I always considered myself to be a pretty strong advocate of sustainability, but somehow sustainable and ethical fashion just wasn’t on my radar.
I recycled everything, encouraged others to do the same, worked for a sustainable company, bought an electric car and pushed for sustainable solutions in my work. I won’t go shopping without my own shopping bag, and (when) I print, I print double-sided, reduced text size of course.
And all the while wearing my latest new clothes, plucked from my overflowing wardrobe.
I never thought about my shopping habit having an effect on the environment or the people who live in it. And then I had my epiphany, and I realised why sustainable and ethical fashion IS so important. So that’s what I’m going to share here, along with what we can do to help.
Table of Contents
What is sustainable and ethical fashion?
The thing about sustainable and ethical fashion is that it’s pretty hard to sum up. The more you read the more you realise what a massive area this is. But in summary it pretty much boils down to three areas: people, planet and animals, and the protection of them.
What’s the difference between sustainable and ethical fashion?
For me, the definition of sustainable fashion (also known as environmentally or eco-friendly fashion) is that which has less impact on the environment, or planet. The definition of ethical fashion is fashion that is kind to people and animals.
But in addition, ethical fashion can be thought of as fashion that is kind to the planet, meaning that it can cover all three. In any event, the term sustainable fashion is often used as an umbrella term for it all, so the two can be interchangeable.
So, why is sustainable and ethical fashion important? Because its effects on all three are massive. Let’s take each one in turn.
When asking why ethical fashion is important, you have to look at the people involved. More than a hundred million people across the world are employed in the textile and garment production industries. Many of them are working in horrid working conditions and shockingly deprived of fundamental human rights.
Although there are various efforts on behalf of governments to protect all workers, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency that sets international labour standards, many of these standards are being broken by the fashion industry.
People are sadly paying the social costs for our clothes. Some of the most common human rights violations include:
1. Unliveable wages
By UN standards, the living wage is a human right which encompasses compensation sufficient to afford a decent living standard for employees and their families. A standard working week for a salary shouldn’t be longer than 48 hours, and should be enough to cover expenses for:
- Health care
- Discretionary earnings (savings for a rainy day)
The problem is that when setting minimum wages, governments are more concerned with staying competitive in the global market than worker welfare. They want business to come their way and most businesses want cheap prices. So workers pay the price through meagre wages that have no relation to the actual cost of living.
The legal minimum wage for garment workers in many countries doesn’t amount to a living or fair wage. According to the brands Nisolo and ABLE, 98% of garment workers live without a living wage, and most of them can’t meet their basic needs.
People working in Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, and many other places, earn much less than they need to care for their families. For more on working conditions in Bangladesh (where a huge proportion of clothes are made), see our article: 50 Bangladesh textile industry statistics fashionistas should know.
The Clean Clothes Campaign have broken down the cost of a t-shirt and calculated that of a €29 t-shirt, €3.61 or 12% goes as profit to the brand and a measly €0.18 or 0.6% is pay for the worker. They campaign for companies to use a living wage marker in calculating order prices and there are many things you can do to help their cause.
2. Child labour
Growing markets, growing demand for low prices and a need for profit growth have pushed companies towards finding the cheapest labour sources possible – children.
According to the ILO, there are 152 million children estimated to be in child labour, with an estimated 73 million involved in hazardous work. 152 million. And this is after a 38% decrease globally between 2000 and 2016.
Child labour is particularly prevalent in the fashion industry. Its supply chain often requires low-skilled workers that consist of tasks well-suited to children, such as cotton picking, where children’s smaller fingers do less damage to the crop. It’s an area where sustainable and ethical fashion is particularly important.
The good news is that 2021 was officially proclaimed as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour by the ILO. It encouraged actions to abolish child labour worldwide, with a goal to eliminate all child labour by 2025.
WHAT CAN I DO?
This doesn’t just extend to businesses, you can do something too by taking the 10 Day Challenge to End Child Labour. And to find out about brands that ensure child labour is absolutely never used in their supply chain see our article Help end child labour: 22 brands commited to child labour free clothing.
Children are the workers without a voice, let’s do something to help.
3. Modern slavery
According to the ILO, there are an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery including 24.9 million people working in forced labour.
