There are a lot of terms being thrown around in the conscious fashion space and it can be difficult to discern what all of these words actually mean so we are creating a definition series to break it all down, starting with: what is ethical fashion?
Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version!
What is Ethical Fashion?
When you look up the word “ethical” in a dictionary, you’ll find definitions about morality and differentiating right from wrong, good vs. bad. Naturally, the next question might be: what sorts of moral issues exist in the fashion industry?
Well, there is certainly no shortage of moral concerns in fashion today, from slave labor and sweatshops to racism and sexism. Because fashion exists within existing extractive and exploitive systems, the injustices run deep.
So, while this post will explore various ethical concerns in fashion, we’ll keep the definition of ethical fashion relatively broad.
Ethical fashion is the practice of getting to the root of the industry’s injustices, repairing harm, and building a more equitable, moral, humane future for fashion.
Ethical fashion is generally focused on the people in the fashion supply chain: from the farmers who pick the cotton, to the weavers who create the textile, to the garment workers who cut and sew each piece of clothing, to the way retail employees and corporate workers are treated.
That said, it’s impossible to actually separate people-focused issues in fashion from the environmental ones. It is all inextricably connected. The climate crisis directly impacts the livelihoods of people, pollution directly impacts human health, and so on. We are part of this very environment.
Why Does Ethical Fashion Matter?
This question could lead to an entire book — and in fact, there are entire books that discuss this topic! But, here is an overview of some of the main issues in the fashion industry today.
The large majority of fashion brands are not paying their workers living wages. A brand survey by Clean Clothes Campaign found that 93% of brands are not paying living wages and another report by Fashion Revolution puts that number at 98%. This means just 2 to 7% of garment workers earn living wages.
The majority of garment workers earn less than $3 a day. It takes a garment worker her entire life to earn what a CEO from a top fashion company earns in just 4 days.
A report by the Clean Clothes Campaign found that the average wages paid to garment workers are 2-5x lower than what a worker and her family need to actually live with dignity. This is largely due to the fact that the minimum wage in the world’s main garment-producing countries is not even close to a living wage.
In India, the minimum wage is a third of a living wage. Conditions are similar elsewhere, too. In Bangladesh, the minimum wage is 21% of a living wage. While in Sri Lanka, the minimum wage is just 13% of what a living wage would be.
This problem is not isolated to the Global South, though. Los Angeles is the largest garment manufacturing hub in the United States and is home to many factories with sweatshop conditions. Garment workers in LA earn $5.85/hour on average — and as little as $2.68/hour, according to the Garment Worker Center. Although the city has a minimum wage of $15/hour, the piece-rate system allows for sub-minimum wages.
And the exposé of Boohoo’s sweatshops in Leicester unveiled the reality of conditions in some UK factories as well.
Clearly, this is a much bigger problem than bad conditions in particular individual countries.
Wages are a HUGE topic, so check out this article on living wages for more.
Not only are garment workers grossly underpaid, but they are the first to go unpaid when crisis hits.
When the retail industry felt the impacts of COVID-19 in March and April, fashion brands canceled tens of billions of dollars of in-production and even completed orders. This left factories (who already operate on thin margins) with inadequate funds to pay their workers, causing mass food and housing insecurity among garment workers.
Excessive working hours, unsafe conditions, and violence are common in garment factories. Garment workers typically have to work 10 to 12 hours, or even up to 18 hours as deadlines approach according to Clean Clothes Campaign. Workers may even have to work all 7 days in the week without any days off during busier times.
Sexual harassment is also commonplace in the garment industry, as Human Rights Watch reports. It’s difficult to get a full picture of this issue given the limitations of independent audits and lack of protections for workers.
According to Global Fund for Women, though, 68% of women in Cambodia reported feeling unsafe at work, about half of women in India reported experiencing violence at work, and one third of women in Vietnam reported experiencing physical harassment at work.
Lack of Basic Worker Rights
None of the above should be interpreted to mean that there aren’t garment workers fighting against these unjust conditions. There are many garment workers organizing against the factories and brands they work for, demanding better pay and conditions.
These efforts, though, are often squashed through union busting, unfair dismissals, and threats. The majority of garment workers lack basic worker rights, like the ability to organize or negotiate for better conditions and pay.
