20 Aug

What Is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion?

Imagine a world where you can wander into any clothing store to shop and know right away exactly how your purchases will affect the environment, workers, and animals alike. You could browse through the collections with a light heart, knowing that a lucky find would benefit people and the planet instead of harming them. This is the ultimate goal that drives the ethical and sustainable fashion movement.

We all know this is a utopian scenario, but the industry is making significant progress! Initiatives like Good On You exist to help you find out which brands behave like our ideal clothing store and which ones don’t.

We recognise that the issues in the fashion industry are complex, and the definitions can be confusing, so we’re here to break it down for you—what is sustainable fashion exactly? And what about ethical fashion?

Ready to learn about ethical and sustainable fashion and why you should join the cause? Then read on.

What is sustainable fashion?

Strictly speaking, sustainability means maintaining an ecological balance by avoiding the depletion of natural resources. But sustainability is commonly extended to social systems—ensuring they promote the well being of all the individuals and communities affected.

Sustainability also speaks to longevity—environmental, social, and economic systems and industries need to be designed in a way that means they are in balance and can be maintained well into the future.

So, sustainable fashion is simply about fostering a fashion industry that takes a long term approach to the design, manufacturing, and consumption of clothes and accessories. It’s about fashion that both creates good and avoids harm, whether to people, the planet, or animals.

And what about ethical fashion?

… for most purposes, exactly the same thing! Ethical and sustainable fashion are generally used interchangeably. However, for some, ‘ethical fashion’ focuses more on what is ‘morally right’ about the treatment of everyone who inhabits this planet we call home—humans and animals alike.

Ethical fashion tends to call out everything from living wages and healthy working conditions to 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!

How Good On You helps you build a more sustainable wardrobe

Good On You is an ethical rating system for fashion. We’ve done the research and spoken to the experts, the campaigners, and the brands to develop simple ratings for how each label impacts these three key areas: people, planet, and animals. We score each brand on these issues and give an overall rating from ‘We Avoid’ and ‘Not Good Enough’, through ‘It’s A Start’, to ‘Good’ and ‘Great’—search your favourite brands over on our Directory or in the app. For more information on our ratings system and processes, head over to our How We Rate page.

Good On You is here to give you, our users, easy-to-understand information so that you can look good and feel good about the clothes you wear. We also work to change the fashion industry by celebrating the brands that make ethics and sustainability part of their identity. Now, to those key areas.

Good on the planet

As one of our favourite ‘Great’ rated sustainable brands, Organic Basics, put it: “The fashion industry is a dirty bastard.” Every day, month, and year, fast fashion industries pollute our air with gigantic CO2 emissions, waste thousands of gallons of our most precious natural resource—water—and infuse our oceans and groundwater with toxic chemicals and microplastics. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. When looking at the environmental destruction by the current fashion industry, we have to take the entire cycle into account—production, consumption, and waste disposal. All of these three stages still look quite devastating when scrutinised. For instance, the United Nations estimates that the fashion industry contributes a massive 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But there’s good news, too—due to its massive impact on our environment and planet, shifting from fast to slow, ethical, and sustainable fashion can minimise your carbon footprint. It’s just as effective as switching to plane-free travel—if not even more so.

When it comes to ethical fashion brands, pioneers in the industry prioritise the planet in a few ways. They keep the whole cycle of a fashion item in mind, focusing on environmentally-friendly production methods that save resources and energy and waste reduction inspired by the concept of a circular economy.

As we can see, the vast majority of the fashion industry is still contributing to environmental pollution, toxic emissions, and waste production, and thus to the biggest challenge of our generation—climate change. But we always like to look on the bright side—this all means that we, as consumers, can be part of the solution with the simple decision to reduce our consumption. And when we do need new, to buy our clothes from future-oriented, sustainable, and mindful brands. That’s an empowering thought, right?

Good on people

garment worker

Speaking of empowering, this should undeniably include our fellow humans, as well. Unfortunately, incredibly long supply chains, dangerous working conditions, and more than insufficient wages currently make life needlessly challenging for most people producing the clothes we wear. Yet, without their work, we would be lost. Ethical brands are aware of this fact and treat the people involved in the production process of their collections accordingly—as partners.

