What is Sustainable Fashion and Ethical Fashion

Two sides of the same coin - Need of the hour in the 21st Century

Ethical and sustainable fashion has been gathering momentum globally in the past decade. As is the case with ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in the food and cosmetic industry, ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ are not well defined. They have been the buzzword for quite some time in the fashion industry but they seem more like a trend these days used by brands for green washing.

Essentially, ethical and sustainable fashion is an approach towards sourcing, manufacturing and designing clothes which maximizes the benefits to the industry and society at large, at the same time minimizes the impacts on the environment.

“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Sustainable Fashion and Ethical fashion may seem two separate entities but when we dig deeper into the roots, we find that they’re rather complementary terms.

Where the Problem begins?

fashion industry statistics graph

The fashion industry accounts for 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint. According to the EPA, textiles have one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material. First, there’s all the wastes trimmings and scraps that come from production.  Next, there’s what’s called “deadstock”, or clothing that’s made, put on shelves, but doesn’t actually sell before going out of style.  Fashion companies typically burn this excess rather than donating or recycling it.

Therefore, there’s a need to do something about this since these numbers are directly contributing to serious issues like climate change and waste management problems.


Sustainable Fashion

The word sustainable comes from the word “sustain” meaning “give support to”, “to hold up”, “to bear '' or to “keep up”. Sustainable is anything “bearable” and “capable of being continued at a certain level”. It promotes the use of products which are good for People, Profit and the Planet as a whole.

“Sustainable fashion is a movement and process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice.”

Concepts fostering Sustainability in the Fashion Industry

  • Increase global awareness: Information campaigns facilitated through concentrated industry efforts can create global awareness for the paradigm shift towards sustainable fashion. Raising global awareness could become mainstream in as little as 5 years according to the experts, and add great value in regards to restoration of the natural environment and working conditions and poverty.
  • Fiber and processing innovation: New types of fibers and processing techniques should be adopted for low-energy and low-water processing, higher bio-degradability, recycling and maintaining of clothing and packaging. Fibres and processing innovation was assessed as having a strongly positive impact on the environment but less effective with regard to the impact on working conditions and poverty. It is expected that the concept could become mainstream in less than a decade.
  • Highly Detailed Sustainability Report: Sustainability reporting should be done based on a credible certified system. Carbon footprint and GWP should be calculated to increase accountability and enable learning from these reports.
  • Worker driven initiatives: These initiatives depend on industry specific human rights code, designed and targeted at longstanding abuses that workers are subjected to in the industry. While it is possible worker driven initiatives could become mainstream in under 10 years, the impact of worker-driven initiatives was assessed as particularly low-impact with regard to the restoration of the natural environment and higher for impact on working conditions and poverty.
  • Increased co-operation: Key players in the industry could form alliances and enforce sustainable solutions across the entire industry. Worldwide industry collaboration would have a great impact on the environment with a large impact on working conditions and poverty according to the experts. Furthermore, this could be achieved within a decade.
  • Extended Producer Responsibility: It requires fashion producers to reduce their amount of waste. Experts believe that EPR could become mainstream within a decade with the highest impact on the restoration of the natural environment and medium impact on working conditions and poverty.
  • Wages in Fashion Industry: Fair and decent fashion wages standards set and monitored by local governments and global institutions. The impact of fair wages in the fashion industry was assessed very high for working conditions and poverty but comparably low with regard to the restoration of the natural environment. However, the experts believe this initiative would take a while to get off the ground, with it not likely to become mainstream before 2030.
  • Circular Economy: "The circular economy model focuses on keeping resources unspoiled and using them as efficiently as possible. It creates worth, and thus, has a positive impact on society, the economy and the environment. It enables a change from the traditional linear production scheme, in which used products simply get destroyed and waste management is a mere consequence of the production model. Instead, the circular economy model creates a loop pattern: with each step (product design, use and end-of-life), we seek solutions to create positive value by avoiding resource wastage.” (François-Michel Lambert, chairman of the French Institute for the circular economy model and French Representative for Bouches du Rhône area, 2014)

fashion industry statistics graph

fashion industry statistics graph
Fig. Strategies for a Circular Economy

  • Clothing as a service: Leasing clothing, monthly subscriptions, exchanging used clothes for shop discounts and many other service-based models is going to be the future of the fashion industry.
  • Automation Revolution: Advanced automation technologies dramatically reduce labor content of garment production, processing, manufacturing and logistics while at the same time significantly reducing Time to Market.
  • Local Production: This model generates benefits from both the phenomenon of near-shoring of production reducing the carbon footprint in transportation while also cutting costs.
  • Tax regulations for increasing sustainability: Most nations have implemented taxation requiring companies to introduce natural capital accounting as well as targeted tax incentives focused on improving practices and boosting R&D.
  • Consumer level Sustainability Index: A smart phone (or other future mobile device) application or simple point of sale tool informs and educates consumers about purchasing decisions. Similar to (and as common as) food labeling, but instead of nutritional facts it provides credible sustainability facts, such as the amount of water used during production or chemical usage. The other possibility would be to create an aggregated sustainability index.

Fibers and processing innovations, Circular economy and Clothing as a service were rated to have maximum environmental impact.  

(Canda Foundation, 2019)


Ethical Fashion

“Ethical fashion is the recognition that there are human beings behind the clothes that we wear.” -Myself, Elizabeth Joy

Ethical means something that is morally right and acceptable. It deals with the moral side of the industry, namely animal rights, human rights, inclusivity, and supply chain transparency. 

 It asks #WhoMadeMyClothes? and is more concerned about:

  • The place where textiles are manufactured
  • Wages of the workers to grow crops and make the garments?
  • Their working conditions
  • Treatment by their employers
  • Prevailing Fair Trade policies and initiatives
  • Use animal materials and if so, treatment of the animals (e.g. silk and wool)
  • Is their message and sizing inclusive and diverse?
  • Transparency in their fair work policies and factory locations
  • Transparency of their supply chain
  • Charitable initiatives and policies
  • Extension of support to their local communities

Thus, we see that ethical fashion merely becomes a subset of the term ‘Sustainable fashion’. There is a need to embed this concept into the main objectives of the businesses. Ethical and sustainable fashion will eventually become a norm to be practiced by everyone in the fashion industry. Styles come and go, but sustainability preserves the planet for a lifetime. Let’s all aim to make the most popular fashion trend of the future one that makes a positive impact on the world.

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