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Dictionary definition of climate
31 May
Dictionary definition of climate

The 31 Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Terms You Need to Know

We’ve created a super sustainable and ethical fashion glossary so you can navigate the sustainable fashion world with ease.

Your sustainable fashion glossary

Ethical and sustainable fashion terminology can be confusing, to say the least. There are so many terms that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when definitions—and statistics, for that matter—vary depending on where you look. What’s the difference between fair trade and Fairtrade, for instance? What does greenwashing mean? Is it the same as greenhushing? And what is carbon offsetting all about?

Worry not, because we’ve answered those questions and more. Here are 31 sustainable and ethical fashion words you need to know.

Table of contents



All materials break down eventually, but some of them can take thousands of years and release harmful chemicals and substances in the process (here’s looking at you, plastic). Biodegradable items, on the contrary, can naturally decompose fairly quickly (by bacteria, fungi, or other living organisms) in the environment and avoid pollution. Some brands may use biodegradable packaging, which is one of the most eco-friendly packaging options.


Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth. In fashion, it’s often discussed in the context of the industry’s practices that cause biodiversity loss, such as destructive raw material sourcing that leads to soil degradation and habitat loss, and much more. It’s a complex subject involving many of the other sustainability issues listed in this glossary.

Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is “the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.” The term was originally coined by oil and gas company BP in an attempt to shift the responsibility of cutting emissions from businesses to consumers, but it’s now routinely used to quantify the impact of organisations or products.

Carbon neutral

When the carbon dioxide that an organisation or person emits through their practices or daily lives is balanced out by the carbon dioxide that they remove from the atmosphere (usually through some kind of programme), they are said to be carbon neutral. You’ll often see this term used alongside carbon offsetting, which is a common way of achieving so-called carbon neutrality.

“Net zero” is sometimes used interchangeably with carbon neutral, though the term has been falling out of favour in recent years.

Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting is when a company—or even an individual—invests in one or more environmental projects to balance out their greenhouse gas emissions and become carbon neutral. This could mean donating a portion of sales to regeneration processes like planting trees, or investing in carbon-neutral shipping.

But carbon offsetting is not that simple, nor is it a miracle solution to climate change.

Learn more about carbon offsetting

Circular fashion

Circular fashion is about designing waste and pollution out of our clothes, and ensuring they help regenerate natural systems at the end of their (long) lives. It is based partly on William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design philosophy. Circular fashion moves away from the traditional linear take-make-dispose business model.

A circular economy for fashion creates better products and services for customers, contributes to a resilient and thriving fashion industry, keeps waste out of landfill, and regenerates the environment. It prioritises the rights and equity of everyone involved and will create opportunities for growth that are distributed, diverse, and inclusive. Circular fashion products are:

  • Used for as long as possible thanks to good care and repair, and through rental services or reselling.
  • Recycled and reused in the manufacturing of new products. If they’re unfit for recycling, the materials are disposed of responsibly and are preferably composted to become nutrients for plants and other living organisms.
  • Made from safe and recycled or renewable inputs.

Overall, the product’s life cycle should bring no environmental or socio-economic harm, but instead contribute to the positive development and wellbeing of humans, ecosystems, and societies. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in particular, has been advocating for a global circular economy.


Cruelty-free is closely linked to veganism. It refers to products whose manufacture has not adversely affected animals—either by killing or harming them. It is worth noting, however, that cruelty-free doesn’t always mean vegan, so if you want your clothes and accessories entirely animal-free, don’t rely on cruelty-free as the standard.

Read our guide to cruelty-free hair and skincare (on a budget)

Cultural sustainability

Cultural sustainability is about the ongoing stewardship of cultural heritage by the communities at the heart of it. Engaging in cultural sustainability ensures that these communities benefit—and aren’t harmed or exploited—in the use and adaption of their heritage, in particular craft and artisanship.

Read our feature on cultural sustainability by Good On You’s rating analyst Jessica Ouano

Diversity/ inclusivity

Diversity or inclusivity in the ethical fashion sphere addresses the representation of diverse peoples in everything from the supply chain to leadership positions and the models and entire creative teams behind marketing campaigns. Examples include brands that cater to plus-size individuals, have racially diverse employees, or celebrate and support LGBTQIA+ organisations. Diversity and sustainability are closely linked, and it’s been shown that “companies with more diverse leadership have better environmental compliance reporting, in addition to stronger financial returns.”

Good On You has diversity guidelines for content that requires consistent representation of minority groups, and we are currently reviewing our rating system to ensure we adequately address issues of racial justice, while also working to have more BIPOC-owned brands rated and recommended.

Diversity addresses the representation of diverse peoples in everything from the supply chain to leadership positions and the models and entire creative teams behind marketing campaigns.

Ethical fashion

Ethical and sustainable fashion are often used interchangeably. But sometimes ethical fashion is differentiated as focusing more on the social impact of the industry and what is “morally right”. In this sense, ethical fashion goes beyond your local labour laws and covers a range of issues such as living wages and working conditions.

But it’s important to remember that ignoring the ethical dimensions of catastrophic environmental challenges like climate change or the destruction of freshwater sources for humans and animals doesn’t tell the full story of fashion’s impact.

