By Naume Guveya
There’s a lot going on in the age of ‘woke’ consumers. As concern for the environment increases, spending on ethical goods is growing. The market for ethical products including food, clothing, and energy has quadrupled in the past 20 years.
This appetite for ethical goods is most established in the food and fashion sectors. For example, the market for second-hand clothing has grown by 22.5% in a year amidst reports of the negative impact of fast fashion on the climate. Brands have been responding to this change in consumer behaviour by integrating social and environmental themes into their offerings.
So ethical fashion rocks and it’s great for the earth. But just how much do you know about it beyond how good it makes you and the planet feel? Are people actually adopting ethical fashion as much as is being touted? What’s the difference between ethical fashion and sustainable fashion?
Lots of questions, right?
Let’s start by answering the big one.
Table of Contents:
- What is ethical fashion?
- Why do we need ethical fashion?
- The things to know about ethical fashion
- Is ethical fashion = sustainable fashion and slow fashion?
- Circular fashion and ethical fashion
- Ethical fashion frequently asked questions
- Ethical fashion across the globe
- Progressive strides towards global ethical fashion
- The bottom line: Does it all even matter?
What is ethical fashion?
Ethical fashion is fashion that’s designed, produced, and sold in an environmentally friendly way as well as under reasonable conditions where human and animal welfare are protected and employee rights are not exploited.
This is a definition, but it’s clearly subjective. Which conditions constitute as reasonable?
Defining ethical fashion may be a bit complex as it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific set of actions that make fashion ethical. However, all ethical fashion has some common elements. It’s these elements that highlight the importance of this type of fashion.
Why do we need ethical fashion?
Let’s take a look at some of the primary elements that make ethical fashion worthwhile.
1. For environmental protection
Not only are the chemicals used during textile processing potentially toxic to the environment, but the clothing industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. This means that the industry generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all maritime shipping and international flights combined.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13: Climate Action
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
Emissions from the industry are forecast to increase by over 60% by 2030.
Already, polyester, one of the most commonly used fabrics in the apparel industry, is produced using fossil fuels such as crude oil. It’s estimated that producing a single polyester shirt produces 262% more carbon dioxide compared to producing a single cotton shirt.
This is even more concerning when you take into account that demand for clothing is increasing. At the moment, we are consuming 800 billion new pieces of clothing annually. This is an astounding 400% increase compared to 20 years ago.
This increasing demand for clothing spells disaster for the environment. Ethical fashion stresses the need for little to no environmental impact (e.g. reducing fossil fuel use) in the production of raw materials as well as in the manufacturing and disposal of apparel.
2. To address water issues
With ethical fashion, one of the biggest areas of focus is ensuring that water issues are addressed.
- Up to 20,000 litres of water are required to produce 1kg of cotton.
- Up to 2,700 litres of water are needed to produce a single cotton shirt.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
From such statistics, it’s clear that conventional fashion industry practices are unsustainable and damaging to the environment.
For instance, once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk to a tenth of its original size. This has largely been due to the effects of drought and the vast quantity of water required for cotton production.
Ethical fashion seeks to ensure the sustainable consumption and efficient use of water during the production of raw materials and the clothing itself.
3. To champion good worker welfare and acceptable worker rights
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
The global fashion industry is a significant employer. 1 in every 6 people in the world working in a fashion-related job.
The industry promotes economic growth and provides useful skills, both of which often contribute to the improvement of the workers’ lives. However, around 80% of the labour force throughout the supply chain are women and for many of them, the fashion industry is a source of exploitation.
Since most of the clothing factories are in developing nations where employers take advantage of cultural stereotypes that portray women as flexible, inferior to men, and passive, the fashion industry is closely linked to various gender, labour, and poverty issues.
For many of the female workers in the fashion industry, wages are so low that the women are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Employers mostly leverage two things: the fact that the women come from poor communities and that they are easily replaceable. As a result, the women end up settling for unacceptable wages.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1: No Poverty
End poverty in all forms everywhere.
The issue of extremely low wages is especially prevalent throughout Asia Pacific where slavery and child labour are very common. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Asia Pacific region has the highest number of child labourers in the world, with an estimated 122 million child labourers under the age of 15.
