In the last few years, so many more people are talking about Ethical Fashion and are choosing to shop second hand or with ethical brands, which is incredible to see. One question I get asked a lot by customers and friends (and people who hear I’m an ethical fashion designer) is “what does ethical fashion actually mean?” I love this question! Firstly, because I am passionate about ethical fashion and love talking about it with anyone who’ll listen, but more importantly because helping people define this for themselves is one of the best first steps towards building a wardrobe that is truly reflective of their values. So for this, I have two answers but I think both are important. One is a definition and another is a question.
Ethical Fashion: A definition
Ethical fashion can be defined as fashion that aims to reduce the negative impact on people, animals, and the planet. If that definition seems very broad, it’s because it is. The issues in fashion surrounding people, animals and the planet are countless and each so complex. According to a 2019 report by the Common Objective, apparel is now a $1.4 trillion (USD) dollar industry and growing. Fashion reaches billions of people, in hundreds of countries across dozens of industries. I think this definition is helpful in understanding the scope and scale of the ethical issues in fashion, but as someone wanting to shop more ethically, it’s a little overwhelming and not very practical.
Ethical Fashion: A question to ourselves
To define ethical fashion I think we need to flip the question of what is ethical fashion back onto ourselves. The fashion industry has unethical practices embedded in almost every part of its supply chain. No one brand can solve all of these issues and neither can one shopper – as much as we may all desperately want to. It might be more practical and far less paralysing to think about ethical fashion in terms of your personal ethics. Ask yourself, what do I value most? What are my priorities? What will I not tolerate? The answers to these questions can guide you to seek out brands that are doing great work in the areas that matter most to you. So, rather than finding a definition for ethical fashion, let your values define what ethical fashion is for you.
Image by Hello I'm Nik via Unsplash
Why is defining your values so important?
In short, a lot of companies spend more time and money marketing themselves as ethical than actually operating ethically. Being led by a specific set of personal values can make it a lot harder for brands to mislead you with vague and empty marketing messages.
Well-known terms like ethical fashion can be helpful to look for when starting your search for brands and products but to really shop your values you are going to have to dig a little deeper before you make a purchase.
It is important to make sure that there is substance behind the buzzwords in a brand's ethical claims. Unless they dive into the specifics of how they are ethical, there is no way to know what values the brand stands for, if any at all. Does the brand claim to use eco-friendly materials? Great. Do follow that up by explaining how their chosen materials are more sustainable? Do they use less water? Are they biodegradable? Dyed without harmful chemicals? Or do they just say that they are all-natural? The word natural has a lot of positive connotations thanks to the food and beauty industries but it is really just another buzzword, it does not (necessarily) equal eco-friendly.
Your values and priorities are your own so don’t be surprised if they are a little different from your friends and family (and people on the internet).
Once you have established that a brand really is working and making clothing in line with the certain values, you’re going to soon realise that not every ethical brand is going to seem ethical in your eyes, even if they are doing a great job in the areas they are focusing on. That’s because it’s pretty much impossible to do it all. As I mentioned above, the issues are vast and complex. There are no perfect brands, so it’s all about finding brands and products that fall as closely to your ethics and priorities as possible.
For example, a brand that makes “ethical leather”, through a process of vegetable tanning, would be making a great improvement on the industry-standard chrome, leather tanning process by significantly reducing the use of highly toxic chemicals that are harmful to both workers and the environment. For someone very concerned about worker health and safety as well as pollution from toxic chemicals, this brand may be a great fit. However, for someone vegan, an ethical leather brand that uses genuine animal hides in any kind of process is unlikely to be an acceptable alternative. They may even feel a little offended that this could be considered ethical as it significantly conflicts with their values. If they are looking for a leather-like product, they may instead opt for a plant-based leather derived from mushrooms or pineapples (although these are somewhat hard to come by and often pricey) or more likely a petroleum-based alternative such as poly-urethane (readily available and usually affordable). I used leather as an example because it is a material that is widely sought after due to its durability, versatility and aesthetic but there isn’t a widely available solution that is both vegan and environmentally friendly. Even vegetable tanned leather is highly resource-intensive and polyurethane is essentially plastic and will take hundreds of years to break down in landfill. This example highlights that not every solution is going to solve every problem and what someone else may consider ethical may completely miss the mark for you.
What are my values?
When I am looking for an item of clothing I want to know who made it and what it's made of. It’s great when I see brands supporting different causes and charities but for me, the manufacturing and materials are the most important things. Whether it was made locally or overseas, I want to be confident that the workers were paid a living wage and worked in safe conditions. I also want the garment to be made of environmentally friendly fabric that doesn't take absurd amounts of resources to make and will break down easily if it ends up in a landfill. This has heavily influenced how I have built Gaal as a brand. As with any ethical fashion label, we are far from perfect but I believe with transparency and genuine efforts to improve we can find solutions to some of the big issues in our broken fashion system.
Ethical fashion is defined by you as an individual and will differ across the population and even between close friends and family members – and that is okay! A lot of the time ethical fashion may even mean not buying anything new at all or buying second hand. However, for those times that you do need to buy something new, buying ethically has never been more important. So back to the original question, what is ethical fashion? It’s not only an important question for brands to ask themselves but for every single person who wears clothes. Answers may vary.