What Is Sustainable and Ethical Fashion?

In this article, we are taking a deep dive into the question of What Is Sustainable and Ethical Fashion and offer many solutions to make it easier for you to find brands that align with your values. Understanding the terms "sustainable" & "ethical" is half the battle.

Sustainable and Ethical Fashion can be defined as:

“clothing, shoes and, accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. In practice, this implies continuous work to improve all stages of the product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components.” – Green Strategy

Who hasn’t done some “retail therapy” to feel happy? Practically no one.

Longing to feel beautiful or “on trend”, believing the mantra of “I deserve a treat”, or simply as an antidote to boredom, we cruise the outlets, shops, and our open tabs and click to purchase. (In this state of mind, we bury our cognitive dissonance of wanting to support ethical and sustainable fashion. Our values are quite inconvenient when we are seduced by pretty marketing, or the false urgency of a sale!)

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Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Our society often confuses “retail therapy” for self-care. The hit of happiness we get at the click of the mouse, the arrival of the package, and the first-wear is like a drug.  Dopamine is the feel-good hormone that our body releases with sugar, sex, drugs and other pleasurable pursuits like shopping. Of course, we want more! So when the good feelings fade, we are susceptible to deals on cheaply made clothes, and the social media posts of influencers who tell us how easy it is to “shop this cuuute look”.

Not only does this “retail therapy” cycle not make us happy, but it leads to overspending, and comes at the expense of the planet and the people who make our clothes and is far removed from the ideals of sustainable and ethical fashion.

Luckily, there’s an alternate way. We can have a deeply satisfying and beautiful wardrobe that is also net positive in the ethics and sustainability department.

But before we get to how to build this sustainable & ethical closet, let’s get a few things defined.

What Is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion can be defined as inexpensive, low-quality clothing, accessories and footwear that mimic the trends seen in couture and luxury brands during seasonal fashion shows. Using cheap, often synthetic materials and sweatshop labour, fast fashion brands can deliver new items to the racks and online platforms at break-neck speed. It is not uncommon to have new stock arrive once to twice a week, which essentially creates a potential of 52-104 “seasons” a year. There is no way that all of these items will be purchased at “full price”, so the sale cycle is triggered almost immediately. 

What are the Impacts of Fast Fashion?

Environment: Enough data exists to show that Fashion is one of the worst polluting industries on the planet. It’s not possible to rank it conclusively because of a lack of supply chain transparency and also because of fashion’s interaction with other polluting industries such as fossil fuels, plastics, and transportation.

Water: the fashion industry uses enough fresh water every year to quench the thirst of 110 million people for an entire year. To bring it into a more tangible number, just one pair of jeans takes 20,000 litres of water to produce -- from growing the cotton to dyeing. It would take one person 13 years to drink the equivalent! (Oxfam, 2019, Common Objective, 2018). On the consumer side, washing clothes releases half a million tonnes of plastic micro-fibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. (Fashion Takes Action)

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Textile Waste: Sixty percent of all clothing manufactured (including clothes that are never purchased) are incinerated or sent to landfills within one year. Canadians send 37 kg of textile waste to landfills per person each year. When pre-consumer fibre and textile waste is considered, 87% meets the same fate. (Fashion Takes Action)

Chemicals: 43 million tonnes of chemicals are used to grow, process, wash, soften and dye textiles each year. These chemicals also make finished clothing stain resistant, mold and fire retardant! Not all of these chemicals are hazardous, but those that are, pollute freshwater, persist in the environment and bio-accumulate in animals and humans, then cause serious illnesses and biological dysfunction.