For example, there have been cases of children as young as 14 producing apparel for high street retailers for a dismal wage as low as 13 pence (around 0.17 USD) per hour in Myanmar.
Ethical fashion seeks to eradicate deplorable labour practices and poverty through several steps including abolishing child labour and influencing the salaries paid to workers in the fashion industry.
There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.
– Mahatma Gandhi –
It’s not by chance that most garment workers are women. As previously mentioned, discriminatory practices and cultural stereotypes make women the ideal employees. Many women quietly accept appalling working conditions and they don’t speak about the abuses they face in the workplace on a daily basis.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Gender Equality
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Gender discrimination is rampant throughout countries that produce clothing. Women are frequently subjected to sexual harassment in addition to verbal and physical abuse. They are also often victims of assault and rape when they make their way home from work very late at night.
With the growth of ethical fashion, 61% of companies have created and adopted policies addressing gender inequality and discrimination in their supply chains.
Health and Safety
The fashion industry makes a good example of poor worker welfare. The high demand for fashion and rapid cycles of fashion trends usually translate into companies paying little attention to workers’ welfare and well-being.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3: Good Health and Well-Being
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
- Fashion industry workplaces are believed to have 1.4 million injuries annually. This is equivalent to a rate of about 6 injuries per 100 workers.
- Safety standards have improved over the years, however, this improvement has been marred by continued poor fire safety, factory structural defects, and generally unsafe working conditions.
- It’s estimated that around 27 million workers in global fashion supply chains suffer from work-related illnesses or diseases.
The long-term health of raw material farmers, textile workers, and garment workers can be affected by numerous factors. For example:
- Tiny fibres from textile dust and lint, particularly in cotton processing, can lead to lung disease.
- Long-term exposure to the chemicals used in farming, treating, and processing textiles can cause skin and respiratory conditions. Examples of hazardous chemicals commonly used in the textile industry include aryl amines, phthalates, lead, nickel, and formaldehyde.
- Poor lighting in factories can result in eye strain.
- High noise levels, particularly in manufacturing mills, can harm hearing.
- Ergonomic issues, including poor seat positioning that leads to poor posture, can cause musculoskeletal disorders.
- Insecurity and precarious working conditions in fashion supply chains can negatively affect mental health.
Ethical fashion aims to protect worker welfare. This is being done with the help of woke consumers who are increasingly pushing the fashion industry to care more about the welfare of its workers.
Overall, ethical fashion is addressing issues concerning worker well-being and fair trade (fair treatment and compensation for workers and good working conditions in all phases of production and distribution).
4. To promote equitable use of resources and reduce waste
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Unbalanced and unsustainable consumption patterns
By 2030, there will be 2.4 billion more people in the global middle class compared to 2015. This will likely lead to an increased demand for clothing that defines middle-income lifestyles. Global apparel consumption is projected to increase by 63%, to around 102 million tonnes, by 2030. This is equivalent to over 500 billion additional t-shirts.
Already, the average consumer is buying 60% more clothes compared to 2000. If consumption patterns continue at this rate, the UN estimates that there will be a need for 3x as many natural resources by 2050 compared to what was used in 2000.
Maybe all the consumption could be justified if people actually wore all the clothes they buy. Unfortunately, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has highlighted that over $500 billion of value is lost annually due to clothing underutilisation and a lack of recycling.
Most clothing items are being kept only half as long as before. In fact, the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn before being discarded has decreased by 36% since around 2004. Additionally, around 40% of all the purchases are never worn and a lot of the clothes and textiles are literally going to waste.
- 85% or 21 billion tonnes of textiles are sent to landfills every year.
- Although a low-cost option, most high street fashion has a disposable nature – a lot of it is destined for landfills and incinerators.
- Less than 1% of the material used in the production of the clothes is being recycled into new clothing. The rest is mostly going to waste.
Unbalanced and unsustainable production patterns
The fashion industry has very inequitable and unsustainable production patterns. For instance, despite using only 3% of the world’s arable land, growing cotton:
- consumes 7% of all fertilisers;
- uses 24% of the world’s insecticides and 11% of the world’s pesticides (chemicals which can harm the environment and the farmers who use them)
- destroys topsoil.
To top it all, there’s still the high water usage issue.
Where does ethical fashion come in when it comes to all these issues?