Learn more about ethical and sustainable fashion

Fair trade/ Fairtrade

You’ve probably heard about fair trade before or have seen certifications on products at the supermarket.

Fair trade refers to the general movement, which encompasses many organisations that support producers and protect workers’ rights and the environment. Fair trade describes a brand or an individual product that has been certified and labelled by an independent organisation because it meets certain standards.

Fairtrade, on the other hand, specifically refers to the certifying and labelling organisation Fairtrade International.

Read more about fair trade and what it means for the fashion industry

Fast fashion

Fast fashion is the mass production of cheap and trendy clothing at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. These clothes (and accessories) are often poor quality, so they don’t last long and are quickly discarded in favour of the next round of trends—a cycle that’s bolstered by aggressive marketing and a single-use mindset.

It is a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the largest polluters in the world. What’s more, the pressure on factories to produce garments at low costs often leads to significant labour rights abuses.

In recent years, this cycle has gotten even faster, giving rise to ultra fast fashion.

Find out how to spot a fast fashion brand

Greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions are all the various gases released into the Earth’s atmosphere that contribute to a greenhouse effect by trapping heat and preventing it from leaving the atmosphere. The result is global warming and climate change. Key examples of greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, water vapour, and methane—they’re created by agriculture and burning fossil fuels, amongst other things.


Not to be confused with greenwashing (see below), greenhushing is when a company doesn’t disclose any information about its sustainability to avoid being called out for not doing enough, falling foul of legislation, or simply for getting it wrong and being accused of greenwashing.

Read more about greenhushing in an article by our co-founder, Sandra Capponi


Greenwashing is the use of marketing to overstate or portray an organisation’s products, activities, or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not.

As some companies seek to profit from the growing demand for more sustainable and ethical clothes, governments and legislators the world over are tabling bills to limit common greenwashing practices.

Examples of greenwashing are creating “eco-friendly” collections, using recycled packaging, and switching to LED lights in offices—all while ignoring critical environmental and labour issues elsewhere in the business.

How can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing?

Living wage

A living wage is the bare minimum wage required for workers to live a decent life. It’s different from the legal minimum wage, which is usually far below the living wage.

Here’s everything you need to know about the benefits of a living wage for garment workers

Microplastics/ microfibres

Microfibres are fibre fragments that typically measure less than 5 mm. Microfibres are shed from textiles during washing and wearing. Synthetic microfibres, also known as microplastics, are a huge source of environmental pollution. Millions of synthetic microfibres go down the drain in an average load of washing and make their way into the environment, animals, and even back to humans.

Here’s what you can do about microfibres in your wardrobe


People are increasingly looking for products that are better for them and the environment. The search for organic products began in the food industry and has now reached the fashion industry, with more and more brands offering organic fabrics.

Organic refers to raw materials that are not genetically modified (GM), and have been grown without chemical pesticides and insecticides. Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and overall use of fewer resources.

Organic cotton is particularly popular, although its production is far from perfect. Several organisations, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) are helping consumers find certified organic clothes. However, organic cotton certification recently came under fire when it was discovered much of the fibre marketed as organic may not be so. According to a report by The New York Times, “at the heart of the problem is an opaque certification system rife with opportunities for fraud.”

Because organic and more sustainable products are becoming increasingly popular, describing something as organic can be incredibly persuasive in marketing: beware of greenwashing and fashion brands claiming to do better when they are still not addressing other vital issues.

Here are some ‘Good’ and ‘Great’ organic brands

Rana Plaza

In 2013, the world had a reality check when the Rana Plaza clothing manufacturing complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers.

This industrial catastrophe—one of the worst in history—marked a significant reckoning with fast fashion’s poor practices, and increased consumer demand for greater transparency.

As a result, Fashion Revolution launched its annual Fashion Revolution Week, which promotes the organisation’s campaigns, including #WhoMadeMyClothes? and #WhatsInMyClothes? During the event, consumers are encouraged to ask brands these questions to achieve greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.

What you need to know about the day that ignited an ethical fashion revolution


Recycling is the action of converting waste into something new.

In fashion, like many other industries, there’s a big focus on recycling plastic because of the enormous amount of it that is produced, consumed, and discarded. Plastic bottles can be recycled into yarn to make polyester for sweaters or leggings, for instance, but it’s not as easy to recycle plastic-based textiles into a new textile. And since recycled plastic clothing is still plastic, its use as a so-called sustainable material remains contentious.

Learn more about the ins and outs of recycled plastic clothing

Science-based targets

Science-based targets are in line with what the latest climate science considers necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. These targets help businesses to define clear pathways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prevent climate change, and grow more sustainably. The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) offers good examples of current science-based targets.

Second hand

Second hand is pretty straightforward: it refers to clothes that have had a previous owner and were donated or resold. It’s interchangeable with terms like pre-loved and pre-owned.

Second hand is one of the most sustainable fashion options out there, as you’re reducing your impact by not buying “new”, and by giving a second life to items that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

Here are our tips for selling old clothes online

Slow fashion

Coined by Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion following the slow food movement, slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion.