Fashion’s Racist Colonial Roots
These labor issues do not happen in isolation. The vast majority of the people who make the world’s clothes are women of color, and the vast majority of those at the top of the fashion chain, earning the most profits are white men. This is not a coincidence or accident.
The reality is that the fashion industry was built, as really all industries are, on colonial systems. Wealthy white (and primarily male) business executives in the Global North are extracting and exploiting the resources and labor from countries in the Global South for their own profits.
We continue to see billionaire executives and billionaire shareholders literally profiting off of the labor of Black and brown women. Looking at this system, it’s easy to see how not much has changed since colonialism supposedly ended in countries like Bangladesh. Remake has a great article on how fashion brands are today’s modern-day colonial masters.
And we can see fashion’s racist roots and present-day realities when we look at their marketing and internal power structures too. Fashion magazines, brand marketing campaigns, and runways have long lacked adequate representation.
And while this surface-level diversity problem is slowly changing, particularly in the past year, we have to look deeper at how holds the power in fashion.
Who is at the head of the most widely distributed fashion magazines? Who is on the boards of the most powerful fashion brands? Who are the CEOs? Who are the designers getting the most attention?
Who runs the biggest fashion retailers and decides which brands get shelf space? (According to the 15 Percent Pledge, Black-owned businesses make up just 1.3% of total retail sales in the US.) Who are the wealthiest investors deciding which brands should get funding and who runs the banks giving out business loans?
It’s clear that we have a lot of work ahead of us when it comes to building a more equitable future for fashion.
How Ethical is Fast Fashion?
To put it succinctly: not at all.
While the issues of exploitation in fashion are widespread, fast fashion might just be the worst culprit. This doesn’t mean that middle-market or luxury fashion brands are necessarily better. There is a lack of transparency across the industry. But, fast fashion churns out the most products the most rapidly and at the cheapest prices.
The size of production means unreasonable productivity requirements forced onto garment workers. The unreasonable timelines for production turnarounds mean that most garment workers must operate at a breakneck pace. Garment workers report not being able to take breaks even to go to the bathroom, let alone to eat lunch.
This isn’t even to talk about the vast amount of environmental and health concerns with fast fashion, which is covered in What is Sustainable Fashion?
For more, check out Why Fashion is a Feminist Issue.
What is Fair Trade Fashion?
Another term you may see is fair trade fashion. While brands sometimes use this term loosely to mean ethical fashion, there are also fair trade certifications.
World Fair Trade Organization Member: Another brand-level certification for brands demonstrating a “clear commitment to Fair Trade as the principal core of their mission.”
Fair Trade Certified™: A factory-level certification that ensures workers are paid fair wages, work in safe conditions, and receive additional funds for community development projects. Something to watch out for here is that this is not a brand certification. Brands may source some products from Fair Trade Certified™ factories and some outside of certified factories, so you’ll have to look at individual product descriptions/tags to see if that piece was made in a fair trade environment.
Fairtrade International: A material-level certification ensuring that producers of raw materials earn a fair minimum price plus an additional premium, among other guarantees. There is currently a FAIRTRADE mark for cotton and the organization launched The Fairtrade Textile Standard to certify the entire garment production process. This standard is still in its early stages.
What Are Some Ethical Fashion Brands?
Now that we’ve outlined the problems in fashion and discussed how unethical fast fashion is, what are some better alternatives? What ethical clothing brands are there?
While supporting ethical fashion brands used to often mean sacrificing your style, the options are growing by the day. Now, there are a number of ethical fashion brands offering a variety of styles.
The Ethical Brand List features over 200 fair and eco-friendly fashion brands to get started with and this guide has our favorite fair trade fashion brands!
In general, some elements of an ethical fashion brand to look for are:
Is there transparency into the supply chain? Do they know where their products are made and where their materials are sourced from? (This is the bare minimum — transparency alone is not enough.)
Do they pay living wages? How do they ensure this? Do they tell you how much they pay or how they determine living wages? (Saying we pay double the minimum wage gives much more information than just saying we pay fair.)
Does everyone work in safe environments? What are conditions like at the factories? Does the brand limit or entirely eliminate the use of potentially toxic chemicals?