Ethical fashion ensures the sustainable consumption of resources by addressing:
- The use of natural resources
- The reduction of waste and toxic chemicals
- The integration of sustainable practices into fashion production cycles.
It also seeks to promote the use of alternative materials. For example, compared to cotton:
- producing hemp yields 2x more fibre per acre;
- producing 1kg of hemp only uses up to 5,890 litres of water; and
- hemp is 4x warmer and 4x more durable.
Instead of unethical and unsustainable fashion, people are taking the ethical route that goes easy on natural resources and promotes the elimination of wasteful consumption.
5. To protect animal welfare
Maybe you love your leather, your fur, wools, and silks. There’s no problem with that.
But let’s pause.
What exactly do your material choices mean for animal welfare?
Billions of animals are slaughtered and processed annually for the fashion industry. It’s important to know that some of this slaughtering and processing is not done nicely. What’s more, a lot of the world’s famous materials are produced in countries with minimal animal welfare standards.
Example 1: Leather and fur production
China, by far the largest leather-producing country, produces over 4 billion square feet of leather every year. This makes up about 36% of global exports. The World Society for the Protection of animals has also revealed that up to 80% of the world’s fur is produced in China.
But here comes the big but.
Although research suggests that China is increasingly interested in protecting animal welfare, the country has no animal welfare legislation or protection laws that explicitly prohibit the ill-treatment of animals.
Example 2: Wool production
Wool, a winter wardrobe staple, is another one of the world’s most popular materials. Nonetheless, there are concerns regarding animal welfare in the wool industry. These include the poor living conditions in addition to the pain and discomfort sheep endure during their handling.
For instance, many domestic sheep are affected by flystrike, a myiasis condition in which the sheep are infected by parasitic flies. The sheep usually have to undergo mulesing, a painful procedure which prevents flystrike, without any anaesthesia. This is simply brutal.
Brands are reacting to inhumane animal treatment
Fashion brands are responding to the need for ethical animal treatment in fashion production.
For example, over the last few years, several brands including Gucci, Versace, Armani, and Vivienne Westwood have removed fur from their collections. Chanel has ditched shoes and bags made with crocodile and snake skins and budget fashion brands including H&M and Zara no longer have mohair apparel.
Fashion weeks are also following suit – the London Fashion Week has gone fur-free, the Helsinki Fashion Week has ditched leather, and the Melbourne Fashion Festival has barred exotic skins, fur, and angora.
Ethical fashion and animal protection
Some of the key ethical fashion aims are to:
Animal welfare from an ethical perspective is the idea that animals should be free from suffering and should be well cared for. This includes having access to things like nutritious food, clean water, and veterinary care.
The idea largely acknowledges that animal use in fashion production is acceptable as long as the animals are raised well and slaughtered in a humane way.
While promoting ethical alternatives to animal-derived materials
In addition to ensuring that animals are spared pain and discomfort, ethical fashion promotes the use of alternatives to animal-derived materials.
To reduce the number of animals raised for leather and minimise your carbon footprint, you can opt for recycled or second-hand leather instead of buying new leather. You can also go for sustainable vegan leather. But do look out for, and steer clear of vegan leather that’s made from PVC, one of the most environmentally-damaging plastics.
Tip: If you don’t want to go for second-hand or vegan leather, consider Piñatex, an eco-friendly material that has the leather look, but is made from pineapple leaf fibres.
Just like with the leather, you can buy second-hand or recycled fur instead of getting new fur clothing. Consider markets, including vintage ones, which sell pre-loved fur clothing.
Tip: If you really want new fur clothing, opt for faux fur that’s made from sustainable or recycled materials. Avoid fast fashion faux fur because it’s often made from non-renewable, petroleum-based materials like polyester and nylon.
The ethical silk landscape is still hazy. Consumers who are aware of ethical issues surrounding the production of silk are increasingly going for peace (Ahimsa) silk. This silk is made from a silkworm cocoon after the silkworm has metamorphosed and left the cocoon, not before.
However, there are still issues even with the peace silk due to the lack of regulatory guidelines governing its production and certification.
Tip: Since ethical silk is not yet regulated, source your silk clothing from brands with a proven ethics and transparency track-record. Ethical brands have no issues disclosing how they source their silk.