An Ethical Trading Initiative report from 2016 found that an estimated 77% of leading UK retailers believe there is a chance of modern slavery at some point in their supply chains. This is not only shocking, but shows the extent to which these retailers cannot trace, or do not want to trace, what is going on in their supply chains. This urgently needs to change.
When it comes to slavery in fashion, around 58% of slave labour workers reside in the major cotton and garment-producing countries such as China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.
People forced to work in modern slavery are:
- Forced with the use of mental or physical threats
- Owned or controlled by an employer through physical or psychological abuse
- Dehumanized or sold as property
- Have restricted freedom of movement
A form of modern slavery also present in garment production includes bonded labour, where work is demanded as a means of debt or loan repayment.
A Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations report found that in southern India, recruiters were convincing parents to send daughters to spinning mills to work under “marriage schemes”. These promise well-paid jobs and nutritious meals in return for a lump sum payment at the end of three years which the family can use as a dowry to marry off their girls.
In reality, they work under appalling conditions that amount to the worst forms of child and slave labour.
The ILO are working hard in conjunction with governments, the private sector, workers and other stakeholders to end all forms of modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking by 2030.
WHAT CAN I DO?
End Slavery Now has an inspiring list of 455 actions that you can take to help end modern slavery, well worth a look.
4. Terrible working conditions
The Rana Plaza disaster, where 1,134 innocent workers lost their lives, after the building they were working in collapsed on them, shocked the world in 2013. It brought to light some of the appalling conditions and lack of respect even for their lives that garment factory workers often have to endure. It made the world sit up and take note that sustainable and ethical fashion IS important.
Unsafe working conditions don’t only extend to unsafe buildings but these exacerbate the situation. Spaces with no proper ventilation mean that workers breathe in fibre dust and toxic chemicals used for dyeing, preparing and finishing fabrics daily. Due to a general lack of care/money, accidents and work-related injuries are sadly commonplace.
Bad working conditions are not just physical. Garment workers across the world often have to work up to 16 hours per day, seven days per week. During high-demand peak seasons when deadlines approach, they can be required to stay until the early hours of the morning as factory managers force overtime.
Most of these workers depend on their overtime pay to support the meagre wages. That is, if they are ‘lucky’ enough to receive additional support.
Verbal, sexual, and physical abuse is another daily problem. Garment workers are commonly insulted or denied breaks or even permission to drink water for not meeting the daily (often unreachable) target.
5. Gender discrimination
Apparel companies can play a huge role in driving gender equality. However, at the supply chain level, ongoing corporate disclosure around gender efforts is utterly insufficient. Only a tiny 1% of the world’s biggest clothing brands publicly share data on the prevalence of gender-based violations in their supplier facilities.
The majority of garment workers are women. They are the backbone of an industry worth trillions each year. These women are primarily young females who too often suffer sexual abuse and earn way below minimum wage.
Many are even deprived of their legal maternity benefits, with employers forcing them to resign before childbirth to avoid paying the benefits. Having two tiny children myself, this upsets me particularly. It’s just not fair!
WHAT CAN I DO?
What can be done? Brands need to work with their suppliers to make sure that these inequalities are not allowed happen in their supply chains; policymakers need to take action to force brands to do so, and us, the humble consumer can vote with our feet by switching to transparent ethical brands.
We can also write to the brands we love most to ask them what they are doing to make sure these abuses are a thing of the past. We can write to our policymakers too to let them know that these issues are seriously important to us!
6. Lack of ability to form a union
In many garment-producing factories, workers don’t have permission to join unions and defend their rights collectively. Some factories go as far as threatening or physically attacking union members.
Forming unions was proclaimed as a fundamental human right by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It’s stated as the Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, and it enables workers to have a voice and negotiate their rights, as we expect as a minimum in the West.
The ILO promotes freedom of association, but most garment workers are far from obtaining their right to do so. In Bangladesh, the government strictly prohibits establishing unions and only 10% of the 4,500 registered garment factories there have such associations.
IS ANYTHING BEING DONE?
Bangladeshi Nazma Akter started out as a child labourer and now bravely heads the Awaj Foundation which advocates for workers and has over 600,000 members.
Things are starting to change, but very slowly and with much struggle and sacrifice from those whose voices need to be heard most.
For more on where are clothes are made, see Where do clothing brands manufacture.
