There are so many terms floating around with respect to fashion consumption: ethical, sustainable, vegan and slow fashion are all terms we are hearing more and more about. So what does it all mean and how can we make informed purchase decisions?
First of all, it is important to note that although the terms ethical fashion and sustainable fashion might arguably overlap, they are not interchangeable as their meaning and primary focus is very different.
Let’s take a closer look at each one in turn, starting with sustainable fashion.
What does it all mean?
Sustainability is the ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’. Applied to fashion, it means minimising water and energy in agricultural and manufacturing processes, without destroying forests to convert land for agriculture.
The main fabric under the eye of scrutiny in the fashion industry is cotton, which is a notoriously water intensive crop. According to research done by the Water Footprint Network, for every 1kg of cotton grown in India, 22,500 litres of water is consumed. Of course, this varies depending on innovative agricultural practices and how water use is regulated in different locations. Cotton grown in the U.S.A. for example only consumes an average of 8,000 litres of water per kilo. Cotton is the dominant natural fabric used in fashion making up 21% of clothes globally, trumped by synthetic fabrics, such as polyester at 61%.
The other big issue related to water is the pollution of water caused by the dying process. In Bangladesh, a major manufacturer of the world’s fashion, pollutes the water so badly, it is not even safe for livestock to drink. This explains why a lot of work towards sustainability in the fashion industry has been centred around the consumption of water and looking at crops that are less water intensive and fast growing, such as bamboo, hemp, as well as processes that are less damaging to the environment. The term eco-friendly is often used in this context to describe crops that are fast growing and not water intensive, or manufacturing processes that aim to minimise environmental damage.
While it could be tempting to jump to polyester as the ideal choice, with the idea that because polyester fashion is synthetic and therefore avoids the water use issue in the agricultural phase. However, polyester is made of petroleum, which is essentially a form of plastic. And by now, most people have heard of micro-plastics: the tiny plastic dust size particles that are found in the depths of the ocean and are making their way into the food chain. Micro-plastics enter waterways, rivers and discharge into the ocean every time we wash our clothes. Most washing machines do not have filters sensitive enough to catch these small particles. This issue is at the frontier of sustainable fashion and future solutions will most likely involve special filters for washing machines or a global switch back to all natural fibres.
This brings us to the need for more recycling in the fashion industry to avoid unnecessary waste of resources through manufacturing and production, especially when it is possible to use materials already in circulation. Mountains of second hand clothes are sold or dumped in Africa every year. This is not only a waste of the embodied natural resources, but it also smothers the local fashion industry.
People Tree are well known for their commitment to ethical and sustainable practices – Image
Ethics concerns the moral standards for right conduct. Ethical fashion doesn’t exclude sustainability. In fact, from a purist standpoint, it should include sustainability. Generally, ethical fashion has a focus on the equally important dimension of fashion: workers’ conditions and wages. Most of the fashion produced for the global market comes from developing and emerging economies – like Bangladesh, China, Turkey, Vietnam, Philippines – where labour is cheap and regulations are relaxed regarding minimum standards for working conditions. Workers are often forced to spend long hours in unsafe conditions, in which the death of workers is not uncommon – as was the for the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka in 2013, where 1,134 Bangladeshi workers died and thousands more were seriously injured.
The ethical fashion movement is highly critical of ‘fast fashion’ retail brands that are producing clothes in extremely large quantities for mass distribution around the world, often for extremely low prices. Fast fashion’s mission to continually drive down the price of its collections has a direct and profound influence on factory workers, who are all-too-often paid a matter on cents to produce entire garments such as pairs of jeans.
The ‘slow fashion’ movement has emerged in reaction to the fast fashion phenomenon. Slow fashion favours items which are made to be highly functional and durable. Collections are designed to avoid trends and stick to more classic styles to ensure longevity.
The slow fashion movement is closely linked to the ideologies of minimalism in that it prizes quality, longevity and functionality over quantity and discourages frivolous or spontaneous purchases.
The term ‘vegan fashion’ is fairly self-explanatory in that it avoids materials or production methods that could cause harm to animals. Vegan fashion brands steer clear of leather, fur, silk and feathers (to name just a few).
How can I make conscious choices?
We – as conscious consumers – want to make choices that have a positive (or at least neutral) impact on the world. It is important not to forget that:
“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
It is important to be clear on which (or all) of these benchmarks you should be looking for as you make consumption choices. In short:
Sustainable – looks at the environmental impact
Ethical – looks at impact on human rights
Slow fashion – looks at reducing consumption
Vegan – looks at the impact on human rights
The ability to make consumption choices requires that we look for transparency from the brand about their values, practices and policies by asking questions such as:
Are they paying workers a living wage or a minimum wage?
Do they focus on working conditions at their manufacturing facilities?
Are they using natural fabrics?
Are they using recycled materials?
Is the company carbon neutral?
Are the dyes and fabrics natural or synthetic?
Do they support worthwhile causes through the sale of their products?
The bottom line is, it may not be possible to support all ethical and sustainability parameters, but by supporting ethical and sustainable fashion in whatever way you can, you are helping to make the world a better place, one t-shirt at a time.