Environmental destruction and Human Rights abuses plague every step of the fashion supply chain. Reliance on genetically modified cotton and exceedingly high pesticide prices push Indian farmers to go for their own throats. Unnatural colors run free in Asian rivers as a result of irresponsible waste disposal. Buildings collapse upon overworked Bangladeshi working women at the buzz of their sewing machines.
Then those t-shirts and dresses and shoes are sold in well-lit, fast fashion stores with clean floors and glossy mannequins. We use them for some time. We throw them away after a while. They fill landfills to the brim.
It’s clear that if there is anything the fashion industry needs, it’s an ethical makeover. Hence the birth of ethical fashion, a revolutionary way to think about clothing production. Its goal is to produce garments by reducing its negative impact—on people, on animals, on the environment—to a bare minimum. It aims to be good at each step of the way. But how exactly does this look like?
Ethical Fashion: An All-Encompassing Approach
Producing a garment involves design, materials, dyes and labor. Fashion brands taking the ethical approach guarantee that the procurement of these elements causes no harm to the planet. They provide a peek into what the future of fashion might look like. A future-focused on ethical production.
One of the major issues of the fashion industry is the sheer amount of clothes that it produces every year. Instead of focusing on the two traditional seasons, a number of brands now produce pieces for a staggering 52 micro-seasons. This is the result of the accelerating pace of trends, spurred by the immediacy of social media. Moreover, a great number of these garments outrageously end up in landfills. And the volume of unsold stock that companies literally burn down is appalling.
Thankfully, ethical fashion brands offer an alternative. Generally, they focus on timeless pieces instead of following trends. They hence make sure that their clothes will never go out of style. They will stay in their client’s closets as long as they are wearable.
Yes, synthetic fabrics are cheaper than natural ones. But their production has side effects. The resulting chemical waste is deliberately poured into our water sources. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the use of synthetic fabrics has been linked to health risks, such as breast cancer. Yet some companies manage to make ethical choices.
The Very Good Bra is a great example. The brand uses 100% botanically sourced materials. It ensures that each of their bra’s components is suitable for home composts, thus reducing waste to a minimum. Their hooks are made of pure cotton, their elastics are sourced from tree rubber that can naturally decompose. Additionally, their labels are environmentally friendly.
The synthetic also holds a monopoly in the dyeing industry. Cancerogenic chemicals run free in the rivers of the developing countries in which dyeing processes take place. Textile dyes have even been found in fruits and vegetables grown in neighboring areas. Still, natural dyes are a viable alternative.
Sustain’s garments are vibrantly colored with plant-based dyes. Indigo results in a beautiful blue. Pomegranate peels lead to lively shades of yellow. All-natural, all harmless.
The fashion industry is currently profiting from modern slavery. Workers, the majority of which are women, are threatened into working overtime without pay. Uzbekistani children are forced to pick cotton instead of going to school. The slaves live in areas of extreme pollution and die of related diseases. They are condemned to an existence of suffering, all for the profit of industry giants. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Outland Denim is an ethical fashion brand that makes an active effort to help employees from vulnerable backgrounds to rebuild their lives. They train their own seamstresses and provide wages that ensure decent standards of living. They also offer them programs to enrich their education.
These three examples are extremely motivating. They show that the major pillars of the fashion industry need not be detrimental to the environment and its inhabitants. They demonstrate that there is a benign alternative. Maybe transforming the fashion industry is not an impossible task after all.
However, nothing is ever perfect. Ethical fashion has its limitations, and they are by no means insignificant.
Is an Ethical Approach Even Possible?
The production of fast fashion is based on making everything as cheap as possible—which means reckless processes and bad quality. Contrarily, ethical fashion is expensive precisely because it is ethical. Attempting to be as harmless as possible means increased expenses. Natural dyes and natural materials make production costs higher. Fair wages and good work conditions also contribute to the increased cost. High prices are therefore currently inevitable. This greatly reduces the impact of brands that take an ethical approach. If only some people have access to ethical garments, then the industry can only grow so much. It cannot have the revolutionary effect it wishes to have on general fashion.
Still, this could change in the future. As brands expand, increased profits will allow prices to drop, and ethical options will be available for a greater demographic. Furthermore, it might be ultimately cheaper to buy ethical fashion garments than fast fashion ones. Yes, the latter will initially cost less. But cheap clothes wear down quickly, and soon enough, new ones are needed. On the contrary, ethical pieces are durable and can be worn for much longer. So, in the end, focusing on ethical fashion brands translates into spending less on apparel.
Despite the effort to produce timeless pieces, contemporary consumers will always desire newness. Social media is a major contributor to such a phenomenon. And Instagram isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The sad truth is that, as long as there is a fashion industry, there will always be trends. This necessarily means excessive production will remain, and the negative impact on the environment will continue.
This points to something essential: ethical fashion is not just about brands changing their processes, but also about ethical consumption. Companies respond to what customers desire. So, if we really want to make a change, we must let our purchasing habits reflect that. And we are working towards that.
According to a McKinsey survey conducted during the COVID-19 crisis, 65% of consumers were planning on changing their purchasing habits to focus on long-lasting fashion. These numbers don’t just reflect a response to the pandemic. Consumers now see the environment as an essential factor to consider when making purchases. Accordingly, , mainstream fashion brands are making great efforts to keep up. The Business of Fashion’s 2021 State of Fashion report predicts that major companies will soon shift to demand-led models. Overproduction will hence be reduced to a minimum.
What is Ethical Fashion?
One last issue haunts the ethical approach. The rules of morality vary from culture to culture, and everyone has a different concept of ethics. It is thus practically impossible for everyone to consider a particular brand’s decisions to be ethical. This poses a major issue. The “ethical” label cannot be universal. In fact, no brand can call really itself ethical, as this would imply an impossible, all-encompassing approach. Consequently, moving towards an ethical approach to fashion is an inherently abstract notion.
Though this semantic issue might seem inescapable, there is a simple solution: transparency. At the end of the day, ethical brands value transparency more than anything else. Transparency means giving your customer the tools to decide whether or not to spend on your brand. It allows for each consumer to choose to buy from the brands they consider ethical, eliminating the issue of definition.
Ethical Fashion: The take-away
Overall, ethical fashion is a perfect response to the irresponsible methods mainstream brands currently engage in. Taking ethical decisions regarding design, materials, dyes and labor is simpler than it might seem. This doesn’t mean that there are no obstacles to the development of an ethical approach. Nonetheless, these limits also have solutions, proving that there is great hope for the future of the fashion industry.
Did you like this article? Check out everything you need to know about slow fashion!