The causes of environmental destruction
Fast fashion, the industry that can provide a dress for cheaper than a cup of coffee. There is no need to save for or covet that item of clothing anymore. Clothes are now so incredibly cheap that they are assigned little or no value by their end-user and can be chucked in the bin as easily as last night’s dinner.
Unsurprisingly, the fast fashion industry, helped by social media, is responsible for the enormous increase in the quantity of produced and thrown-away clothes.
But that’s not all, the fashion industry is often quoted to be the second most polluting industry in the world. Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that it is causing a shocking and catastrophic amount of environmental damage hard to match.
This is due to toxic chemical and water use, textile waste, massive energy consumption leading to air pollution, climate change, and deforestation. It paints a pretty grim picture and shows why turning the tide to ethical and sustainable fashion is so important.
1. Toxic chemical use in fashion production
Most people are already familiar with the benefits of choosing organic, non-GM food and beauty products. What less are aware of is the presence of chemicals used during the production process of their clothes.
An estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals get used during the textile manufacturing process. These chemicals not only threaten people like you and me wearing the garments once produced, but the workers who produce them, and the environment. Another area where choosing sustainable and ethical fashion directly affects you, and your body.
People may not be aware of the number of chemicals used to scour, wash, dye, and finish for softness or wrinkle resistance, let alone stone washing of jeans or the chemical fabrication of rips and tears. To learn about the effects of clothes dyes on the environment have a look at Dying for colour: toxic dyes in the textile industry.
These toxic chemicals, including lead, arsenic and mercury are released untreated into rivers and oceans, polluting not only the water but the communities that rely on them. For our article on the toxicity of faux fur, see here. And for more on water pollution, see Water pollution in the fashion industry: the shocking truth and what you can do.
The heavy use of harmful chemicals is also prevalent in conventional cotton farming. This causes disease in cotton farmers plus freshwater and ocean pollution and soil degradation.
An estimated 20% of industrial water pollution derives from textile treatment and dyeing and 80-90% of wastewaters coming from developing countries get discharged into rivers without previous treatment.
There are many ways to solve the problem of water contamination. A lot of it starts with product design. Among other things, we can expect brands to:
- Use materials and dyes that meet third-party certification standards. Look out for products with certifications, such as GOTS, Oeko-Tex® and EU Ecolabel. (more information on these initiatives at the end of this article).
- Replace synthetic dyes with natural ones during product design
- Work with organisations like Roadmap to Zero who are working hard to reduce the industry’s chemical footprint by advocating for sustainable alternatives to toxic chemicals, and adequate effluent treatment systems.
For our article on cotton farmers, see “Understanding Who Grows Cotton for Our Clothes and Why that Matters“.
2. Water use
According to the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), the textile and clothing industries used an estimated 79 billion cubic meters of water in 2015 alone. An estimated 2,700 litres of water are needed to produce a single cotton T-shirt. That is enough drinking water for one person for two and a half years!
It takes a lot of water to produce garments. Using cotton as an example, in warm or dry areas, farmers need up to 20,000 litres of water to make one kilogram of cotton.
This is having dramatic consequences on the environment. For example, the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, was revealed to have completely dried up by NASA images in 2014 and is now known as the ‘Aralkum Desert’.
This environmental disaster has mainly been caused by intensive irrigation projects, many to feed cotton plantations. It is no coincidence that Uzbekistan, a major recipient of these irrigation projects, was the world’s biggest cotton exporter in 1988 and that cotton is still its main industry today. The majority of sustainable and ethical fashion brands avoid cotton completely that is produced in these regions.
India, the world’s second most populated country, is also experiencing major water scarcity problems due to the cotton industry. According to the Guardian, the water used to produce the country’s cotton exports in 2013 alone were enough to supply 85% of its population with 100 litres of water daily for 365 days.
The sad truth, however, is that more than 100 million inhabitants live without safe access to water and an estimated 784 million people worldwide don’t have access to clean water.
3. Textile waste
3.1 POST-CONSUMER WASTE
Fashion trends and collections change by the minute, and fast fashion brands tempt shoppers into over-consuming mass-produced cheap garments.
