are done with their old clothes, they simply throw them away. Meanwhile, scrap materials from fashion companies typically get thrown in the trash rather than recycled. When talking about sustainable and ethical fashion, you must understand the difference between these ideas and fast fashion. Fast fashion consists of trendy yet incredibly affordable clothing that companies can manufacture and sell quickly. For many consumers, fast fashion provides affordable clothing, which can be dangerous to the environment. Fast fashion apparel comes and goes quickly, so they’re made cheap, with cheap labour and cost-cutting manufacturing processes.
One of the main issues with fast fashion is the numerous human rights violations. Fast fashion brands may pay their workers unlivable wages or use child labor, abusive practices, and forced overtime, and these violations can happen throughout the supply chain from raw material production to sales and use. Additionally, the fashion industry uses chemicals when producing apparel, which has negative environmental impacts. Since most textiles are made from cotton, one of the dirtiest, least sustainable crops, they use harsh chemicals, insecticides, and pesticides that pollute the soil, water, and air. The fashion industry also wastes water, using tons of water for unsustainable crops like cotton.
Sustainable and Ethical Fashion is the Solution
The best solution to the problems that the fast fashion industry causes is sustainable and ethical fashion. Instead of purchasing fast fashion, look for sustainable clothing brands that use sustainable raw goods and ethical processes. For example, bamboo is a sustainable material that’s softer, more breathable, and uses less water than cotton. You can get everything from sustainable running shoes to shirts and pajamas to wear clothes that are better for the environment and the people working at the companies.
What to Consider
When looking for sustainable and ethical fashion brands, you must do your research to learn about a brand’s practices. Unfortunately, because these methods are still evolving, there’s not a single definition of what it means to be sustainable and ethical in the fashion world. Therefore, brands can make claims that mislead consumers. Until standards are set, consumers must do everything they can to learn about a brand, including where they get their raw materials and their ethical practices, such as how they treat the employees that work for them and the conditions in which those individuals work.
If you want to purchase from sustainable brands, look at the materials they use. If they use sustainable fabrics and materials, they’re more sustainable than brands that use cotton. Unfortunately, companies can make untrue claims about the sustainability of their materials. For example, they can claim their clothing is compostable when it’s really not since biodegradable and compostable are two different concepts.
Companies can also claim their fabrics are sustainable, and they very well may be. However, any sustainable fabric can be made unsustainable when treated with chemical dyes that contaminate the environment. There are many different types of fibers used in the fashion manufacturing process, and not all of them are genuinely sustainable. Natural or cellulosic fibers, for example, uphold strict ecological criteria with no chemicals, pesticides, or fertilizers, according to Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS). There are many different certifications for natural fibers, so it’s best to understand what each means and how it impacts the environment. There are also organic fibers like organic cotton that can be grown without chemicals and require less water and energy than traditional energy.
Unfortunately, some natural fibers, such as regular cotton, require heavy water use. The exception to this is bamboo, which requires less water to grow and grows quickly. Natural fibers also use heavy chemicals, and there are also deforestation concerns.
There are also processed natural fibers like lyocell, which convert wood pulp into a soft fiber that’s used in fabrics. Bamboo lyocell is a popular option for individuals who want to shop for more sustainable materials because all the water is recovered and reused. Unfortunately, though, not all bamboo is sustainable. Bamboo viscose/rayon utilizes mass amounts of harmful chemicals that can endanger the environment and wildlife.
Apparel can also be made from recycled materials, which are repurposed from nonbiodegradable plastic, reducing the harmful effects of landfills. Unfortunately, these fabrics are still considered plastic, which can be harmful to the environment when you’re done recycling them.
Raw materials aren’t the only thing to consider when shopping for sustainable and ethical fashion. Unfortunately, you can’t know about a company’s supply chain unless they’re transparent about their practices. Brands that use controlled supply chains can offer higher transparency. You may not be able to find information about a company’s supply chain on their website, but some indicators of a quality supply chain are:
- Products made in the USA
- Small product lines
- Products developed in countries with good workplace health and safety standards
- Use of family-owned factories
Additionally, companies that source and manufacture overseas should regularly audit their factories and suppliers.
Ethical Business Practices
Now, let’s talk a little bit about ethics in fashion. As discussed, fast fashion uses unethical business practices to create cheap products. Meanwhile, ethical businesses do more than adhere to basic human rights, paying their employees a livable wage and not engaging in child labor or forced labor. There are many ethical certifications a fashion company can get, with the most well-known being Fair Trade or B-Corp.
Sustainable and ethical fashion isn’t the most affordable option, but you can make smarter choices that reduce your carbon footprint and show brands what you want from them. For example, making conscious decisions to purchase ethical and sustainable clothing shows fast fashion brands that you’re looking for better options that support people and the planet.
About the author Ashley Nielsen
Ashley Nielsen earned a B.S. degree in Business Administration Marketing at Point Loma Nazarene University. She is a freelance writer who loves to share knowledge about general business, marketing, lifestyle, wellness, and financial tips. During her free time, she enjoys being outside, staying active, reading a book, or diving deep into her favourite music.