The man ethical issue with down feather is that sometimes it comes from live-plucked down. Just like with silk, choose products that come from brands with a track record- of being ethical, e.g. brands that don’t force-feed the birds or live-pluck them.
Tip: Great down feather alternatives include vegan products that are made from sustainable sources.
Due to concerns over mulesed wool, choose wool apparel from brands that use non-mulesed wool or opt for quality pre-loved wool apparel. The latter will minimise your need for new wool fashion products.
Tip: Go for wool alternatives that are 100% cruelty- free and kind to the planet. Great choices include linen, certified organic cotton, eco-friendly synthetics, hemp, and bamboo.
Ethical fashion is also promoting sustainable processes
Proponents of animal rights often campaign to end practices such as medical animal research and the use of various animal-derived items including dairy products, meat, leather, and wool. Some even want an end to pet ownership.
However, not everyone holds these views. In most cases, taking sides on the issue leads to an all-or-nothing view that gets everyone nowhere fast. The ethical stance is looking to bridge the gap by taking a more sustainable approach that primarily focuses on ensuring responsible animal treatment.
When it comes to ethical fashion, many factors are now being considered before a material or clothing from an animal source is deemed ethical. Factors being considered include:
- Animal welfare, where no unnecessary pain or cruelty is inflicted and the animals are not killed for sportive purposes.
- Sustainable use of the animals, so that the survival of the species is not threatened.
- The use of as much animal waste as possible to ensure minimal to no waste.
Example: The rise of ethical and sustainable fur farming
Fur farming has long been under scrutiny from opponents of animal cruelty. Fur farmers have responded to this scrutiny by adopting an ethical farming approach that is both modern and sustainable. This approach comes with highly efficient processes that have minimal environmental impact.
- Over the years, trappers have been improving their traps to make them more humane while still being capture-efficient. The traps are now designed to hold animals without causing injury.
- Farmed mink and foxes are being fed by-products and waste of other industries and food production processes (e.g. eggs and meat) that would otherwise end up in landfills.
- Although fur is the main product, fur farming by-products are also being used efficiently. Mink oil is valuable for leather preservation while the soiled bedding, carcasses, and manure can be used in the production of cement, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, and fertiliser.
Waste isn’t waste until we waste it.
– Will.I.Am –
The things to know about ethical fashion
The problem with ethical fashion is that it’s an abstract thing. It lacks the foundation of concrete ethical standards. What one person deems ethical, the next person may view as unethical and simply unacceptable.
As fair trade fashion pioneer Safia Minney once said, ethical fashion is a confusing term, however, all ethical fashion means:
Transparency and traceability
Ethical fashion means there’s transparency, accountability, and knowledge of business practices. This includes knowledge of the whole supply chain, from the production of raw materials to the retail consumer.
For example, transparency and accountability mean that companies disclose the environmental impact of their operations and they are transparent about their suppliers at every stage of production. Knowledge means that, among other things, producers are not played off against each other to gain an unfair economic advantage.
Transparency and accountability also mean that companies are aware of the communities supporting their operations and the conditions under which their apparel is made (e.g. from the people who farmed the cotton to the people who stitched the clothing). Companies that are transparent and accountable are also happy to make this information publicly available.
The information that should be disclosed includes:
- The source of raw materials. In addition to knowing where the materials are sourced, it’s equally important to know how they are sourced. For example, if the material is sourced from animals, how ethical is the sourcing process? If the material is vegan, how eco-friendly and sustainable is it?
It’s important to ask these questions because, for instance, you may want only vegan fabrics. However, if these fabrics are grown using degenerative farming practices they will be more damaging and less environmentally-friendly compared to animal-sourced alternatives that are sourced ethically.
- The brand’s footprint. How much water and energy goes into processes? How are by-products and waste managed or disposed of?
- The lifecycle and end-of-life impact of the brand’s products. Is the clothing made to last? Does the apparel release micro-plastics, as is the case with some polyester products? Does caring for the clothing require lots of water and energy throughout the clothing’s lifecycle? Can the clothing be recycled at the end of its life?
- Business practice policies. Does the brand disclose its labour and wage policies? Is the brand open to answering questions and clarifying information?
A lot of fashion brands now know about the consumers’ increasing awareness of the ethics of fashion. It follows then, that many of these brands want to be part of the ethical fashion movement.
