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Sustainable and Ethical Fashion 101

by Gaelle Guesdon 07 Mar 2022

By Mike-Dave Ayeni
Sustainable Fashion Writer

While many of us may be familiar with the term 'Sustainable Fashion Brand' or  'Ethical Fashion' we might not be as many who truly understand the concepts that both of these terms embody. While these two terms do not exactly mean the same things, they convey two globally important concepts that overlap in essence.

Sustainability and ethicality are both critical to the future of fashion, and the world at large (planetary safety impact is no small matter). And if we are to truly support these concepts, it only follows that we all know exactly what it is that we are supporting (especially with the large wave of greenwashing going on in the fashion industry).

Understanding sustainability and ethics will help us make purchase and lifestyle decisions by opening our minds up to information that will help us identify brands that are making true sustainability efforts as opposed to those that are 'greenwashing'. And the result of shifting our purchasing power to focus on supporting sustainability is the increased awareness of both brands and consumers on the importance of making healthy sustainable and ethical choices in the fashion industry and encouraging brands to do more towards finding proper solutions.

What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable Fashion (also known as eco-fashion), as defined by Wikipedia, "is a movement and process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice. Sustainable fashion concerns more than just addressing fashion textiles or products." 

It is the socially and environmentally responsible creation of fashion products with attention at every stage of production (from supply chains and sourcing to manufacturing, transportation, and packaging), to the steady elimination of the individual and gross negative impact of each stage on the environment, currently and in the future.

Sustainability calls for more consideration and responsibility in every decision made in the fashion system, production process and the fashion industry at large. It also calls for responsibility from us consumers, in how we use the fashion products we buy, how well they are treated and maintained, and in what ways they are disposed of after use. While our purchasing decision is quite important (and should be greatly scrutinised because you don’t really need that new shirt, do you? And how well will you wear it once you have bought it?), we also contribute in massive ways to the environmental impact of fashion in the things we do with our clothes during and after use.


What is an Ethical Fashion Brand?

Ethical fashion focuses on fashion production practices that do not negatively affect the people involved in manufacturing, wildlife and animals, the environment and consumers. It is fashion without harmful and exploitative practices that endanger human, animal and planetary life and health.

Ethical fashion centres more on the direct effect of fashion production processes on human, animal and planetary life. Its purpose is to deal with cruel practices within the industry that negatively affect the health and safety of lives.

The Difference Between Ethical Fashion and Sustainable Fashion

These two important concepts are two sides of one coin. They overlap in focus at certain points and generally both point to increasing and protecting the quality of life on earth for all living things while providing the beautiful mode of expression we all love in fashion. They are, essentially, art made safe, and made considerately. Take a look at the focus on both sides of conscious fashion production.

ethical fashion 101 

The Focus of Sustainable Fashion

The concepts that make up Sustainable Fashion can be divided into three phases:

  • Sourcing Phase: This focuses on how the raw materials for fabric and textiles are farmed, harvested, treated and processed. At this stage, a lot of environmentally harmful practices have been discovered to be used to produce a higher yield in a shorter time. This includes the use of toxic chemical fertilizers to increase the yield of plant-based textiles like cotton and hemp, treating raw textiles with harsh chemicals to reduce the time spent in processing, excessive water use and improper disposal of toxic waste materials from production. All these are factors to be carefully considered and mitigated by incorporating sustainable policies into this stage of production.
  • Production Phase: A lot of waste is generated by the fashion industry at this phase and a huge contributor is pattern cutting. For clothes to be made to fit our bodies, there are patterns they have to be made in, and most times, these patterns generate a lot of fabric waste in unusable leftover fabric. Efforts are being made to redraft patterns in a way that takes fabric conservation into consideration and reduces the amount of landfill waste generated at this point, but leftover fabric can also be innovatively repurposed and used to produce accessories and fashionable souvenirs— like making scrap silk into scrunchies and neckties.
  • Post-production and Shipping Phase: Very likely the phase that generates the most pollution, both in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and plastic waste from packaging, not to mention landfill waste from unsold products that don't end up in an incinerator. The sustainability focus of this phase is to increase local product manufacturing, thereby reducing the need for product shipping, switching from single-use plastics to more sustainable packaging (for example, reusable, recycled, compostable and biodegradable options), and imposing a production limit on certain fashion products to eliminate non-sale waste.

There are much more details to the scope of Sustainable Fashion under these broad categories, that you can learn more about here.


The Focus of Ethical Fashion

Ethical Fashion efforts are mostly concentrated on the first two phases:

  • Sourcing Phase: At this phase, the focus is on sourcing fabric and textile materials that have been obtained through cruelty-free methods. For example, fabric like fur and animal pelt is obtained by killing the animal it originally belonged to. This practice has led to poaching in the past and has endangered a lot of animal species, putting entire ecosystems at risk. The cultivation of some other textiles has also been found to employ child labour, an illegal, exploitative practice that has been ethically banned. To produce clothes ethically, it is important to be conscious and transparent on how the raw materials are sourced and to ensure that lives are not being harmed in the process.
  • Production Phase: A lot of exploitation of garment workers goes on at this phase, and negligence in this area has created very harmful working conditions that have led to lost lives and fatal injuries in the past. An example is the 2013 Rana Plaza Factory collapse that resulted in over a thousand deaths and approximately 2500 injuries. This was the tragedy that sparked the inception of The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and eventually, The International Accord for Health and Safety, a legally binding international agreement that caters to providing safe and healthy working conditions for garment workers in the fashion industry.

Transparency is an important overlapping focus in both sustainable and ethical fashion. It is important that brands share just exactly what effort they are putting into taking responsibility for how fashion affects the world and the planet. Apart from helping consumers make more informed purchasing decisions, transparency helps us review our practices, hold each other accountable and progressively work hand in hand towards an ecologically healthy future. 

Why Do Sustainability and Ethics Matter?

The importance of making a conscious effort towards taking responsibility for how our actions affect the health of our planet, the environment, ecosystems, people and animals cannot be overemphasised. While it is currently difficult to adhere to every single sustainable and ethical practice, it is very possible for us to progressively work towards each goal. As more research goes into understanding how best to alter and improve our actions to reduce their negative impacts on the environment, it is important to do what we can to champion the cause if we still want our planet to be liveable in the years to come.  Here are a few reasons why sustainable and ethical fashion is important:

  • Waste reduction: While fast fashion focuses on churning out poor quality mass-produced fashion items that contribute more to waste than actual fashion, sustainable fashion utilises quality, durable materials to ensure clothes last a lifetime, thereby greatly reducing waste.
  • Ethical fashion ensures safe working conditions and fair wages for garment workers.
  • Reduced carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions through sustainable transportation practices. 
  • Sustainability ensures water conservation by utilising fabrics with low water requirements during the production phase.
  • Ethical fashion prevents animal cruelty and protects endangered animals from exploitation, poaching and extinction. 

Our major responsibility in sustainable fashion is to be aware of the environmental impact of our actions as fashion consumers.

As you continue to explore and purchase, be sure the brands you're buying from are actively reducing their negative influence on the environment while improving the working circumstances of their employees.

If we consciously take joint responsibility for sustainability, our goals will be achieved much faster and easier.

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