What types of benefits do workers have? Some benefits could include: paid time off, healthcare, transportation stipends, free meals on-site, and educational support for children.
What other initiatives are there? Does the brand work with worker-owned cooperatives? Do garment workers have a seat at the table for brand decisions?
Also look into what the brand’s practices are like within their own offices. Does the brand have diverse and inclusive hiring practices? Glassdoor.com actually launched diversity and inclusion ratings on their site for current and former employees to weigh in on how their company is doing. You can also look at the demographic breakdown of a brand’s executives, board, and designers.
The Instagram account @pullupforchange is a good source for finding this information. Does the brand have a history of cultural appropriation? If you do a quick online search, this information should be pretty easy to find. Most large fashion brands — from designer labels to fast fashion — have been guilty of this at some point. @diet_prada is a good account to follow on Instagram to stay updated on the latest news on appropriation, racism in fashion, and other issues.
Finally, look at who owns the brand. Who holds the power and who is making the decisions? Is the brand owned by billionaires or is it a small independent brand?
According to a report by McKinsey, the top 20 fashion companies make nearly all (97 percent to be exact) of the industry’s profits.
So part of shopping more ethically is shopping small. Try to support smaller conscious fashion labels rather than buying eco-friendly collections from huge fashion retailers.
And, consider who specifically is making the decisions and who is profiting off of the particular brand you’re thinking about supporting. You may want to prioritize Black-owned, Indigenous-owned, POC-owned, women-owned, or LGBTQIA+ owned brands.
While you may not find brands that be 100% perfect at all of this criteria, this is a guideline of things to look for and questions to ask brands.
Is Ethical Fashion Just About Consumerism?
While conscious consumerism is one aspect of ethical fashion, we cannot stop there.
When we focus on ethical fashion as merely shopping from “good” brands, we come up against a number of boundaries and limitations.
Some examples of limitations include:
Price: not everyone can afford more ethical fashion brands
Size: many ethical fashion brands are not size inclusive
Time: not everyone has the free time to research what an ethical brand even is, especially as this gets even tougher with all the greenwashing and ethics-washing in the industry
Not to mention, relying on conscious consumerism as the sole solution to creating a more ethical fashion industry is woefully inadequate to addressing the massive scale of the issue.
While the movement is growing and it is incredibly exciting to see, the “conscious consumer” niche is still small relative to the overall industry due to a variety of factors.
We cannot afford to wait until hundreds of millions of people opt-in voluntarily to the ethical fashion movement. Garment workers, cotton farmers, textile weavers, and everyone else in the fashion supply chain need rights and fair wages now.
To leave the livelihoods of garment workers up to the voluntary purchasing decisions of individuals is not only insufficient, but I would argue, unethical too.
Ensuring that garment workers have dignified work and earn wages that they and their families can actually live off should not be optional. And it cannot wait until enough people “buy in” to ethical fashion brands.
Does this mean conscious consumerism doesn’t matter? No, of course not!
We cannot ignore the fact that there are many ethical fashion brands ensuring safe work and living wages for garment workers right now. These brands are offering alternatives to mass production and labor exploitation today.
If you are able to support ethical fashion brands, your purchases absolutely can make a positive impact. They can lead to a tangible difference in the lives of people who work in the fashion industry.
What’s crucial to remember, though, is that these types of solutions are limited and the problems are vast. So our actions pushing for social change should not stop at consumerism.
And, even if you are unable to shop from ethical fashion brands, this does not mean that you can’t get involved in the movement. There are so many other ways to push for a better future for fashion.
Is Ethical Fashion More Expensive?
The biggest hesitation or pushback from people with ethical fashion is the cost. Statements like “ethical fashion is too expensive”, “ethical fashion is elitist”, etc. are common and it’s completely understandable to see why.
Ethical fashion can be expensive relative to fast fashion. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Ethical fashion is not just about buying stuff. There are more ways to get involved in the movement, which are outlined below.
Ethically made clothing is not always more expensive than middle-market brands like Anthropologie and Free People. These brands have dresses at $150-$200, for example, which is the same price as many smaller ethical fashion brands.
Consider cost per wear. While fast fashion looks cheap on the surface, it’s not so affordable if the piece falls apart after 3 wears. Calculating the “cost per wear” of a piece (i.e. the price divided by the number of wears) is a good tool for getting the true price of a garment.