Fast fashion’s linear model
Fast fashion works on a linear model whereby raw natural or often synthetic materials are taken from their sources, processed into cheap clothing, sold on to the end consumer and then simply thrown away when they’re no longer needed. With this linear model, a tonne of raw resources are needed and a tonne of rubbish is produced at the end. It is anything but sustainable.
Fashion’s circular model
A circular economy is where recycled materials are taken, processed with reusable materials and if required natural chemicals into clothing. When it comes to the end of its life the clothing is repaired, reused as something else or recycled (sustainably). There is no start or end point.
Less use of natural resources and less waste! Win win.
Sadly the linear model far outweighs the circular at the moment. A tonne of waste is produced often by clothing that’s not even been worn!
Whilst consumers think they’re doing good in donating their often hardly used and sometimes never used clothing to charity, the volume of clothing being thrown away simply can’t be consumed and in the US about 85% of clothing thrown away ends up in landfill or being burned.
Textiles have one of the most unsatisfactory recycling rates of any reusable material:
- 17 million tonnes of textile waste end up in landfills every year
- In the last 20 years, Americans have doubled the volume of clothing they throw away from seven to 14 million tonnes.
- 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created every year
- Only 12% of clothing material is recycled around the world
LABFRESH, a sustainable menswear fashion label, published a study analysing the 15 biggest textile polluters in the EU. The UK was ranked fourth, with an average Briton throwing away around 3.1kg of textile waste per year. An estimated 1.7 kg of that waste ends up in landfills. Our article on clothing waste in the UK has more info.
3.2. PRE-CONSUMER WASTE
Post-consumer waste is one side of the problem but before a piece of clothing even gets into the shops, up to 47% of all fibre used during production becomes waste, from the production of the fibre and yarn to cutting and even misprints and mistakes, not to mention deadstock fabric.
The overproduction nightmare
What’s more, brands tend to overproduce by 30-40% to make sure that they always have enough stock to fill burgeoning demand. Burberry, among others, was caught out in 2018 when their annual report showed that £28.6 million worth of overproduced stock was sent to be incinerated the previous year. They have now banned the process.
For more on the fashion industry’s overproduction habit, see: Less is more: fixing overproduction in the fashion industry.
Zero waste cutting and deadstock fabric
A number of sustainable and ethical fashion brands are now looking into ways to reduce cutting waste by using creative zero waste cutting techniques such as Malaika New York, Zero Waste Daniel and Tonlé.
Alternatively, more and more brands are producing clothes from deadstock fabric and waste from their own or other brands’ processes. LVMH has gone so far as to launch a new deadstock fabric resale site Nona Source, selling their off-cut material at up to 70% off original prices. Queen of Raw on the other hand is an online marketplace buying and selling unused textiles, “turning pollution into profit”. For more on deadstock fabric, see our article here.
As well as straight up textile waste, about half a million tonnes of microfibre get released into the ocean from washing synthetic fabrics every year. This makes up 35% of primary microplastics released into the environment. Tiny organisms inhabiting the oceans ingest these elements, which get eaten by bigger fish, finally making their way into our food chain.
The debate about plastics in fashion is raging. Recycled polyester has become very popular but whilst cutting down massively on energy in production and natural resources, it sadly doesn’t get around the microfibre issue.
Washing synthetic clothing in bags like Guppybags can help to overcome this problem, or installing filters on washing machines, but the jury’s still out on how to solve this issue once and for all.
For more on this issue and ways to avoid microfibre pollution, see How to avoid microplastics in clothing: 8 things you can do now.
4. Climate change
The fashion industry contributes to 10% of the total carbon footprint globally, more than international flights and maritime shipping together. A European Environment Agency briefing stated that textile purchases in the EU were responsible for 654 kg of CO2 emissions per person.
In total, greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere from the fashion industry in 2018 were 2.1 billion tonnes, the same amount as the French, German, and UK economies combined.
The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015 by around 190 nations, has forced governments to set out strict regulations to keep global warming below 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels. In light of this goal, more industry sectors have started reducing their carbon footprint to safeguard the planet.
A McKinsey study has estimated that the fashion industry needs to cut GHG emissions to just over one billion metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030 to reach the Paris agreement goals. However, they estimate that it will exceed this by 50% unless additional measures are taken.