But while some brands are making a genuine effort to cater to new consumer needs, other brands are only talking about sustainability and ethics without actually doing anything.
From the marketing ploys that involve simply changing a social media colour theme to a more nature-related colour palette (hello green, blue, and brown) when Earth day is around the corner, to introducing “green collections” that are not backed by any holistic, long-term interest in being ethical and sustainable, a number of brands are involved in greenwashing.
Example: The Boohoo fiasco
Boohoo once announced that they would be banning wool in their apparel. This move was called a “compassionate, business-savvy decision” by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Turns out Boohoo had no wool products in its collections. The brand came under fire and people started seeing the move as a PR stunt. What’s more, people became concerned that the fake fur the brand retailed was probably worse for the environment since most fake fur is typically made from non-biodegradable plastic.
Look out for greenwashing
Just because the label says it’s organic doesn’t make the clothing ethical. Similarly, just because a brand says something ethical-sounding doesn’t mean that their apparel is, in fact, ethical. And just because a brand champions better working conditions and wages doesn’t mean that they are not harming the environment by the bucketload, and vice versa.
It’s wise to be prudent and take time to research your preferred fashion brand and how it works.
To see how well your favourite fashion brand(s) is/are doing when it comes to ethical fashion, check out these grades* awarded by the Ethical Fashion Report.
*The grades are awarded from F (fail) to A+ (optimal ethical conditions) and are assessed under four categories: worker empowerment, traceability and transparency, business policies, and auditing and supplier relationships.
Is ethical fashion = sustainable fashion and slow fashion?
Hands up if you’ve heard the terms ethical fashion, sustainable fashion, and slow fashion being used interchangeably.
The terms are understandably indistinguishable because there’s a lot of overlap between them. To simplify everything, let’s take a look at each of them in turn.
Ethical fashion vs. sustainable fashion
At a basic level, ethical fashion is fashion that checks all the boxes when it comes to planet friendliness and social good.
On the other hand, sustainable fashion (also referred to as eco-friendly fashion, eco-fashion, and environmentally-friendly fashion), focuses on minimising fashion’s negative impact on the environment. This includes reducing pollution, eliminating toxic chemicals from the supply chain, and using biodegradable or recycled materials.
Ethical fashion and sustainable fashion vs. slow fashion
Ethical fashion takes a holistic approach to planet, human, and animal wellbeing. Sustainable fashion is concerned with the environment. On the other end, slow fashion is concerned with the clothing itself.
Slow fashion intentionally considers the whole lifecycle and supply chain of a fashion product – from ideation and sourcing of raw materials to production, distribution, and ultimately, disposal at the end of its life.
Slow fashion means being conscious of each purchase and not just hoarding clothes for no reason. It means opting for clothes that will last longer and can be recycled or biodegraded at the end of their lifecycle.
Some people think that slow fashion is anti-consumption, but it’s not. It’s an alternative consumption approach that promotes:
- Shopping less frequently and buying less when you do shop, ideally buying only the things you need.
- Doing the 30 wears test. This test is based on the concept that if you don’t see yourself wearing something at least 30 times, you shouldn’t buy it.
- Considering pre-loved apparel or vintage options.
- Investing in trans-seasonal clothes that you can wear all year round.
- Going for quality over quantity.
Ethical, sustainable, and slow fashion are all new ways of thinking about our clothes and how they affect the planet, animals, consumer lives, and the lives of those involved in their making. All three types of fashion are essentially part of one big whole – the “good fashion” ecosystem.
Circular fashion and ethical fashion
Linking the concepts of ethical, sustainable, and slow fashion is the idea of circular fashion.
Circular fashion is a commitment to producing, selling, and buying clothes that are to be used and circulated responsibly at every turn. This type of fashion focuses on slow, ethical, and sustainable fashion concepts over fast, unsustainable, and disposable fashion. Top circular fashion considerations include:
- high longevity and durability with the ability to be redesigned and reused for other purposes (slow fashion concept).
- resource efficiency and sustainability, biodegradability, recyclability (sustainable fashion concept.
- ethical working conditions (ethical fashion concept)
Ethical fashion frequently asked questions
Q. What’s holding people back from fully embracing ethical fashion?
There’s a problem with the ambiguity surrounding ethical fashion.
