22 Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Terms You Need to Know
22 Jun

The 22 Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Terms You Need to Know

Whether you’re new to the world of sustainable fashion or an ethical fashion veteran, ethical and sustainable fashion terminology can be… confusing, to say the least.

There are so many words and definitions, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at first. Ethical fashion, sustainable fashion, eco-friendly, organic, fair trade, vegan… what do they all mean?!

Fear not, we’re here to help! We’ve created this super sustainable and ethical fashion glossary so you can navigate the ethical fashion world with ease. Here are 22 sustainable and ethical fashion words you need to know!

Sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion. You hear us talk about it a lot, but what is it exactly?

In 1987, the UN defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Sustainable fashion means finding a balance when designing, manufacturing, and consuming clothes. It means avoiding the depletion of natural resources, but also the exploitation of individuals and communities.

Being sustainable also means maintaining this balance well into the future by taking a long term approach to the production and consumption of clothes and accessories. It’s about ensuring the fashion industry both creates good and avoids harm, whether to people, the planet, or animals. Or preferably, all three!

Sustainable fashion means finding a balance when designing, manufacturing, and consuming clothes. It means avoiding the depletion of natural resources, but also the exploitation of individuals and communities.

Ethical fashion

Ethical and sustainable fashion are often used interchangeably. For some, ‘ethical fashion’ focuses more on the social impact of the fashion industry and what is “morally right”.

Ethical fashion goes beyond your local labour laws and covers a wide range of issues such as living wages, working conditions, animal welfare, and vegan fashion.

But ignoring the ethical dimensions of catastrophic environmental challenges like the impact of climate change, or the destruction of freshwater sources on humans and animals wouldn’t really make sense!

Learn more about ethical and sustainable fashion

Fast fashion

Fast Fashion can be defined as a model of mass-producing cheaply made, “of-the-moment” items that are sold at a lower price point.

It’s usually cheap, trendy clothing, produced at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still “hot”, and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears. It plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas, and that if you want to stay “in fashion”, you have to have the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the largest polluters in the world.

Discover how to spot a fast fashion brand

Slow fashion

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

It’s a movement and approach to fashion which 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

Minimalism

If you’ve heard of Marie Kondo, then you might already have an idea of what minimalism is.

Minimalism is about stripping back the unnecessary, leaving only the things that provide you with real value and joy.

For fashion, it can mean having a minimal amount of clothes in your wardrobe that feel right for you and bring joy.

If you’re interested in minimalism but are starting to feel a bit overwhelmed by the whole process, then capsule wardrobes are a good place to start! A capsule wardrobe is a logical selection of clothing that you not only love to wear, but that is practical and versatile.

Is a minimalist wardrobe the key to a happier and more sustainable lifestyle?

Greenwashing

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

It’s a growing concern nowadays as some companies are trying to benefit from the growing demand for sustainable and ethical clothes.

Companies usually market supposedly “environmentally-friendly” initiatives, like having one tiny eco-friendly line, using recycled packaging and switching to LED lights in their offices while not addressing critical environmental and labour issues.

How can you tell when a fashion brand is greenwashing?

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.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in particular, has been advocating for a global circular economy.

Recycling

Recycling is the action of converting waste into something new.

In the fashion industry, like in many industries, we hear a lot about recycled plastics. As you might already know, we humans produce and consume an enormous amount of plastic. So some companies have started looking at recycling plastic into new clothes: for example, turning plastic bottles into yarn to make fleece sweaters or leggings.

But since recycled plastic clothing is still plastic after all, the topic is contentious and highly debated in the industry.

Learn more about the ins and outs of recycled plastic clothing

Upcycling

Upcycling also turns waste into reusable material, but of better quality. Also based on the Cradle to Cradle approach, it’s a concept we’ve been hearing about more and more.

It is about re-using and re-purposing old items to make something new, like using old bedsheets to make a face mask.

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

Transparency

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.

At Good On You, we believe fashion brands have a responsibility and should be transparent about their impact. Of course, being transparent is only the first step towards being more sustainable and ethical. It allows customers to know exactly what they’re buying, with details from every step of the production process.

But how do we know what’s good? 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 ethical and sustainable 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.

Traceability

Traceability for a company means knowing its supply chains from start to finish, and being able to trace back each component of a product, from the raw material to the clothes tag and everything in between.

This step is crucial to transparency: how can a company disclose information on a product if it doesn’t know all the steps involved in making it?

Organic

People are increasingly looking for products that are better for them and for the environment. The search for “organic” products began in the food industry and is now reaching the fashion industry, with more and more brands starting to offer organic options.

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

Organic cotton, in particular, is becoming 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.

Because organic products are becoming increasingly popular, using the word “organic” can be incredibly persuasive: beware of greenwashing and of fashion brands claiming to do better when they are still not addressing other vital issues.

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

Vegan

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 are most passionate about and look closely at when rating brands is animal welfare, so this is a definition close to our hearts!

Discover our favourite vegan fashion brands

Cruelty-free

Cruelty-free is closely linked to veganism: it refers to products, usually cosmetics, that have not been tested on animals. Lush, for example, is a well-known cruelty-free company. 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 this as the standard!

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

Second-hand

Second-hand is pretty straightforward: it refers to clothes that have had a previous owner and that were donated or resold.

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

Biodegradable

All materials break down eventually, but some of them can take thousands of years and release harmful chemicals and substances in the process. Biodegradable items, on the contrary, can naturally decompose in the environment and avoid pollution. You might come across brands with biodegradable packaging, which is one of the most eco-friendly packaging options!

Carbon neutral/carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting happens 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 using regeneration processes, like donating a portion of sales to plant trees, or even investing in carbon neutral shipping.

But carbon offsetting is not that simple, and sadly is not a miracle solution to climate change!

Learn more about carbon offsetting

Microplastics/microfibres

Microplastics or microfibres refer to plastic particles smaller than 5mm.

Synthetic clothes, which are one of the largest sources of environmental pollution, are responsible for more than one-third of all microplastics polluting our waters. In fact, on average, a whopping 9 million synthetic microfibres go down the drain in an average load of washing in Europe!

How can you stop microplastics from going down the drain?

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 different organisations with the shared aim of supporting producers and protecting 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

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!

In Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia, for example, typical wages are only one quarter to one half of what a worker needs for a decent life.

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

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 the start of the questioning of fast fashion and demand by consumers for more transparency.

As a result, Fashion Revolution launched its Fashion Revolution Week, which happens every April and promotes their #whomademyclothes campaign. During this week, consumers ask brands #whomademyclothes to promote transparency in the fashion supply chain.

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

Diversity/Inclusivity

You may have come across mentions of diversity or inclusivity in the ethical fashion sphere. This is an important part of the movement that directly addresses the representation of diverse peoples in everything from the supply chain, to the models used in advertisement, to leadership positions. This might look like 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.

Here at Good On You, we have diversity guidelines for our content that requires the regular inclusion and 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 soon!

Diversity is an important part of the movement that directly addresses the representation of diverse peoples in everything from the supply chain, to the models used in advertisement, to the leadership positions.

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 our Directory to search more than 2,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

Ethical brand ratings. There’s an app for that.

Wear the change you want to see. Download our app to discover ethical brands and see how your favourites measure up.