McKinsey analysed the entire garment production chain and calculated that:
- 61% of the additional reduction could be carried out at the production stage, supported by fashion brands, with measures such as improved energy efficiency in operations and a transfer to renewable energy
- A further 18% could be achieved by the brands themselves through steps such as using more recycled fibres, sustainable transport and packaging, energy-efficient retail operations, minimising returns and lowering overproduction.
- The remaining 21% could be found through motivating changes in consumer behaviour such as renting, reselling, repairing, washing and drying less and improved recycling.
None of these are difficult to achieve and McKinsey found that they are not expensive measures either. We urge fashion brands to take up the mantle now!
5. Air pollution
One of the major emitters of the greenhouse gases mentioned above is the use of fossil fuel-based electricity.
Every stage of the supply chain in the textile industry depends on intensive energy use, starting from the plowing and harvesting of crops, to the spinning, weaving, washing, dyeing and chemical processing of yarns, to fabric and textile production, cutting, sewing, transporting the goods, and finally selling them.
Textile mills and factories use a huge amount of power which is often derived from coal. Chinese factories alone give out around 3 billion tonnes of soot per year causing air pollution that leads to heart disease and respiratory illnesses. This is just one small part of the chain but is having a huge impact.
Organisations such as the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) are implementing initiatives to work with retailers and brands to bring these emissions down. Their Clean by Design programme focuses particularly on the energy-intensive stages of dyeing and finishing and promotes best practices to reduce energy consumption and water pollution among other things.
With the closing of COP26 at the end of 2021 and over 40 countries committing to phase out the use of coal, things are beginning to look more positive. Sadly the US and China didn’t sign up however so continued pressure needs to be placed on these nations to clean up their act, quite literally.
It’s common to associate deforestation with mass meat or palm oil production. However, the fashion industry, too, is a major contributor to the problem.
Many fabrics are made from tree and plant pulp. What’s more thousands of hectares of forests are cut down each year and replaced by tree plantations to make fabrics such as rayon and viscose. Rayon, for example, is popular among clothing brands, and it’s made by a complex chemical process that starts with wood chips.
Canopy, an organisation that works with paper packaging and fashion brands to help save the world’s forests, species and climate, revealed that the process behind pulp dissolving, which is the primary material for viscose and rayon, wastes an estimated 70% of the tree.
Just like other tree-based products, this wood pulp should be obtained sustainably.
According to the Global Forest Watch, Indonesia alone has lost over 27.7 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2020, a 17% decrease since the start of the century. Most of these woods are cut down for paper and textile production. However, there has been a significant fall in demand for paper due to technological advancements that allow communication to go digital.
The deforestation situation in Indonesia is particularly concerning for various reasons:
- It’s one of the world’s top ten emitters of greenhouse gases, with 85% of the country’s emissions coming from deforestation.
- It has one of the highest biodiverse rainforests and is home to the most endemic bird species compared to other countries. 10% of the Earth’s mammal species, 16% of bird species, and 11% of plant species come from Indonesia.
- Besides being home to dozens of endangered species, forests have a crucial role in our planet’s ecosystem and the atmosphere’s gas balance. The woods are among the primary producers of oxygen and one of the most efficient air cleaning systems. In addition, forests absorb more than one-third of the globally released CO2 from burning fossil fuels.
To maximize forest climate benefits, we must keep forest landscapes alive and restore the lost ones. Scientists say that promoting forest restoration can contribute over a third of the global climate change mitigation required by 2030, a huge reason to support ethical and sustainable fashion.
Thankfully COP26 has also played a part here, with over 100 countries signed up to end deforestation by 2030. Hopefully the commitment will be upheld by these countries.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
There are various ways fashion companies, governments, and people can help save forests:
- Look for lyocell and modal fabrics, e.g. TENCEL, which are made from wood from sustainable sources and use chemicals in a closed-loop system, meaning they are not released into the environment. Read our article Is viscose environmentally friendly: your complete guide for more information.
- Produce products from other innovative cellulose-based fabrics from agricultural residues (including orange peels, seaweed, sour milk) and sugar canes, reeds, sisals, and other ingredients with a lower ecological footprint.
- Transit to closed-loop systems. We need more cotton and cellulose recycling.
- Purchase Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified clothes.
- Opt for second-hand.
- Simply buy less, it can make you happier!
