What is Ethical Clothing?

What is ethical clothing? What is sustainable clothing? Why is it important to me?

I’ve heard some great answers to these questions along the lines of “Ethical clothing is stuff made out of hemp with cork sandals”. Or “ethical clothing is good for the world but looks a bit like wearing a sack”.

Happily, these days there are more brands that place ethics and sustainability at the core of their business right up there with great design and good quality clothing.

So what does ethical clothing mean?

Lots of people answer these questions in different ways. To me, the very (very) basic answers are something like this:

Ethical clothing puts the well-being of people and communities at the heart of every stage of clothing production from field to factory and beyond.

Sustainable clothing looks at the materials used in the clothing and the potential to keep going long into the future with minimal environmental impacts and positive social effects.

It’s important to me because how I shop can make a tiny difference. Because as a Mum the thought of children not being able to go to school because they have to work in a factory is too depressing. The images from Rana Plaza are too shocking not to feel guilty. And because understanding a little bit about the impacts of the fashion industry is useful when I’m tempted by a fashion quick fix.

However, the more I’ve learned about it, the more I realise that it’s impossible to pull ethical and sustainable apart. Pretty obvious now I’ve thought about it; you can’t claim to be looking after people if they’re using toxic pesticides to help grow the cotton for example.

For a more accurate (and perhaps better articulated) answer to the questions, here is the view of the Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF) on those questions:

Ethical clothing:

For the EFF, ethical fashion represents an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment.

For the EFF, the meaning of ethical goes beyond doing no harm, representing an approach which strives to take an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, minimising and counteracting environmental concerns.

Sustainable clothing:

In 1989, the Brundtland Commission articulated what has now become a widely accepted definition of sustainability: “[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

We believe that a business or initiative is not sustainable unless the triple bottom line (social, environmental and commercial) is integrated at the core of business practices and policy, from board level to studio, shop, or factory floor.

Click here to read the EFF article on their definition of ethical clothing

The other definition that’s helpful from the EFF is the list of 10 criteria they have come up with to help identify ethical fashion:

  1. Countering fast, cheap fashion and damaging patterns of fashion consumption
  2. Defending fair wages, working conditions and workers’ rights
  3. Supporting sustainable livelihoods
  4. Addressing toxic pesticide and chemical use
  5. Using and / or developing eco- friendly fabrics and components
  6. Minimising water use
  7. Recycling and addressing energy efficiency and waste
  8. Developing or promoting sustainability standards for fashion
  9. Resources, training and/ or awareness raising initiatives
  10. Animal rights

What does ethical clothing look like?

There’s an increasing number of great brands around the world who are changing the image of sustainable or ethical clothing.

We’re collecting a range of our favourites on this site so keep an eye out for updates.

In the meantime, have a look at our post on Winter Woolies for some examples of great brands that are producing beautiful, stylish, ethical clothing.

And if you think we should feature a particular brand do let us know in the comments below or by dropping an email through the Contact Us page.