This movement and approach to fashion considers the processes and resources required to make clothing, particularly focusing on sustainability.

It means buying better quality garments less often that will last for longer and values fair treatment of people, animals, and the planet.

Here are some of our favourite slow fashion brands

Supply chain

A fashion supply chain is a sequence of processes involved in the manufacture of a fashion product. Fashion supply chains are highly fragmented and comprise several steps, including sourcing raw materials; processing raw materials into fibres and yarns; weaving or knitting yarns into fabrics; and cutting and sewing the fabrics to make garments. Each of these stages can happen in different countries which makes traceability challenging, particularly for large brands that offer a variety of products.

Read more about fashion supply chains

Sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion builds on the concept of sustainable development, which the UN defined in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The intended meaning of the term sustainable fashion is often noble. When campaigners and experts use it (and related terms like ethical fashion, green fashion, and eco fashion), they’re advocating for a fashion industry that manages its environmental impacts within planetary boundaries and ensures the wellbeing of people and other animals throughout the supply chain. In this view, meaningful sustainability requires a fundamental shift away from the business models that drive overproduction, overconsumption, waste, worker exploitation, and the climate emergency. Many experts will use terms like degrowth and the circular economy to describe the systemic changes needed to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry.

But due to its vagueness and the perceived lack of progress towards these goals, sustainable fashion is a term that many designers, activists, and policymakers now have mixed feelings about.

In recent years, terms like “sustainable” and “ethical” have been frequently co-opted in greenwashing and corporate sustainability spin. When the brands that are responsible for the majority of fashion’s overproduction, environmental impacts, and worker exploitation claim to be sustainable, the term begins to lose its meaning. And while a brand can be “more sustainable” and consumers can make “more sustainable choices”, the current reality is that no brand or choice is fully sustainable. This means the term is often limited and loses its potency.

To combat greenwashing, policymakers everywhere, from New York to the European Union, are working on legislating how a brand can use these terms in their marketing, leading to a rise in alternative ways of describing the initial goals behind the term itself.

For example, The New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman has argued the term “sustainable fashion” is itself an oxymoron: “‘Sustainable’, after all, implies ‘able to continue over a period of time,’ […] ‘Fashion,’ on the other hand, implies change over time. To reconcile the two is impossible.” Friedman has resolved to use the term “responsible fashion” instead. More and more, retailers and brands are gravitating toward other labels like “conscious fashion” with similar intentions.

A brand can be 'more sustainable' and consumers can make 'more sustainable choices', but the current reality is that no brand or choice is fully sustainable. This means the term is often limited and loses its potency.


Traceability for a company means being able to trace its supply chains from start to finish, and the origin of each product’s components—from the raw material to the label and everything in between.

It includes knowledge of the location of mills, farms, factories, and much more. Tracing to supply chains and materials means greater transparency of production processes and supply chain, knowledge of sustainability efforts, potential reduction of child labour, and prevention of health issues.

Traceability is crucial to transparency—after all, how can a company disclose accurate information about its practices if it doesn’t know all the steps involved in making its products?


Transparency is the practice of openly sharing information about how, where, and by whom a product was made. Being transparent means publishing all information about every actor involved in the production process, from start to finish, from the fields to the store shelves.

Good On You believes fashion brands have a responsibility and should be transparent about their impact. It’s the first step towards being more sustainable and ethical, and it allows customers to know exactly what they’re buying.

But what does good transparency look like? The Good On You team does the work to read between the seams for you, and pulls all the information together by using expert analysis to give each brand an easy-to-understand score.

Discover the best responsible fashion brands from all over the world

Being transparent means publishing all information about every actor involved in the production process, from start to finish, from the fields to the store shelves.

Ultra fast fashion

Ultra fast fashion takes everything harmful about fast fashion we listed above and speeds it up. That means faster production cycles, faster trend churn, and faster to the landfills. The clothing is ultra plastic, with one 2021 study reporting that at least half of some fast fashion retailers’ garments were made from virgin plastics that will shed microfibres into waterways and the air for years to come. With ultra fast fashion, the negative impacts on workers and the environment reach depressing new lows.

Learn more about ultra fast fashion


Like recycling, upcycling also turns waste into something new—often in an artistic way or that makes it better quality than the original item, like using old bedsheets to make a face mask. It’s also based on the Cradle to Cradle approach.

Upcycling removes waste from the system, requires less energy than recycling, and so has a better environmental impact. Plus, it encourages creativity and innovation.


Vegan refers to products that have been made using zero animal products or by-products. For fashion, it means not using components like leather, wool, silk, cashmere, angora and more, as all these fibres come from animals. Plus, animal rights in the fashion industry can often be linked to broader environmental issues. Look out for PETA certified vegan products to ensure there are no hidden animal ingredients in your clothes and accessories.

At Good On You, one of the three areas we look closely at when rating brands is animal welfare. Brands cannot achieve our highest score of “Great” for animals unless they are 100% vegan.

Discover our favourite vegan fashion brands

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world's most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet, and animals. Use the directory to search thousands of rated brands.

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