Animals often get forgotten when we think about why sustainable and ethical fashion is important but they are hugely impacted by the fashion industry too.
Sadly, many animals are inhumanely slaughtered each year for the clothing industry. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has revealed systematic cruelty in animals for the leather, wool, and fur trades. Animals are treated in ways that beggars belief. It makes sobering reading.
In one recent report alone by PETA Germany, they revealed the extent of suffering for animals in the leather industry, who are shipped around the world to be killed for their skin. This includes pregnant animals, often with no food or water, being trampled on and then killed with blunt instruments without being stunned.
They highlighted that it’s very difficult to know where your leather comes from and under what conditions.
Countries like China that don’t have nationwide animal welfare laws are known to mistreat cats and dogs and mislabel and sell their skin and fur as other species. The cruelty highlighted in reports like these make them incredibly hard to read.
WHAT CAN I DO?
Unfortunately these reports are just the tip of the iceberg, the list goes on. But you can do your bit, see our article How to Stop Animal Cruelty in the Fashion Industry: 10 Things You Can Do Starting Now for more information.
The rise of vegan fashion
Thankfully the rise of interest in vegan food and now fashion is beginning to help the cause for animals.
Vegan fashion, once considered an outlier is becoming mainstream. More and more brands are seeing the benefits and jumping on board. The frumpy image of the past is being replaced with beautiful, thoughtful designs to aspire to. See our articles about vegan fashion companies and vegan shoe brands for inspiration.
Fabrics such as organic cotton, TENCEL, bamboo and hemp have zero animal origin. What’s more, the dawn of plant-based leathers is seeing leather being replaced by cork, pineapple leaves, mushroom roots, apple peels, and other fruit waste and recycled plastics.
It is also possible to look out for leather that has come from well-treated animals. It’s not the easiest thing to find but it does exist. Take MacCase who source their leather in India from Hindu dairy farmers. As the cow is considered sacred in India, they are treated well throughout their lives and only given up for leather when they’ve passed away naturally.
Simetrie in Australia is another one. They make their handbags from kangaroo hides, killed humanely as part of population culling.
There is a long, long way to go to eliminate animal cruelty from the fashion industry but bit by bit the world is changing. People rightly want to know more about the origins of their clothing and footwear. They’re asking more and more questions to make sure that suffering and cruelty don’t lie behind their wardrobe.
Complex supply chains and transparency issues
Producing one garment is an incredibly lengthy and complex process, changing many hands along the way. The industry’s notoriously fragmented and opaque supply chains make it difficult for brands to trace them all.
However, reports of labour rights abuses from factories right the way back to cotton pickers have shown the need for more enhanced supply chain traceability. Increasing transparency in the garment and footwear industry is slowly gathering pace.
Having more access to factory information, workers, labour organisations, human rights groups, and activists can now more easily alert textile companies about labour abuses, giving them the chance to intervene.
Sustainable fashion movements demanding transparency
One initiative started in 2016 when nine human rights and labour organizations came together to form a coalition for improving transparency in supply chains.
As a result, more than 70 branded companies have aligned with the Transparency Pledge, which requires them to publish the names, addresses, and other details of factories assembling, embellishing, and finishing their products.
Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index is another fantastic tool that rates how transparent the world’s largest fashion brands are. Now in its eighth year, 250 brands are featured.
The report is a great way to find out how transparent your favourite brand is. It is also, importantly, putting significant pressure on the industry to dig deeper and increase disclosure about what goes on in their entire supply chain.
What to consider when searching for sustainable and ethical fashion brands
It is obvious why ethical and sustainable fashion is important, but it can be challenging to choose a brand that is truly sustainable and ethical behind the trap of greenwashing. The good news is that, through market pressure from a more demanding customer, brands are starting to take these issues more seriously, and it’s becoming easier to spot those that do.
Here are some of the things to look out for when picking a sustainable and ethical fashion brand.
We highlight some of our favourites below, but there is a wide range of certifications verifying the organic, recycled or chemical-free content of your clothes; social responsibility and worker conditions for those who made your clothes; and animal welfare in the materials and production of your clothes.
Certifications can be a great starting point to check a brand’s ethical and sustainable credentials. Note though that not all small brands can afford to pay the fees for some of these validations so don’t always be put off by a lack of them.
