There is no easy definition.

If you’ve been reading The Good Trade for a while, you may have come across a piece I wrote last year that breaks down the concept of sustainable fashion. The conclusion? It’s complicated. That being said, I never could have guessed that the hardest answers were yet to come. Some of the buzzwords surrounding ethical fashion are understandably frustrating to consumers and experts alike. Though I wish I could say that this piece will clear everything up, it’s impossible to claim that. What I can promise is a comprehensive discussion of what ethical fashion has the ability to mean. The end result is much more about values than it is about rules, not unlike this entire movement.

How Industry Leaders Define Ethical Fashion

“Ethical fashion” is a phrase only used in recent history even though some of its practices date far back. One of the first papers debating this topic was published in 2002 and little evidence of the expression is found before the beginning of the century.

In the last decade or so, fast fashion has taken over the industry and left carnage in its path. Large brands have been notorious for underpaying and overworking their employees in factory settings. This has resulted in most people’s interpretation of “ethical fashion” as one in direct response to that.

Still, that runs a large gamut. Here are various definitions of the term by blogs, experts, brands, and consumers.

Ethical Fashion is an umbrella term [used] to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.

- V&A Museum

When ethics are discussed within the context of fashion, it most often refers to the treatment of people in the stages of raw material, processing and manufacture—activities typically carried out in the developing world.

- Study 34

I think the term ‘ethical’ is open to interpretation, as my ethics are likely different from yours and highly personal.

- Sass Brown, Fashionhedge

The only thing it really means is “not as bad as mainstream fashion.”
- Forbes

While some have made a valiant effort to clear up the confusion around the phrase “ethical fashion,” others have no desire to attempt the seemingly open-ended phrase. We can all agree that ethics are meant to guide us towards being better people—though what does that mean?

The Problem With Ambiguity

...consumers are interested, but something is holding them back from diving into a new kind of fashion. Forbes suggests this is due to the fact that there is so much ambiguity and not enough guidance for customers new to sustainable fashion.

Forbes reported that Common Objective, a B to B company aimed at cleaning up the fashion industry, has found that “Google searches for ‘sustainable fashion’ have grown 46% and ‘ethical fashion’ 25% in the past six years” and “60% of millennials said they are interested in certified clothing,”

However, only 37 percent of millennials have actually purchased any. This means that consumers are interested, but something is holding them back from diving into a new kind of fashion. Forbes suggests this is due to the fact that there is so much ambiguity and not enough guidance for customers new to sustainable fashion. We’re pushing away the very people we are trying to recruit!

British journalist Olivia Pinnock makes another good point—by claiming a vague title, brands are setting themselves up for failure. No brand or company can be truly sustainable or ethical according to every individual and their varied values. This leaves a lot of fashion businesses either adopting the terms for publicity (greenwashing) or being criticized for not doing enough despite their best efforts.

The conclusion is twofold: let consumers define the term for themselves according to their personal set of values and have brands commit to transparency instead of buzzwords.

The Solution: Choosing What Matters Most To You

From what I’ve gathered, the conclusion is twofold: let consumers define the term for themselves according to their personal set of values and have brands commit to transparency instead of buzzwords.

New ideas and product innovations are constantly redefining slow fashion, so marrying a single definition would be denying the evolving nature of the concept.

- Fashionedge

Instead, creating a brand manifesto and summarizing your aims will mean you’re doing what you say on the tin. You need to share your version of ‘ethical’ in order to connect with other people who identify with those values too.

- Forbes

For brands, it’s in their best interest to lay out all the facts—the good, the bad, and the ugly. An honest company is more likely to receive interest from millennial and Gen Z consumers, who care about transparency and authenticity. While it isn’t necessary for companies to divulge every private detail of their business, the more information they provide, the more likely they are to be praised instead of criticized.


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Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and is currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance writer and content creator with a focus in sustainable fashion. Audrey is deeply passionate about conscious living and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.