To illustrate this, let’s say you purchase a $200 dress and expect to wear it 40 times over the next several summer seasons. You would calculate cost per wear as $200/40 = $5. Let’s say on the other hand, you buy a bunch of dresses at $40 each but you only wear each dress twice. That would be a cost per wear of $40/2= $20. Which option is more affordable for your overall annual budget?
I’ve actually saved a bunch of money on clothing by switching to a more ethical fashion mindset. This is because I am way pickier with the brands I want to support and therefore buy way less! I enjoy each piece I invest in more, too. This approach isn’t possible for everyone because it requires an upfront investment, but it’s something to consider if you are able to spend a bit more initially for overall savings.
Why Does Ethical Fashion Cost More Than Fast Fashion?
Okay, so all of the above said, we cannot ignore the fact that clothing from ethical fashion brands does have a higher price tag than fast fashion. Why is this the case?
There are two main factors: ethical production practices and scale.
First off, to be an ethical fashion brand, you have to pay your workers well. But there are more expenses than just wages for an ethical production model.
A brand should also be investing in benefits (like healthcare and paid time off), ensuring safe working conditions (this may mean investments into infrastructure if they have their own workshops or support for factories to upgrade), and if necessary, audits/visits for better transparency.
Beyond this, many ethical brands also prioritize things like eco-friendly materials and low impact dyes, which do cost more than their conventional counterparts.
The second element to consider is scale. Most ethical fashion brands produce in significantly smaller batches, meaning that they may need to charge more per piece to make enough money to keep their business running.
Part of the reason fast fashion brands can price their garments so low is that they’re producing so much. Even if they earn 50 cents per garment, they can still make a huge profit if they’re selling hundreds of thousands or millions of pieces.
When a smaller brand only sells a thousand pieces per year, they will need to make more profit per piece, to keep their business afloat.
There are many other factors that go into the cost differences between garments, but these are two important ones to know.
How to Get Involved With Ethical Fashion Beyond Consumerism
We cannot shop our way to a more just fashion system. Ethical fashion brands can offer inspiring frameworks for larger-scale change and consumer choices can make a difference on a small scale. But conscious shopping is not the only way to affect change. Here are some other actions to take:
Follow and Support Garment Worker Advocacy Organizations.
Follow them on social media and subscribe to their newsletters to stay updated on campaigns. Donate if you are able to. See if you can volunteer and join the movement in a bigger way. For instance, Remake has an amazing Ambassador Program that I am part of and highly recommend!
Support Legislation for Greater Worker Protections.
Massive problems require massive change. Support measures for legal reform like the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, which will push to eliminate piece-rate-pay and ensure a minimum wage for all workers. Learn more here and sign the petition here to show your support to California legislators. If you live in California, contact your Senators to make sure this bill passes the California Senate!
Another space to watch is Germany’s proposed due diligence law, which would require companies to address human rights risks throughout their entire supply chain. This law could set an example for the entire EU. If you live in Germany, call on parliament members to strengthen the proposed law and if you’re in the EU but not Germany, call on lawmakers to follow Germany’s lead.
Talk About These Problems With Your Community.
Raise awareness on the issues in the fashion industry with your personal network. Talk about it with friends, family, coworkers. Share what you’ve learned about the fashion industry and how you’re getting involved.
It’s most effective to focus on positive solutions rather than shaming and it’s great if you can bring in these ways to get involved with ethical fashion beyond consumerism. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about these issues directly for whatever reason, you could also suggest a book or podcast that talks about ethical fashion.
Fashion is full of human rights abuses and labor exploitation. The industry must do better. Ethical fashion is the practice of exploring how we can create a more ethical industry.
While the term is commonly limited to our consumer choices, ethical fashion does not stop at where we do or don’t shop. It’s about transforming the industry.
Finally, it’s crucial that we keep an open mind to learn more about these issues, especially because the voices of those impacted and most marginalized by the fashion industry have historically gone unheard.
The fashion industry — including the ethical fashion niche — still has much to learn from these voices and we cannot pretend that the Global North (i.e. economically “developed” countries like USA, Canada, Europe, and some parts of Asia) holds all of the solutions or answers for the entire world.