The use of chemicals is predicted to increase by 3.5% by 2030 to keep up with consumer demand. We know that many brands have eliminated the most hazardous chemicals in their supply chains thanks to the Greenpeace Detox campaign, but the proliferation of toxic substances is still a terrible danger to human, animal and ecosystem health. (Common Objective, 2018)

Climate Change: According to the OECD, if fashion were a country, it would be the 4th largest emitter of CO2 in the world. It creates the same amount of emissions as 372 million cars driving for one year. (Common Objective, 2018) This is in large part due to increased production, which doubled between 2000 and 2014, and reliance on fossil-fuel-based textiles, such as polyester, which is in 60% of our clothes. (Fashion Revolution)

Animals: Statistics on the numbers of animals used in garment production are not often tracked and collected. Based on data collated by Common Objective in 2018, 100s of billions of animals, such as bovine, sheep, goats, minx and fox, but most prolifically silkworms, ducks and geese, are killed every year for their hide, fur, down, feathers and silk. Whereas 1.6 billion sheep, camels, alpaca, rabbits and goats are used for their wool and hair, but not killed during production. It's one reason why we need to consider more vegan options, like vegan leather.

Labour: Fashion is one of the most labour-intensive industries, directly employing 60 million (cut, sew, processing, transportation and retail), and indirectly 120 million (when agriculture and raw material processing is included). Eighty percent of these workers are women, the majority of whom work in the global south and do not make close to a living wage. (Fashion Revolution, 2015)

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Photo by Julie Krabbe Clausen from Pexels

A living wage is calculated according to the local cost of living and defined as the hourly wage a family needs to cover food, housing, clothing, childcare, transportation and small savings for sickness or emergencies. Not having enough to make ends meet puts pressure on them to work overtime and to put up with unsafe working conditions and harassment. An average working day in China could be 14.6 hours, or 17.4 hours in Bangladesh. (Common Objective, 2018)

Moreover, The Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8 million people globally  (including children) are living in forced labour or slavery. There is a lot of inference here because of the underground nature of these practices. According to the Index, 58% of people in slave or forced labour live in major cotton and fashion manufacturing countries such as China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, and these countries have a “high vulnerability to the conditions that lead to slavery.” (Common Objective, 2018)

Consumers: With a global population of 7 billion, we now consume over 100 billion items of clothing a year. That’s around 14 items of clothing per person per year, but of course, most of that is consumed in wealthy countries. According to a store exit survey of 1000 people, Greenpeace found that 66% of shoppers lost the ‘buzz’ of buying something new within a few moments to a day.

As a society, we are clearly addicted to cheap and disposable fashion!

But there are hopeful alternatives! With collective action, there are so many ways we can make a substantial positive impact through our fashion practices. One way is to shop for second-hand clothing.

Typically, once someone has been shocked by the impacts of fashion, they start Googling “ethical” or “sustainable fashion” blogs and searching Instagram for the same hashtags.

What Is Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Anyway?

Often “ethical” and “sustainable” are used interchangeably. While they do overlap a bit, generally speaking, ethics apply to individuals’ and brands’ behaviour with respect to beneficial or detrimental actions, and sustainability applies to the provenance of an item, i.e. how it was made, how it is used, and what happens to it at the end of its life.

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Ethics -- are about values and choices. 

Although society has some universal ideas on right and wrong, ethics are still very personal. We make choices and behave according to what we value, and this becomes our personal code. With respect to fashion, our personal code of ethics will determine certain non-negotiables such as vegan materials (like Jute, organic cotton, modal or lyocell) only, buying only Canadian-made, taking a year of no shopping, or choosing to support Black and Indigenous designers whenever possible.  Our values will help us make more nuanced ethical decisions, too, such as shopping at a fast-fashion brand, but only if we can’t find what we need second-hand.

Ethical practices also apply to fashion brands. As consumers, we can ask questions about their operations. Do they make business decisions that benefit or harm people, animals and the planet? Can they trace their supply chain back to the raw materials and all the ‘cut and sew’ facilities to prove their practices are ethically sound? Are they transparent about their practices with consumers and shareholders? There is much more to be written on this topic to be sure! For now, you can read more about traceability and transparency here.