CERTIFICATIONS THAT HAVE BEEN CRITICISED
Whilst certifications can give you peace of mind, some have been criticised. The Ethical Trading Initiative, The Fair Wear Foundation and The Sustainable Apparel Coalition for example were criticised by The Transparency Pledge for not requiring the brands they endorse to publish details of their manufacturing facilities.
The Better Cotton Initiative has been condemned by the Changing Markets Foundation as they produce cotton using a “mass balance” system where it can have regular cotton mixed in. Also because they produce a proportion of their cotton in an area of China known for forced labour. See our article on GOTS cotton for more information on this topic.
In summary, do your research on individual certifications and check out our guide below for more information. There are many fantastic organisations out there that can give you comfort in your purchasing decisions.
2. How easy is it to find the information?
Looking at the “About Us”, “Sustainability Policy” or similar page on a brand’s website can tell you a lot about their values. Do they say a lot and give specific details about what you want to know or do they use vague, fluffy language without any real substance? Our article on how to avoid greenwashing has a lot of tips on what to look out for.
3. Do they tell you #WHOMADEYOURCLOTHES?
This is something I love seeing on sustainable brands’ websites. Some tell you simply where they were made, in which factory, and some go as far as to show you photographs of the facility and the team. Some even give you a breakdown of costs and tell you how much their workers are paid. With pressure from their consumers, more and more brands are realising that this is a minimum requirement and that we will accept nothing less!
4. Do they have science based targets for reducing their emissions?
Science based targets refer to targets based on the latest climate science to meet reductions in line with the Paris Agreement. These are validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) who have technical experts to help companies achieve their goals. A growing number of fashion brands are adopting this method to help them reach their goals to be more sustainable.
5. What materials do they use?
Check out whether their clothes are made from natural and organic materials that we discussed above like organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, TENCEL and various plant-based leathers. If not, are their materials recycled from waste such as recycled polyester and even recycled cotton and deadstock materials? For a full material review, see “What is the most sustainable fabric? Your ultimate guide“.
6. Do they use animal products in their production?
It’s obviously up to you to decide how free from animal products you want your fashion to be. Some actions you can easily take are checking whether a company uses the kinder non mulesed wool, and whether they use leather, animal fur, down, angora or exotic animal skin and hair.
7. Check out the excellent Remake and Good On You directories
Even checking all of the points above, it can be a minefield to look for a good ethical and sustainable clothing brand and to find your way through all of the greenwash out there. Luckily Remake and Good On You have done all the hard work for us and both have excellent directories rating brands on their ethical and sustainable criteria.
Remake relaunched their directory in late 2021 with updated criteria for brands including Pay Up Fashion, holding 40 major brands accountable to have paid their dues during the Covid crisis, and the Bangladesh Accord on Fire & Building Safety. They also score brands on science-based targets, well being and human rights, traceability and raw materials among other things.
Good On You’s directory has thousands of brands that you can search and they’re always open to suggestions for those they don’t yet rate. Their rating falls into the three broad categories of People, Planet and Animals. It’s a great tool and comes in the form of an app too.
Sustainable fashion: standards, certifications, and initiatives
There are a lot of certifications out there and it can be bewildering to understand them all. Below, we’ve listed 17 of our favourite sustainable fashion certifications that you may want to keep on your radar when looking for ethical and sustainable fashion.
1. Global Organic Textiles Standard
The industry’s leading institutions developed the GOTS to unify different standards existing in eco textile processing. This standard strives to define globally accepted requirements and serve as credible assurance to the customer. The Global Organic Textiles Standard covers both environmental and social issues in textile supply chains. It traces certified organic fibres from their very beginnings at the farm gates to the final supplier. We think it’s the best of the organic cotton certifications and is valid for other fabrics too. For more information see our article What does GOTS Certifed mean.
2. Fairtrade Certified Cotton
The Fairtrade Labelling Organization implements the Fairtrade Cotton Standard. Fairtrade works with small farmer associations, particularly in Asian and African countries, to help them reduce the use of agrochemicals. They also advocate for farmer health and safety and ban the use of genetically modified cotton seeds. A lot of Fairtrade certified cotton is also organic.
