What is Ethical Fashion?


Bryan Huynh

on June 12, 2024

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Ethical fashion is a term that describes companies that follow ethical design processes, manufacturing, retail, and purchasing. 

Ethical fashion emphasizes using safe manufacturing and the dangers of using specific chemicals in clothing, becoming carbon negative or neutral rather than cause environmental damage from standard industrial practices, and -- most importantly -- ensuring their employees are paid a living wage and work in safe working conditions.

Why Fast Fashion Is Harmful

Fast fashion has an immense environmental impact due to widespread production and waste. Companies that produce clothing and other items on such a large scale require tons of water and other resources.

The fashion industry produces 1/10 of the world’s carbon emissions since these factories generate greenhouse gasses due to energy used in production, manufacturing, and distribution. Some synthetic fibers may even emit gasses like N2O (nitrous oxide), which is exponentially more damaging than CO2 (carbon dioxide). 

Fast fashion is responsible for the mass production of cheap and poor quality clothing that is often worn under 10 times before being disposed of. 

What Makes An Ethical Brand? 

Ethical brands focus on these ethical and sustainability issues, specifically: 

Working conditions: One of the most important factors when it comes to making a brand ethical is how they treat their employees. Fast fashion is well-known for sweatshops and exploiting their workers by underpaying and overworking them -- often in dangerous conditions. 

Ethical brands do the following: pay their workers a fair and living wage; make sure they are working reasonable hours under safe conditions; never use child labor; never use forced labor; giving appropriate rights and freedom for workers, including forming unions. 

Fair trade, environment, and sustainability:  Fair trade refers to clothing or items manufactured by ethical trade standards (focusing on the rights, wages, and working conditions of employees) and certified by independent organizations.

Fair trade also focuses on sustainability and protecting the environment by implementing practices such as water conservation (growing fibers for materials that require less water and electricity to grow), ensuring waste is disposed of properly, and restricting the use of specific chemicals (which can leak into water systems and cause pollution). 

A brand’s carbon footprint -- positive, negative, or neutral, which is determined by their factories, distribution, and delivery -- can help you determine whether they are ethical.

Does the brand use a closed loop system? This refers to when a brand follows a closed loop system, which follows a circular production line and designs, manufactures, and distributes products in a way that uses minimal resources, reuses waste, and ultimately results in less waste than linear production. 

An indicator that a brand may be sustainable and use their resources properly is if they sign up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP). 

Ethical brands should avoid greenwashing (misleading consumers into believing that their products are more environmentally sound) and be transparent about their sustainability practices.

Material and animal welfare: Ethical brands focus on how their garments are made, the types of materials used, how the fibers are farmed, and how the fabric is treated before the clothing is made. 

Many companies make clothing made from recycled fabrics, but there are also some other signs, claims, and mission statements you can look for in a brand. For example, if a brand says they are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or Oeko-Tex Standard certified, that typically means they don’t use harmful chemicals, pesticides, or toxic substances to grow the fibers necessary to make the clothes. Some brands will list that the material used is 100% organic; however, a material only needs to be 70% organic during the production process to be GOTS certified.

Brands may also offer products that are made from vegan and cruelty free materials and avoid using materials that are either animal products or harm animals, such as silk, leather, and fur. (Just a note: Vegan leather and other materials can be made from synthetic materials like PVC, or plastic-based polyurethane chloride, which is a plastic coating.) These companies may be “leaping bunny” certified, labeled Cruelty Free, or certified by The Vegan Society or PETA.

(As a side note, it’s important to realize that it’s difficult for any piece of clothing to be 100% sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly. For example, dyeing fabric can take actual tons of water.)

Clothing made from durable and long-lasting materials is another important factor to consider. The higher the quality of the clothing, the longer it will last, meaning you can cut down the number of times you’ll have to buy and replace it when it wears out. 

Recycled clothing is also a plus, since no additional resources are used to grow and treat the fabric. 

You can also consider the type of package a brand uses, such as whether they use plastic-free packaging and avoid unnecessary package fillers like bubble wrap, or whether they use eco-friendly packaging that is easy to recycle or reuse. 

Charity work: Ethical brands usually work with a charity or donate a percentage of their profits to an important cause. Most companies will list what charities or organizations they are partnered with. 

Most companies will list these credentials on their website so you can determine for yourself whether you want to shop there. 

About the Author

Product Tester & Writer

Bryan Huynh

Product Tester & Writer

Bryan Huynh is a determined Product Tester & Writer. Being a coffee addict, it is only right that he mainly tests and reviews different coffee from around the world and coffee subscription services.

Bryan Huynh is a determined Product Tester & Writer. Being a coffee addict, it is only right that he mainly tests and reviews different coffee from around the world and coffee subscription services.