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Finally, ethics applies to the business of the fashion system itself. The race to the bottom for cost requires environmental and labour corners to be cut and for consumers to continue to buy excessively. Nowhere was this more evident than the fashion industry’s refusal to pay for 953 million items of finished goods in the lead up to the COVID-19 shutdown. Workers, mostly women already living under the poverty line, were not paid, future orders were cancelled, and the garments already made were most likely incinerated as there was no market for them. You can read more about this story and the #payup campaign here.

Sustainability -- is about the continuance of abundant and healthy life for humans, animals, plants and the earth’s systems now, and into the future. 

Here’s another great definition.

“Sustainability is the integration of environmental health, social equity and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come. The practice of sustainability recognizes how these issues are interconnected and require a systems approach and an acknowledgement of complexity.” UCLA Sustainability Committee.

Therefore, apparel that is truly sustainable, is made, used and reused in a way that is in line with the continuance and thriving of the environment, society and the economy.

What Do You Do Now To Implement Sustainable & Ethical Practices:

Those definitions set a high bar that is pretty much impossible to reach. Nothing is ever 100% sustainable because we have to use resources. Many ethical decisions have a flip side of repercussions that harm people, animals or an ecosystem somewhere.

For equity and practicality's sake, it’s important to point out that ‘budget’ and ‘time’ factor into our  decision making. Sometimes it’s just not possible to live up to our highest ideals. 

With that in mind, we suggest that you define what your personal “non-negotiables” are (e.g. to shop vegan and plastic-free materials only), and then to give yourself time to transition the rest, using what you already have until you have the funds and/or it’s time to replace items. (Our comprehensive list of options below will help you decide.)

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This approach is what’s called “progress over perfection” and applauds continual learning and trying new things. While self-examination, taking consistent action, and calling brands to account is of utmost importance, it also takes the emphasis off the act of “cancelling” brands and individuals.

A practice that focuses on positive actions and includes grace for yourself and others, is one that can be joyfully sustained over a lifetime without “eco-fatigue”.

It encourages others, too! When you share your journey with others, your honest process will compel them to do the same, rather than scare them off because the task seems unattainable or the message is finger-wagging rather than encouraging.

How To Create a Sustainable & Ethical Wardrobe:

There are so many ways to create a more ethical and sustainable wardrobe! When you choose to wear, purchase, make, or start any of the practices outlined below, you are using your influence as a global citizen and a consumer in a positive way. 

Think of this list, organized according to the life cycle of fashion, as a holistic menu of options. It was developed by Sarah Peel, educator and co-founder of Citizenne Style, and is adapted for The Eco Hub used with permission.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to check every box for every single item you own! If we each do one or two of these practices every week, or each time we purchase, the ripple effect will transform fashion and make it something we can love even more.

Sustainable and Ethical Fashion means making an impact through the whole life-cycle of fashion:

Growing and Making:

Natural & Sustainable textiles: choose items that are made with natural fibres (cotton, wool, linen, silk) and have some kind of sustainability story, e.g. cotton denim made with less water, any kind of viscose, rayon, or modal that does not use tree pulp from ancient forests; non-toxic or leather alternatives like pinatex made from pineapples. Please note that just because a fibre is from a plant or animal, that does not mean it is sustainable! For example, conventional cotton, as you know from the stats earlier in this article, is very water and chemical-intensive.

Recycled Fibres: it’s becoming easier to dress or accessorize with items made from recycled fibres such as denim with a % of recycled cotton, nylon for swimsuits made from ocean plastic (called Econyl), faux leather made from pineapple fibre, or yarn for fleece and shoes made from plastic bottles. The content tag on your clothes will tell you what the item is made of. Looking ahead to the end of the life cycle, it’s important to note that fabrics made with a mix of plant and synthetic fibres (e.g. cotton and spandex) cannot be recycled or composted.

Look For Certification Logos: Fair Trade, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), Blue Sign, PETA, or B-Corp Certified and FSC are all examples. These logos from 3rd-party certification organizations let you know that you don’t have to worry about doing extra research; be assured the item is non-toxic, ethically produced, vegan, or cruelty-free.

