How a Self-Confessed Materialist Wrangles with (Un)Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion is feel-good fashion – through a moral lens. Many know that fashion, in its current state of consumption, is incredibly harmful to the environment. The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for 8 percent of global carbon emissions. Add in substandard working conditions and mass over-consumption, it’s an ethical maelstrom where everyone is implicated.

It’s not just cheap labels; it’s the uber-beloved brands too. Nike has had its child labor woes. Patagonia has acknowledged some of its polyester byproducts pollute the waterstream. GAP, Levi’s, Carter’s, and other iconic brands use non-organic cotton which has been dubbed the world’s dirtiest crop and they manufacture in overseas factories with minimal oversight.

It’s bad news everywhere and everyone’s doing it. This, for me, has fueled major periods of consumer apathy. (Everyone’s a bad guy in the fashion game. I just want to look cute for brunch. Leave me alone.)

For many, it’s a thin line from being overwhelmed into inaction vs empowered.

Education has the impact to do either, if not both. But in my research, I’ve found that there are good guys out there who are doing it right. Which means there’s hope for me, a hopeless materialist, to look cute and ethical over brunch.   

What is meant by ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion is generally understood to mean fashion produced in a manner that treats people fairly and ethically. This means equitable wages and safe working conditions for farmers, factory workers and everyone else involved in the garment’s production and distribution.

Ethical fashion can also have philanthropic missions. Many ethical fashion brands emphasize the importance of careful consumption and minimizing your purchases. Programs to maintain and repair their clothes are common, as well as programs for customers to easily buy and sell the brand’s clothing in used condition.

Ethical fashion is a better choice for many consumers who are concerned by the moral implications of producing cheap fashion in countries too far away for regular oversight.

How is ethical fashion different from regular fashion? 

Ethical fashion is much more methodical and slow than regular or fast fashion. Fast fashion relies on cheaply made clothes that are produced incredibly fast. They bypass many safe working conditions and usually do not care (as much) about the well-being of their workers and may promote child labor.

Ethical fashion encourages responsible buying and many brands have extensive missions related to their workers and others involved in the supply chain. Ethical fashion is also transparent, which is a key to being a responsible consumer. 

What is ethical vs sustainable fashion? 

Often the terms are used interchangeably. However, ethical fashion typically refers to the way the business is run, how people within the company are treated and what is ‘morally right’. 

Sustainable is often more about the natural resources of our Earth, materials used, and how they are manufactured. Many companies are committed to being both sustainable and ethical since many values overlap and complement one another.

Why is ethical clothing important? 

Ethical clothing is vital due to fast fashion’s vast and rampant issues. Fast fashion can exploit workers by forcing unsafe working conditions, low pay, exposure to chemicals, and little regulation. Beyond how workers are treated, the environmental impact is significant. Each year, the United States throws away or donates away up to 11.3 million tons of textile waste, equating to around 2,150 pieces of clothing each second. (In the time it takes you to read this article, 645,000 garments in the US will be discarded: a spine-shuddering statistic).

According to WRAP, (Waste and Resources Action Program), the annual footprint of a household’s newly bought clothing with washing is equal to:

  • Carbon emissions from driving 6,000 miles
  • Water to fill over 1,000 bathtubs
  • Weight of over 100 pairs of jeans

By purchasing ethically and responsibility, you can reduce the amount of your annual household footprint.

Who started ethical fashion? 

Marci Zaroff coined the term “ECOfashion” in 1995, combining her passion for ecology and fashion. Her vision was to “style the world of change while changing the world of style.” Ahead of her time in the 1990s, she has always been a progressive thinker and doer in the fashion and sustainability realm.

Zaroff was a key driver in developing the world’s leading organic textile certification program, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and the world’s first Fair Trade Textile Certification with Fair Trade USA. These certifications are world-renowned and utilized by companies around the world.

What makes a brand ethical? 

An ethical brand goes beyond the materials used and dives deeper into the company’s ethos. When an organization truly cares about its employees, manufacturers, farmers, and consumers, a company can be considered ethical.

Typically, organic materials and ethically sourced brands go hand in hand, but not always. As with anything, you can have a company that treats their employees like gold, but if they use polyester (one of the least organic materials on earth), that may not necessarily make them a company you want to support. Similarly, some companies utilize wool and other animal materials, but if that does not align with your personal beliefs, you may not consider them an ethical company.

Brands that provide a website with complete transparency on their pricing models, materials used, where they are sourced from, and their factories can give you a better idea of whether the company is ethical. When you can source a company’s supply chain to see how the clothes are made at every step of the process, and it’s something you feel good about, the company can generally be considered ethical. However, since everyone has different values, what one deems morally right is subjective.