Common Objective, a sustainable fashion business solution company whose aim is to help businesses “do fashion better,” found that Google searches for ethical fashion have increased by 25% and those for sustainable fashion have gone up by 46% in the past six years.
With this increase in searches, 60% of millennials are now interested in certified clothing. However, only 37% are buying these clothes. The gap between interest and actual purchases has been attributed to the lack of clarity and guidance for people who are new to ethical or sustainable fashion.
Already, there are many cases of greenwashing and varied ethical business values. Consumers are caught in the middle.
Part of the solution lies in each ethical fashion brand having a clear code of ethics. Brands should be transparent about their business practices and policies through in-depth audits and regular reporting that’s backed with facts and statistics. Each brand should also show long-term commitment to ethical conduct, with the highest degree of accountability to everyone in their supply chain.
Q. Why is ethical fashion so expensive?
Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.
– Vivienne Westwood –
From the ill-treatment of millions of factory workers and animals to the poisoning of water systems when manufacturing cheap, chemically-intensive synthetic fabrics, it’s clear that fast fashion is not the answer.
There are very good reasons why ethical fashion is still an attractive option despite being pricier.
The cost of each wear
Traditionally, clothes were handmade and built to last a long time. Nonetheless, the growth of globalisation and the rise in consumer demand led to companies pumping out cheap, mass-produced clothing that lasted only a few wears. Unfortunately, this new way of producing clothing stuck with us until now.
Ethical fashion is going back to the traditional roots and urging people to consider the cost per wear (CPW). This idea takes into account how many wears you can get per item of clothing. The more wears you can get, the better your investment in your clothing.
For instance, rather than buying four $15 shirts that will each deform after 10 wears, it’s better to buy one $60 shirt that will retain its shape and last for 10 years even though you wear it 1-2 times every week. By doing this, you will see that the CPW of a $15 shirt ends up at $1.50 while the CPW for the $60 shirt is about $0.08.
The cost of paying a fair wage
How do you feel about the idea of working your butt off only to be paid a pitiful wage?
Chances are you don’t feel good about this at all.
Demand quality not just in the products you buy, but in the life of the person who made it.
– Orsola de Castro –
With fast fashion comes mass production and the outsourcing of labour to developing nations. Outsourcing can be a great way to boost a developing economy. However, in most cases, fast fashion retailers use this opportunity to pay workers ridiculously low wages so that they can sell their products at low prices. Without access to a fair wage, workers remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Most ethical fashion brands often opt for local workers. Even when they outsource, they offer much higher wages which afford workers a decent living. As a minimum, workers also get basic workplace rights, which include reasonable work hours and leave days.
The cost of sourcing sustainable materials
Industrialised fabric production means fabrics are produced cheaply and in very large quantities. Nevertheless, this type of fabric production is usually unsustainable and much of the clothing that’s produced is regarded as disposable.
The fast fashion business model is finite, because the natural resources it uses will get scarcer and scarcer. If you want your company to be successful 15 years from now, you have to address these issues today, even if your profits are a lot less as a result.
– Livia Firth –
On the other hand, ethical clothing is made with sustainable materials (e.g. organic cotton) that don’t leave a trail of destruction in their wake. These fabrics are more expensive to produce – their production has to account for many things including labour rights, pesticide use, and strict guidelines, as is the case for certified organic fabrics.
The cost in the long run
Sometimes brands will pass on their cost savings to customers because they have found a way to make their sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution process more efficient.
Nonetheless, sometimes cheap prices will have you believing that you are saving a lot when in actual fact, you’re contributing to the destruction of the planet, the maltreatment of workers in a factory somewhere out there, and all sorts of other terrible things.
Cheap may be exciting, but in the long-run, it may have a cost that we can’t see on the price tag. We may all, as global citizens, end up paying the true and very bad cost of the unsustainable production and consumption of cheap clothing. It’s better to invest in ethical clothing than to pay the big price in the future.
In the words of British designer Vivienne Westwood, it’s better to buy less of the good choice and make it last. If you think about it, you’ll likely end up spending the same amount of money or even more with fast fashion that has low longevity and needs constant replacing.
