With the rise of apparel manufacturing processes that seek to fight the business model known as fast fashion, the concepts of ethical fashion and sustainable fashion are often used interchangeably.
A unanimous definition of anything ethical is nigh on impossible because such a valuation depends on a subjective assessment of what constitutes as morally satisfactory behaviour. However, the word is largely attached to anything related to human rights in the workplace and working conditions, as well as the living conditions of workers, their families, and their communities. Ethical fashion then, would be anything made under an agreed set of standards regarding such. Likewise, sustainable fashion is defined as a separate category of clothing production whose methods and processes are less polluting, or help counter the environmental effects of the garment industry. At the end of the day, however, you cannot separate ethical from sustainable fashion – as the well known anecdote goes: it is a sustainability issue that rivers are being poisoned, and an ethical one that people are thus being denied fresh water. Holistically then, the slow fashion movement consists of all things ethical – from environmental concerns to labour rights and supply chain transparency, and even the humane treatment of animals. As said by the Ethical Fashion Forum, it “represents an approach to the design, sourcing, and manufactur[ing] of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimizing [negative] impact on the environment.”
For those of us with the buying power, slow fashion means being more mindful about our purchases and shopping practices – it is about buying less, but buying better. Being a conscious consumer entails being aware of both the positive and negative impacts of what we buy. However, due to the comprehensiveness of all that has been defined above, and with the acknowledgement that deeming anything as ethical comes with a set of implied values, cultural perceptions, and highly subjective points of view, it essentially falls to the consumer to assess whether or not something is ethical, or to pick their battles, so to speak, based on their personal values.
Foremost, though, it is equally imperative to discuss what does not constitute as ethical or sustainable fashion. Alongside the rise of the slow fashion movement has been that of the green-washing movement – when companies make environmental or ethical claims about their products that are either untruthful, or that obscure other less desirable business practices, usually as a marketing stunt to improve their sales and overall image. Examples include:
Charitable brands can still sell cheap, toxic, low-quality clothes that are made in a sweatshop in South East Asia, and no amount of philanthropy makes that ok.
- Product raises awareness for/ promotes an idea or cause
Similarly to brands that attempt to compensate for their supply chain maladies, garments or accessories highlighting an important ideal or cause may still have dubious supply chains, which cannot simply be forgotten about.
- Supply chain transparency
This point is slightly contentious. While supply chain transparency is certainly one (hugely important) part of practicing ethical and sustainable fashion, it is rendered useless if it shows a supply chain to be riddled with environmental and labour law abuses. Thus, alone, it cannot be constituted as ethical or sustainable fashion. However, in the same way that for alcoholism the first step to recovery is to admit that it is a problem, it is a good place to start.