Defining Ethical Fashion

Whether you’re just beginning to learn about ethical fashion, or you’re a seasoned conscious consumer, it can be difficult to determine just what “ethical” or other buzzwords like “sustainable” “Fair trade” or “eco-friendly” mean within the context of the fashion industry. Some of these terms don’t really have an official definition, and are largely up for interpretation by whomever is using them.

We’ve asked ethical fashion experts and TPL bloggers Leah, Elena, Ashlee, and Olivia to weigh in on several of the most common terms you’ll see as you research ethical fashion brands and initiatives.

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Sustainable/Ethical/Slow Fashion | Elena of The Curious Button

“Sustainable Fashion: This refers to the effects of the production of clothing on the environment. This includes the use of pesticides in growing cotton, other natural, sustainable fabrics, the dyes used for various colors, water and waste treatment, energy reduction, using recycled materials, and sometimes even packaging. The list of opportunities to be a more sustainable fashion brand goes on and on.

Slow Fashion: This generally refers to the style, design and quality of the garment, as well as the intention behind how it was made (a.k.a. – not a fast fashion brand). It involves buying clothing made of durable fabrics and staying away from fluctuating trends so you can still wear the pieces you love years down the road.

But what’s ethical fashion? I have my own personal definition, which is this:

Ethical Fashion: This refers to how the clothing was made, encompassing everything from how the cotton was grown to how the garment workers who made the clothes are treated and paid, their safety (no sweatshops, child labor, worker abuse, or slavery involved).

Sometimes, sustainable fashion and animal treatment is also included under the ‘ethical fashion’ umbrella, which is also a completely reasonable way to define it. Is caring for the environment rather than producing ridiculous amounts of waste ethical? Of course. Is treating animals with respect and dignity when using their products (i.e. wool, silk, etc.) and ethical issue? Definitely.

Here’s a quick little summary:
Ethical Fashion – concerns human rights.
Sustainable Fashion – concerns the environment.
Slow Fashion – concerns the clothing piece itself.”

B-CORP / B Corporation | Olivia of Simply Liv and Co

“When a brand is B-Corp Certified, it means that they've jumped through a lot of hoops and are taking tangible steps towards sustainability.

According to the B-Corp website, the goal of the certification is to recognize and enable brands to ‘use their business for good’. The certification is more than just a claim to prioritize fair wage or reducing waste. Here's a little bit of what's required to become B-Corp certified:

  • Pass rigorous background checks
  • Pass an "Impact Assessment" test where the brand must prove that their impact on their employees, customers, and the environment is a good one. It takes into consideration business size, number of employees, and location.
  • Provide documentation as proof of their claims in the assessment.
  • Speak to an actual B Lap member for an over the phone assessment review.
  • If necessary, file additional documentation and reassessment.

Clearly, not a simple or easy process and one that can take months or years for a brand to work towards.

Although B-Corp certification isn't the only way that a brand can be making change in the world or be transparent, when you see the certification on a brand's website, you can rest assured that making the world a better place is their top priority.”

Eco-Friendly/Green | Leah of StyleWise

“The most basic definition of eco-friendly is: Not harmful to the environment.

When it comes to manufacturing industries, this is much easier said than done. Chemical runoff, water pollution, degradation of resources, toxic off-gassing, environmental destruction, climate change - these are issues eco-friendly and green brands aim to prevent through practices that prioritize organic materials' sourcing, low-impact dyes, human and animal friendly processes, closed loop systems, and clean energy.

Still, the definition is broad and open for interpretation, so pay attention to what the company says about its process, not just what it uses in its branding.

There's also been a lot of greenwashing - or labeling things as eco-friendly when they're not - as it's become more popular in recent years. Something made with organic cotton could be produced with toxic dyes. Nature imagery can disguise toiletries steeped in destructive chemicals. Be wary. A certification for organic cotton is available for companies who can afford it. Look for the GOTS Certified label on product listings and tags to ensure that your organic item was produced with consideration for ecological sustainability and check to make sure dyes used are low-impact and nontoxic.”

Fair Trade | Ashlee of One Fair Day

“First, let’s talk about ‘fair trade’ versus ‘Fair Trade’ versus ‘Fairtrade. This isn’t just a string of inconsistencies on my part. There is a difference between these three terms. A product or an organization described as ‘fair trade’ may not meet the same standards as a product described as ‘Fair Trade’ or ‘Fairtrade’.

‘Fair trade’ describes the general concept; ‘fair trade’ is a type of trade that ensures producers receive fair prices and reasonable conditions. ‘Fair Trade’ is a specific definition of the concept and is based on ‘Fair Trade principles’, which are contained within the Charter of Fair Trade Principles. The Charter and principles were developed by two non-government, not-for-profit Organizations called the World Fair Trade Organization (or WFTO) and Fairtrade International (also known as Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International or FLO). ‘Fair Trade’ can also refer to a certification and labelling system by Fair Trade USA (formerly known as TransFair USA).

Fair Trade certifications are a guarantee that people and the planet are not harmed or exploited to make goods and, ultimately, make a profit. More than this, products that bear the above certifications can actually help make the world a fairer, more just place by supporting people who are working hard to get out of poverty.

Through buying products that bear one or more of the above certification marks, our purchases can be good for the world and the people that we share it with.”

There are many different Fair trade certification marks. Head to One Fair Day to read an in-depth evaluation of each one.

Hannah Theisen