Good On You values and supports brands focused on fair and transparent management that give you an insight into their entire supply chain and even introduce those contributing to the final piece you can buy from them. Many ethical brands are trying to pave the way for transparent and fair supply chains on a global scale, making sure that every person involved in the production process of fashion is treated with respect, paid accordingly to their workforce, and gets to work in a safe environment.

Moreover, fair labour conditions is a highly feminist matter. As the campaign Labour Behind The Label reveals, around 80% of all garment workers worldwide are young women. Fair labour conditions are also a matter of children’s rights, given that a significant part of illegal child labour takes place in domains of the fashion industry, such as the production of conventional cotton. As a consumer, you can actively look out for brands accredited by Fair Trade that fight to eradicate the worst forms of child labour.

Good on animals

picture of two cows

In the past few years, a whole host of fashion brands have heeded the call from animal lovers and gone fur-free. But there are other things to look for when considering animal welfare in the fashion industry, which is sadly still rife with animal cruelty. This is why Good On You has an eye on animal welfare as one of the three key components when rating a brand. We identify the use of fur, angora, down feather, shearling, karakul, and exotic animal skin and hair for our animal ratings. We also consider if wool has been produced using ‘mulesing’ and whether and how the brand uses leather. The ethical impacts of a lot of these animal materials are at once obvious and overlooked, and an essential part of our mission is highlighting brands that are doing right by the sentient beings we share our home with and calling out the ones that aren’t.

Thankfully, many innovative businesses share our concern for animal welfare and the environmental impact of animal products in the fashion industry. Vegan brands lead the way by introducing cruelty-free and eco-friendly materials that can compete with leather. They prove that dressing in style without wearing exotic animal skin or hair is not only possible but easy and fun—the way fashion should be.

Don’t mistake everyday animal products such as leather to be mere by-products of other industries, either. As long as they are in high demand, animals will continue to suffer for the fleeting pleasure of a woollen coat or leather bag. And if you don’t feel ready to completely switch to vegan materials yet, switch to second hand in the meantime! It’s not only far more ethical but also a lot more sustainable as the products will tend to last you much longer. And why should any living creature continue to suffer for our favourite outfits?

Good on you

Ethical fashion brands are already doing an unbelievable job paving the way for a more humane industry in which everyone looks out for each other, on eye level. However, they can’t do it alone…

… they need you to discover the power within you that is your choice of buying from some brands and turning others down. Or your choice to buy less and reuse and repair, or re- and upcycle instead. You can help to raise awareness of customers’ power in demanding this sustainable and fair transition of the industry and its mechanisms.

The best part is that there will be more and more positive outcomes and effects of seeing the rise and success of ethical fashion brands. Often, they simultaneously support many other critical topics. They fight stereotypes, stigma, and prejudice across society. They choose to stand in against racism and support and promote diversity of all kinds instead. They choose to celebrate women—all of them. They think of the future instead of living in the past. And they want to shape it in a way that everyone, everywhere, can lead a life in dignity and full of opportunities, taking care of the planet we live on and the beings we share it with—looking fabulous all the way, of course.

The sustainable fashion movement is driven by conscious choices being made when clothes shopping, with questioning and boycotting fast fashion, and by choosing the purchase you know you can feel good about.

With joint forces, we can combat mindless consumerism and fast fashion and the destructive impact they have on our communities, our planet, and all the creatures living on it.

And now you know about the way ethical fashion choices can create good, or at least avoid some of the harm caused by our clothing purchases, you’re probably wondering how to find the clothes that meet your needs and values. Of course, the first step is only to buy what you need—Good On You firmly supports “Reduce, Rewear, Recycle, Repair, Resell”. But when you do need to shop, why not support the ethical brands working to change this industry for the better?

See also

Author bio: Hannah Lang is an anthropologist working in the non-profit international development sector. She is passionate about intercultural communication, human rights, and policies for a more sustainable and inclusive future. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Editor's note

All images 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 3,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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