05 Aug

The 27 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.

Our sustainable fashion glossary

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 that 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. Here are 26 sustainable and ethical fashion words you need to know.

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.

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

Ultra fast fashion

Ultra fast fashion takes everything harmful about fast fashion we’ve 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 at least half of these garments made from virgin plastics that will shed microfibers into waterways and the air for years to come. With ultra fast fashion, the negative impacts on workers and the environment reach depressingly new lows.

Learn more about ultra fast fashion

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

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 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, repair, refurbishment or by being rented, leased, resold or allocated to second hand initiatives
  • recycled and reused for the manufacturing of new products. Or (if unfit for recycling) composted to become nutrients for plants and other living organisms
  • made from safe and recycled or renewable inputs

Overall, the products’ 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.

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 more 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?

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.

Good On You believes 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 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.

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. It includes knowledge surrounding the location of milling facilities, farms, plants, and much more. Upsides include greater transparency of production processes and supply chain, knowledge of sustainability efforts, reduction of child labour, and prevention of health issues.

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?

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 the sourcing of raw materials; the conversion of raw materials into fibres and yarns; the conversion of yarns into fabrics; and the conversion of fabrics into garments. It is common for each of these stages to take place in different countries, and so traceability can be challenging—particularly for large brands which offer a broad range of products.

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. 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 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. Brands cannot achieve our highest score of “Great” for animals unless they are 100% vegan.

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. It is 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

Biodegradable

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 (by bacteria, fungi, or other living organisms) in the environment and avoid pollution. Some brands may also use biodegradable packaging, which is one of the most eco-friendly packaging options.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions are all the various gases released into the Earth’s atmosphere that contribute to the greenhouse effect by trapping heat and preventing it from leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. Key examples include carbon, water vapour, and methane; these can be created by burning fossil fuels and agriculture.

Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is “the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.” While the term was originally coined by multinational oil and gas company BP to try to shift the responsibility of cutting emissions from businesses to consumers, it is now routinely applied in the context of, for example, quantifying the impact of organisations or products.

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

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 brands define clear pathways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prevent climate change, and grow sustainably. Examples of science-based targets include those which have been approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

Microplastics/microfibres

Microfibres are fibre fragments that typically measure less than 5 mm. Microfibres are shed from textiles, particularly during processes such as washing but also from wearing. Synthetic microfibres, also known as microplastics, in particular, 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 own wardrobe

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 benefits 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 campaigns, including #WhoMadeMyClothes? and #WhatsInMyClothes?. During this week, consumers ask brands these questions 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 the directory to search thousands of rated brands.

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