04 Sep

What Is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion?

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”?

Back to basics

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.

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

What is 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.

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.

And what about ethical fashion?

… for most purposes, it’s exactly the same thing. 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.

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!

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 the most comprehensive and widely trusted brand ratings system for fashion. Millions of consumers rely on our transparent sustainability data and robust ratings to make better shopping choices and drive industry change.

We’ve done the research and spoken to the experts, the campaigners, and the brands to develop simple yet comprehensive ratings for how each label impacts the three key areas of 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

Fashion is a dirty industry. 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 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But not all hope is lost—due to its massive impact on our environment and planet, shifting from fast to slow, making the most of what you already have, prioritising second hand, and supporting better fashion brands can help minimise your carbon footprint.

When it comes to more sustainable 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 lower-impact 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, more sustainable, and mindful brands. That’s an empowering thought, right?

Good on people

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. More 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 focussed 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 more 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, the majority of the millions of garment workers worldwide are 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 Fairtrade that fight to eradicate the worst forms of child labour.

Good on animals

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 lower-impact 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 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 better 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”, as well as buying second hand. But when you do need to shop, why not support the more ethical brands working to change this industry for the better?

See also

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 thousands of rated brands.

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.