Ethical fashion. Conscious fashion. Sustainable fashion. These terms and others are becoming increasingly common and are often used interchangeably, but their meanings can either closely align or widely differ depending on the perspectives of the person saying them, and the person hearing them. The shame of this ambiguity is twofold. One, it takes away from the genuine efforts being made by many brands to address serious social and environmental issues in the industry. And two, it’s a barrier to entry for consumers who are keen to take a more considered approach to buying clothes but, understandably, struggle to decipher exactly what these claims really mean.
SO WHAT DO THEY MEAN?
There’s no universally agreed definition for any of these terms, but ultimately, when using them to describe fashion brands, we’re referring to companies that have considered one or many forms of harm that could result from their business processes, and have taken steps and established policies to minimise or, even eliminate, that harm.
Some of the terms, like eco-fashion, focus specifically on environmental aspects, while others like the three mentioned above are broader and also include consideration of working conditions (commonly categorised as social concerns) and/or human health and/or animal welfare in addition to the environment – again, depending on who you ask!
Where it can get messy is that, because some of these terms have become umbrella terms, two different brands could advertise themselves as “ethical” or “sustainable” but actually have vastly different policies and processes. For example, one might have several policies in place to address environmental concerns such as using only organic cotton, low impact dyes, recyclable packaging and offsetting their carbon emissions, but their garments may be made in a factory that pays below the minimum wage or has unsafe working conditions. Conversely, the other brand might have exemplary labour standards but make little or no effort to reduce their environmental impact, polluting waterways, using synthetic fabrics, lots of plastic packaging etc. In another scenario, you might find two self-proclaimed “eco-friendly” brands with one having taken significant steps to reduce environmental harm across all of their business processes, and the other having only committed to a couple of token changes so they can market themselves as eco-friendly.
Without any clear definitions to say otherwise, all of these companies are within their right to adopt many labels that suggest they adhere to higher moral standards than mainstream fast-fashion brands. And, of course, many of them do, and their claims are completely legitimate (apart from the last example which is best described as greenwashing!).
As a customer, though, this makes it extremely hard to navigate, because it means that when you see a company presenting themselves as “sustainable” or “conscious” or “fair trade,” you can’t take those claims on face value. It’s almost impossible to tell exactly where their efforts are focused and whether they prioritise the same values you do. And that’s where transparency comes in. The more information brands give us as customers, the easier it is to identify whether they’re addressing the issues that we personally care about, from child labour to the use of animal fur or known carcinogens, or all of that and more.
WHAT SUSTAINABILITY MEANS TO ME
The idealist in me would offer the following take on sustainability:
If something causes harm or destruction then it is inherently not sustainable, by strict definition, because that damage, either to the environment or to a person physically, mentally or financially, is cumulative, and will ultimately lead to a negative decline in its subject’s wellbeing, or possibly even worse.
For me, sustainability is about creating a system that, without this destructive element, can continue indefinitely and better still, can actually bring genuine value to people and planet in the process.
That is, for sure, the ultimate goal. Experience has shown me though, that the journey to pure sustainability is a complex one, and one of continuous evolution. An expectation of perfection fails to recognise the life-changing impact a brand, or individual, can have on the road to sustainability, without maybe ever reaching the final destination. (Tweet)
To give just one example, according to Textile Exchange, “in 2015 alone, by growing organic instead of conventional cotton, farmers potentially saved:”
That’s with less than 1% of the world’s cotton being grown organically and doesn’t even take into account the social, health and other associated benefits.
IT’S NOT BLACK AND WHITE
As Whitney Bauck, Assistant Editor at Fashionista puts it, it’s a spectrum:
The more you learn about the ethics of manufacturing and production, the more you’ll be forced to acknowledge that #ethicalfashion is less of an in-or-out category than it is a spectrum. – Whitney Bauck
This is something the forward-thinking team over at Patagonia (one of, if not the most, progressive large-scale clothing brand in terms of ethical production and environmental awareness) recognised early on, choosing to refer to their business as “responsible” rather than “sustainable.” This really resonates with my inner pedant who can’t ignore the reality that any form of clothing production involves some level of resource depletion and therefore can’t strictly be considered sustainable.
In my own work, I’ve taken the approach of trying to do the best I can, from my perspective, to address environmental, social (labour conditions) and health concerns along every step of the supply chain. This has led me to the decision to make my whole collection certified according to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Unlike many of the ambiguous terms mentioned so far, GOTS lays out a long list of ecological and social criteria that must be met by every party involved in every step of the production process before a product can be certified. As well as bringing a greater level of clarity, certifications also serve as a quickly recognisable indicator and purchasing tool for customers wanting to better understand a brand’s policies. Is this a perfect solution that is 100% sustainable? Definitely not, but it’s an approach that aligns with my values and feels like the closest I can get to where I want to be at the present time.
SO, WHAT TO MAKE OF IT ALL?
I think there are a couple of key takeaways here. 1) don’t let the ambiguity around this subject stop you seeking out brands that create clothing with more care and respect for people and the planet if it’s something that’s sparked your interest and 2) approach brand claims of being “sustainable” with an open but enquiring mind and look for more info to find out if their values align with yours. As a general rule of thumb, the brands that are doing the best tend to want to talk about it and are often, but not always, the most transparent. If you can’t find the info there’s probably a reason for that but there’s also an easy way to confirm and you may be pleasantly surprised. Drop them an email telling them how much you love their stuff and ask where you can find more information about their social and environmental policies.
Apart from being unrealistic, what’s sad about the black-and-white approach is that it leaves a lot of people feeling like they have to stick to a set of rigid yet ambiguous rules which understandably then translates to a virtually impossible task.
My invitation to anyone who has any curiosity around the topic would be to jump in. Do some research, read an article or two, follow some sustainable fashion bloggers on social media, see what it’s all about. You’ll soon find people whose approaches make sense to you, and whose tips and insights will make finding good alternatives much easier. Most importantly, disregard any expectation of perfection. The most experienced in this sphere, whilst fiercely committed to their ethics, also recognise that it’s a continuous process of improvement. Because, the irony, of course, is that taking a militant approach on the path to sustainability is, just, well, not sustainable!
Till next time,
P.S. If you’re keen to learn more in an easy-to-digest format, check out the Instagram stories mini-series I published during Fashion Revolution Week covering: what Fashion Revolution is, the key issues it’s seeking to address, easy ways to learn more (hooray for Netflix!), and LOADS of tips and tools to help you shop more sustainably and find brands that are doing good – including a whole day dedicated to breaking down what all the logos and labels mean. You can find the 7-day series in the highlights at the top of my Instagram profile here (FRW Day 1, FRW Day 2 etc.).
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