As a mom, I’ve researched ethical children’s fashion brands that I want to support – either buying or advocating for. 

When it comes to a brand that: manufactures locally, sources all organic or recycled materials, and promotes responsible consumption, there is no perfect kaleidoscope. But there are a lot of good guys getting a lot of things right – and laying out a transparent roadmap to get even more things right in the future.

What are ethical clothes made of? 

Typically, ethical clothing uses more natural fibers like cotton, linen, hemp, and other raw materials. Commonly, ethical brands do not use animal by-products, however, wool is commonly debated since it is a sustainable material. This can be a personal choice and decision whether to support a company that uses wool. I would personally rather have a garment or children’s stuffed animal or toy made with wool than polyester.

It is essential to know what the clothing is composed of and ask questions when researching the company. Here are some questions you can hopefully answer when researching a brand’s ethics

  • What are the garments made from?
  • How are fibers farmed?
  • How are workers treated and other people in the supply chain?
  • Do they use sustainable packaging?
  • Do they have recycling options?

What is green fashion? Is green fashion ethical fashion? 

Similarly to sustainable fashion and ethical fashion, green fashion is about making clothes that consider the environment, consumers’ health, and the working conditions of people in the fashion industry. 

Green fashion can be ethical. Brands must be transparent with their consumers and provide information on their website or other means. Consumers can purchase responsibly when brands offer extensive information about sustainability and ethical standards. Not all responsibility falls on the consumer; brands must also provide accurate and readily available information with sources for their customers.

How do you dress ethically? 

Dressing ethically translates differently for different people. For many, it means owning a capsule wardrobe (Vetta has some timeless options that feel trendy) or wearing all-natural fibers in earth colors and low-impact dyes. For others, it means buying core pieces for the long-haul that you will care for and wear over the years.  

It all comes down to due diligence and your personal values and personal style.  

By researching a brand’s values and asking questions, we can do our part to ensure we are being ethical in our consumption. Knowing your values and sticking to them when shopping is also essential.

When more consumers support brands that align with ethical and sustainable missions, it shows the companies that their brand is valued and supported. This also can directly impact the company’s workers and provide them with more resources to better their lives. 

A tremendous positive to ethical fashion is that you can directly impact someone’s life on a different continent or even domestically.

Which fashion brands are the most ethical? 

There are some great established and emerging brands in the ethical space. As always, reviewing the brand’s website and gaining more information about their ethical practices is a step to take when being a responsible consumer. A concise list follows.

  • PactGive Back Box allows you to send them your used clothing that they donate to nonprofits. 

What are the best ethical kids’ brands? 

Kids’ brands are ahead of the game in regards to ethically sourced materials. For decades, many parents have put a large emphasis on knowing where their children’s clothing comes from and what they are putting on their littles one’s delicate skin. Parents are willing to pay a little bit more to purchase something that is sustainable, good for the planet, good for their children, and gives back philanthropically. I have personally bought clothing based on these parameters.

By shopping ethically, you are directly supporting the need for fashion to be more transparent. Some of these brands are doing really great things.

Some ethical kids’ brands and brief examples of what they do:

  • PactGive Back Box allows you to send them your used clothing that they donate to nonprofits. 
  • Veja Shoes – Purchases rubber at 4x the market price to support their Amazonian rubber tappers.
  • Mini MatereMate keeps your old MATE items out of the landfill and recycles them into new products.  
  • Firebird Pass It On Program allows you to send your clothing in, and they will resell or recycle it. If they sell, you’ll get a credit to purchase something new.

Bottom Line

Buying ethically is the right thing to do when shopping for clothing and accessories. With staggering data about how bad the fast fashion culture is for the world and the superior quality of ethical fashion, there’s a powerful case for anyone to make the shift. 

And becoming a more ethical consumer is not an all or nothing game. You don’t have to weed out all your polyester pants and switch to all eco-friendly brands overnight. A seismic shift like that isn’t really sustainable. It’s too much shock to suddenly absorb. 

It’s small changes you can begin implementing. Maybe your next solid white tee is an organic cotton shirt from a sustainable brand instead of a 10-pack from Amazon. Or you consider repairing your winter jacket before replacing it, or if you do buy new, you buy a more high-quality, timeless style that will last you through several seasons.

Little changes can make a big impact. And they’re less daunting to implement.  

I’ve struggled with becoming a more ethical fashion consumer. 

 I regularly eff up. 

But I keep striving. I’ve shifted to buying more secondhand clothes and garments made from organic or recycled fabrics. I buy items that can be worn at least 14 times – which means no It-season dress for weddings and special occasions. I buy things to last 14 wears. Fourteen feels like I’m making a long-term commitment to the garment (and the earth) but it feels less daunting than forever. 


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