Created With Social Purpose: there are many artisans and brands that aim to do good for people via employment or income generation, e.g. a scarf made by women transitioning out of the sex trade, jewellery made by street-involved youth, or by an artisan preserving his or her craft, such as culture-specific weaving, dyeing, leather, or metal-work.

Handmade: choose to wear something made by you, your grandmother, or a local artisan. If these are missing in your closet, check out the home-sewing community online for inspiration, sign up for classes, or plan to make some of your new clothing purchases at artisan pop-ups.

Shopping, caring and wearing sustainable and ethical fashion:

Be An Outfit Repeater: the number one most important thing you can do is to wear what you love on repeat, (which allows you to shop less)! Not everything needs to be worn threadbare, but get all the life you can out of the items you’ve chosen to keep (including your fast fashion) until they no longer serve you. Up the ante by experimenting with a capsule for a few days (i.e. a limited number of items that go together). Can you use your creativity to style a different look each day e.g. just 10 items from your closet, including shoes, for the whole week? Or work towards a minimalist wardrobe with these minimalist fashion brands.

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Shop Less and Be Strategic: make a list of new or ‘new to me’ items you’d like in your wardrobe. It doesn’t matter if they are trendy, high fashion, or classic pieces, but ask questions about each item before you start your search online or in shops. e.g. Will this fill a gap in my wardrobe? Do I have the budget? Is this a need or a sustainable luxury? Is it versatile? (e.g. can I wear this 3 ways, or with three other things, I already have?

Does it work for layering or for several seasons? If an item is essentially frivolous or fun, but you really, really want the trend, see if you can find something that echoes the style at a thrift store or consignment shop. At least you are giving a second life to a garment. Often people buy trendy items on a whim, never wear them, then donate them. It’s common to find items in a thrift shop that still have their tags attached! And consider renting a dress for that special occasion.

Research: read up on your favourite brands via their corporate website. Do they say anything at all? Do they publish a corporate responsibility or sustainability report? Do they tell you what their labour or materials standards are? Alternatively, use an app like Good On You that will give you a third-party assessment of brands’ ethical performance and will suggest better brands with similar aesthetics. Use the research of advocacy organizations like Greenpeace, Labour Behind the Label, or Fashion Revolution to help you make decisions about who to support with your purchases.

Choose Local, Independent or Female Owned: make your carbon footprint smaller by purchasing locally made items. Keep money circulating in your community by shopping independent. Make your fashion feminist by empowering fempreneurs with your dollars.

All Bodies Are Beautiful: take a look at a brand’s sizing spectrum. Inclusive sizing means that sustainable and ethical fashion is available to all. For big brands, look for at least XXS to XXL sizes, and for smaller brands that create in small batches or on-demand, look for statements that indicate “other sizes on request”, or email/tag them publicly on social media to ask if they do.

Proactively Support Black, Brown, Indigenous and People of Colour: many of the practices in our list will implicitly address racism. According to Labour Behind the Label, “of the 74 million garment workers worldwide, approximately 80% of them are women” from Asian, Latin and racialized communities in the U.S., thus ethical labour practices and organic or non-toxic processes will directly protect their physical health and livelihoods. However, explicit actions by the brands themselves to dismantle systemic racism in their workplace, stores, factories, website and social media are just as important.

Questions you can ask are: Who are their models? Who do they promote? Is there a token BIPOC here and there, or are they consistently diverse? What does their website say about their anti-racism stand and affirmative policies in place or process? Who is in leadership and staff? Finally, buy from BIPOC owned businesses.

Mis-appropriation of cultural techniques, motifs, and styles is not an issue when you are directly supporting a BIPOC artisan or maker -- be sure to ask the artisan how to wear it appropriately, and then wear their fashion and accessories proudly -- and of course, share their business with all your family, friends and followers!

Repair, tailor or cobbler: do you have something in your wardrobe that’s been repaired, tailored, or fixed by a cobbler (shoe-maker)? Get out your needle and thread to sew on that button, or take them in to a professional to be fitted or repaired.