Ethical fashion across the globe
Consumers are increasingly aware of, and interested in ethical fashion. For example, an impressive 66% of global millennials are willing to spend more on sustainable brands and many prioritise eco-friendly and ethical brands when making purchase decisions.
The sustainable apparel market has experienced a phenomenal global growth of over 508% since 2016. News throughout 2017 highlighted the environmental impact of fast fashion, with reports from prominent organisations like the Ellen McArthur Foundation and the Changing Markets Foundation drawing attention to the effects of microfiber and viscose production.
Consequently, the number of people buying second-hand or ethical clothing has increased and spending on these items has also increased. For example, in the US alone, the eco-apparel market has grown by 300% in the past 10 years.
However, despite all this progress, there’s still a long way to go before we can establish a robust global ethical and sustainable fashion market. The global retail apparel market is worth over $1.4 trillion, but the total value of all the top sustainable or ethical apparel markets is nowhere near this big market value.
For instance, the UK, which is the third-largest sustainable fashion market, has an annual ethical clothing spending of around £50 million. Compare this to the £62 million weekly spending on women’s shoes, and it’s clear that we still have quite a way to go.
Progressive strides towards global ethical fashion
According to the Ethical Fashion Report, brands are taking steps towards making ethical fashion mainstream throughout the world.
- Around 61% of popular brands have created policies addressing gender inequality and the discrimination faced by women in their supply chains.
- 45% of companies have introduced responsible purchasing practices. 35% have come up with robust remediation plans to redress forced and child labour that’s found in their supply chains.
- There has been a 19% increase (from 18% to 37%) in the number of companies publishing full direct supplier lists and 61% of companies are investing in using sustainable fibres.
Other areas companies are addressing include improved working conditions and policies to ensure worker safety. One of the most notable agreements by companies covering the safe production of ethical fashion is the Bangladesh Accord – Industry Collaboration.
The Bangladesh Accord
In April 2013, the Rana Plaza building, which housed several garment factories, collapsed and killed 1,130 factory workers. Following this incident, 43 clothing companies, 8 industrial affiliates, and some unions signed a five-year legally-binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
Ultimately, the agreement was signed by over 220 companies. By the time it expired in May 2018, the agreement had contributed significantly to safer workplaces for millions of Bangladeshi garment workers, with over 85% of identified hazards being resolved. The accord had a huge impact on over two million people in over 1,600 factories.
To date, a national regulatory body has been set up for the continued implementation of the accord. The 2018 Transition Accord came into effect on 1 June 2018 and was signed by over 200 companies and global unions. The primary aim of the Transition Accord is to ensure that workplace safety remains a priority for garment workers in Bangladesh.
The United Nations (UN)
Besides The Bangladesh Accord, the UN is also undertaking an initiative dubbed ‘The United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion’. The initiative aims to:
- reduce the negative social and environmental impact of fashion
- to transform fashion into one of the drivers of the implementation of SDGs
The UN understands that due to the sheer size of the fashion industry (an industry currently worth $2.4 trillion and employing about 60 million people), ignoring the need for reforms when it comes to production and consumption processes will result in some serious social and environmental costs.
The alliance, which takes fashion to mean all clothing, leather, and footwear, is specifically concerned with promoting a fashion value chain that supports the SDGs. It’s also aiming to encompass all the facets of the fashion industry from raw materials production, manufacturing processes, distribution, consumption, and disposal.
The bottom line: Does it all even matter?
The short answer is this: ethical fashion matters.
Ethical fashion has a significant role to play in the health of the planet and everyone’s wellbeing.
Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying.
– Lucy Siegle –
According to a report by the Baptist World Aid Australia, ever since the first edition of the Ethical Fashion Guide was published in 2013, there’s been a 25% increase in the number of companies tracing where their raw materials originate from. There’s also been a 29% increase in the number of companies tracing where their fabrics come from.
The number of companies that can demonstrate that their workers receive a living wage has almost tripled. There’s still a long way to go, but the best part is that the ball is already in play. Ethical fashion is the new way to go and all the small steps and milestones are making a difference.
Ready to be part of the ethical fashion movement?
Discover your closet’s footprint with the Fashion Footprint Calculator. This nifty tool calculates the carbon impact of various consumption behaviours and estimates your impact based on your shopping patterns and how you take care of your clothes.