3. Cotton Made in Africa
The CMiA is an initiative focused on promoting environmental protection and combating poverty. They provide training to smallholder farmers to improve their crop yield. Almost the entire cotton industry in Africa comprises smallholder farmers who harvest the crops by hand on three-hectare fields. They often lack productivity due to harsh climate conditions, poor seed quality, etc.
The initiative was launched with the help of the Aid by Trade Foundation.
4. Organic Content Standard
The Organic Content Standard veriifies that products have come from a certified organic farm and checks the full chain of custody from farm to final textile product.
5. Oeko-Tex® 100
The Oeko-Tex® is an international association serving as a global fabric testing and certification system oriented towards raw textile materials. The main goal is to test harmful substances used in textile production and assure the consumer that no such residue made it to the end product.
Bluesign is an independent program promoting sustainable textiles. It focuses on a combination of consumer safety, occupational health of workers, and water and air emissions. Particular attention is given to reducing harmful chemical substances used in the first production stage.
World-known brands such as adidas and North Face are Bluesign compliant.
7. SA8000 Certified
The SA8000 Certified voluntary certification grounds its philosophy on the core ILO and UN convention principles. It applies to all industries. They are mostly concerned with social responsibility issues including worker engagement, living wage payment, child and forced labour, freedom of association and health and safety.
You can be confident that the workers in a SA8000 certified company have been well looked after.
8. Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Cradle as the name suggests focuses on the garment from start to finish. The main focus areas are eco-material production, recycling, water efficiency, social responsibility, and renewable energy, or in their words, that products are “safe, circular and responsibly made”. Companies can get certifications based on four levels: basic, silver, gold, and platinum.
9. EU Ecolabel
TheEuropean Union Ecolabelhas been operating since 1992, intending to encourage businesses to market environmentally friendly products or services that are easy to repair or recycle. Another goal is to generate less waste and CO2 during the manufacturing process. Therefore, their criteria are mainly based on product environmental impact throughout their lifecycle.
10. Global Recycle Standard
Control Union Certifications initiated the GRS in 2008 to meet demands in the textile and other industries and verify the number of recycled ingredients in products. In 2011 the ownership passed to Textile Exchange who manage eight different standards.
This is a complete product standard setting requirements for recycled content certification, social practices, chains of custody, and chemical restrictions.
12. HIGG INDEX material seal
The HIGG Index Material seal compares textiles to a conventional alternative and scores them based on their environmental impact. This includes looking at their fossil fuel use, water impact and carbon emissions. Those products with the seal have a recognised lower impact on the environment.
13. PETA approved vegan
The PETA Approved Vegan logo gives you complete peace of mind that no animal products were used in your garment and that no animal suffered in its making.
Over a 1,000 companies are now using their logo and you can get a full list on their website.
The Forest Stewardship Council certifies that forests are being managed in a sustainable and economically viable way; maintaining biodiversity and looking after local communities and workers that depend on them.
It’s traditionally well-known to apply to paper products. However, when you see the seal on textiles like modal that are made from forest pulp, you can be sure that they come from a sustainable and well-managed forest.
15. B CORPoration
16. Responsible Wool Standard
This standard assures you that the wool product you are buying comes from a farm where animals are well-treated. They respect the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and the land the animals graze on is sustainably managed.
17. Canopy Style
Canopy Style is specifically concerned with protecting ancient and endangered forests, such as those in Indonesia and Brazil. Many of these forests have been put in danger through the fabrication of “manmade cellulosics” such as viscose and lyocell. They now have more than 400 brand partners with who they work to find sustainable alternatives to destroying these forests.
What else can I do?
Investing in ethical and sustainable clothing brands is a way to vote with your feet and send a message to the fast fashion industry that enough is enough. And it’s an investment into a more sustainable future. But ethical and sustainable, or “slow” fashion is about a lot more than this. There is so much you can do to help the cause.
Whether you decide to buy less, use for longer, repair, buy second-hand, rent, write to your favourite fashion brand or even start your own brand, you can make an impact. And you can spread the word. To find out how you can do your bit, check out How to build an ethical and sustainable wardrobe.
Join the slow Road to Change
The fashion industry has been treating the planet, its people and its animals badly for too long. Its effects impact us all, in many ways.
Thankfully the ethical and sustainable fashion movement is here to stay. Join the slow movement, and you can make a real difference.
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