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The Art of Laundry: connecting this chore to something positive, such as planet- or self-care can really transform it for you (yes, even if there’s tons of it!). Some QiGong-like mindfulness might help you avoid being on autopilot, which is when things get wrecked. According to AEG 70% of clothing that ends up in landfills hasn’t been laundered correctly (shrinking, colour fading, stains). Get savvy on the science of stain removal, garment care, and ironing. Conserve energy and water by washing in cold water with full loads (helps to avoid shrinking, too!). Wash clothes only when they are dirty, turn them inside out and use minimal soap.

This extends how long they last and look great. The dryer uses 5-6 times more energy than the washing machine, so air-dry or use wool dryer balls to lessen drying time. Skip the synthetic fragrance detergent, choose eco-friendly detergents and avoid polyester dryer sheets (substitute with a few drops of essential oil on your wool dryer balls). Read your care labels and wash them by hand when appropriate. Reduce your toxic load by switching from dry cleaning to wet cleaning service.

Cost Per Wear: make the case for investing in a well-made or sustainable brand using some easy math: divide the cost of the item by the number of wears. This is called cost-per-wear (e.g. $250 dress/ 20 wears = $12.50 per wear). If you’re a sale or bargain shopper, this may be a completely different way of thinking about staying on a budget, but it’s a good mental switch to make if you want to transition your wardrobe. Buying strategically + cost-per-wear + thrifting = the slow fashionista’s magic budget formula!

Send nothing to landfill:

Vintage, Consignment, Thrift, or Swap: dress or accessorize with items that are vintage (i.e. older than 20 years), consignment, thrifted, or swapped. If you have none in your wardrobe, research independent shops that are local to you, or online portals for quality used items. Do a search for clothing swaps organized close to you, or sign-up for a zero-currency exchange app, e.g. Bunz.

Rent Or Borrow: do you have a special event coming up? Instead of buying something you’ll only wear once, borrow from a friend, a peer-to-peer service, fashion library, or rental company.

Repurpose/Reuse: make or purchase something repurposed e.g. jeans that are now shorts, a leather couch that is now a bag, bicycle inner tubes that are now earrings, bullets that are now rings. Reuse of textile ends and “deadstock’ is now becoming more common. With more organizations coordinating waste, such as The Queen of Raw, it’s easier for brands to produce collections in small batches based on how much textile they were able to obtain. These collections often sell out, which also reduces waste.

Nothing To Landfill: next time you do a closet edit, any unworn and unwanted items can be donated. Research a local organization requesting specific clothing items for donation (e.g. women’s office wear for women coming out of the shelter system; winter jackets at a nearby school), or call up a local charity for pick-up. Nothing should go in the garbage, not even holey socks and underwear or even bras. Everything can be reused, repurposed, or recycled, so donate it all. Just be sure it is clean and dry.

Where to Shop For Sustainable and Ethical Fashion:

Visit The Eco Hub's Ethical Marketplace. And you can also find ethical and sustainable fashion on a budget.
Made Inland offers Canadian designed and made; diverse representation.
Ally C. Tran has a Comprehensive directory for men, women, children, Canadian and American brands.
EcoCult has a great directory of American brands.

Deepen Your Knowledge and Find Community:

Fashion Revolution - for global activism and education.
Common Objective - a professional networking site for sustainable fashion.
Fashion Takes Action - Canadian non-profit, school programs, textile waste innovation.
Re/make - a community of millennial and gen Z’s organizing to bring an end to fast fashion.

Listen and Watch:

Wardrobe Crisis Podcast
Conscious Chatter Podcast
True Cost Movie
River Blue Movie.

Final Thoughts on Sustainable and Ethical Fashion:

There is so much to think about when it comes to ethical fashion, I hope you found this article useful. If I have left anything out, please share it in the comments below. We've got a ton of fashion guides coming up, so keep a lookout for those!

And here is a list of all the ethical fashion roundups;

If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – sharing is caring 🙂!

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