What Is Ethical Fashion? Your Comprehensive Guide To Conscious Clothing

What Makes A Brand Ethical? From Worker Conditions To Animal Welfare, We Break Down What Ethics In Fashion Looks Like

You might have seen the term cropping up in sustainability circles, and it’s a hotly debated topic in the fashion industry.

So, what is ethical fashion?

In the broadest terms, ethical fashion focuses on the industry’s social and environmental impact, including what materials are used, how they are sourced, and worker conditions in the supply chain.

But what makes a brand ethical is a little more nuanced than that and personal to your values—like whether you are comfortable using animal products, for example. 

Ethical fashion is about consumers shopping according to their values and brands being transparent enough to make that happen. 

In this guide, we break down what an ethical fashion brand looks like and help you create a framework for identifying companies that align with your values. 

What Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?

What Is Ethical Fashion by Untouched World

In a (sustainably grown) nutshell, ethical fashion is fashion that is better for people, animals, and the planet. 

It’s an umbrella term for the myriad approaches to reducing the fashion industry’s negative impact and ensuring the health and well-being of everyone involved. 

Sustainable Vs Ethical Fashion

While “ethical fashion” and “sustainable fashion” are often used synonymously, some people use the former to refer primarily to fashion’s social issues and the latter to refer to environmental issues. 

However, social and environmental issues are often inextricably linked—toxic dye chemicals affect both the health of the planet and the health of humans, for example.

If a brand ensures excellent working conditions and pays fair wages yet uses conventional cotton for its clothing, thus exposing those fairly paid workers to all kinds of dangerous chemicals daily, could we say it is ethical?

The amount of pesticides used to grow conventional cotton is not only harmful to the environment but can be devastating for the health of farmers and their families. 

We’ll stick to a holistic approach with the “better for people, animals, and the planetethical fashion definition

Individual Ethics 

Ethics in fashion are also influenced by the consumer’s values and what they deem important. 

Some may feel that vegan clothing is the only ethical clothing or that shopping second hand is more ethical than buying new, period. 

That said, there is also plenty of common ethical ground that most conscious shoppers would agree on. 

So, what makes a brand ethical?

Let’s explore the key areas to consider when looking for brands that take their impact seriously. 

What Makes A Fashion Brand Ethical? 9 Essential Issues To Consider

1. Ethical Manufacturing

What Is Ethical Fashion by JKN

At the center of the global fashion industry is a humanitarian crisis caused by an exploitative business model that values profit over human life. 

Fast fashion exists to get the hottest clothing trends on the market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Alongside its hugely wasteful and environmental impact are unfair wages and the unsafe labor conditions its garment workers endure. 

There are around 40 million garment workers worldwide. Shockingly, only an estimated 2% are paid a living wage. 

Many brands use sweatshops where garment workers are forced to work long hours for little pay and where human rights violations, including the use of child labor, are common. 

Workers may be exposed to caustic chemicals and dyes or work in unsafe buildings, like the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which collapsed in 2013, killing 1,134 people and injuring over 2000 more.

A fashion brand can only be ethical if it considers worker conditions and the payment of living wages throughout its supply chain. No one should have to suffer for the clothes we wear. 

What To Look For:

At the very least, a fashion company’s ethically sourced clothes should come from factories that:

  • Pay workers a fair, living wage
  • Ensure they work reasonable hours
  • Guarantee that they work under safe conditions
  • Never use child or forced labor
  • Don’t restrict the freedom of workers, by banning them from forming unions
  • Provide equal opportunity employment

Ethical brands should have a comprehensive supplier code of conduct that their manufacturing partners must adhere to and conduct regular factory visits to monitor compliance.

How can we guarantee fashion brands ensure ethical manufacturing conditions are met? 

While there’s no 100% guarantee, certifications, memberships, and a transparent supply chain can help. 

Third-party certifications to look out for which protect workers’ rights include: 

Brands can also join the Fair Wear Foundation, an independent non-profit organization working to improve worker conditions in garment factories. 

Any brand can join, no matter where they are on their ethical journey, provided they are committed to actively improving.

2. Supply Chain Transparency

What Is Ethical Fashion by Fashion Revolution

The fashion industry’s ethical practices are challenging to regulate, especially since many brands operate overseas and across multiple markets.

Supply chain transparency is essential if we want to hold brands accountable for their practices. 

As conscious consumers, we want to know #WhoMadeMyClothes? and other important information relating to a brand’s supply chain. 

Transparency isn’t about highlighting how well a brand is doing for fashion ethics and sustainability; rather, it’s about honest assessment of the supply chain—including its shortcomings—so improvements can be made. 

When brands are upfront about where they are in their ethical journey and where they can improve, this signifies trustworthiness.

The Fashion Transparency Index

The Rana Plaza collapse was a catalyst for consumers to think about ethical standards in the garment industry and spurred the launch of the Fashion Transparency Index in 2016 by Fashion Revolution.

The index found that most clothing brands weren’t disclosing information about their supply chains.

Almost a decade later, Fashion Revolution states that progress on transparency is still too slow. The average overall score in last year’s 2023 report was only 26%, with 70 out of 250 brands scoring 0-10%. 

Supply Chain Traceability

For brands to achieve transparency, they must first be able to trace their supply chain. 

The Fashion Transparency Index revealed an improvement in Tier 1 traceability, with 52% of brands sharing their Tier 1 supplier lists. However, the overall score for traceability is still only 23%. 

What To Look For: 

Look for brands that share details about their supply chain, including fabric suppliers, dye houses, and cut-and-sew factories. 

Ethical brands may have a factories page on their website or answer the question #WhoMadeMyClothes? in the product description for each garment. 

3. Animal Welfare

What Is Ethical Fashion by Nelson Eulalio

To be 100% ethical, we believe a fashion brand should ideally be vegan, as this means it doesn’t use any animal-derived materials in its clothing.

However, the alternatives to materials like wool and leather tend to be synthetic. These include polyester, nylon, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polyurethane, AKA plastics, which have a huge environmental footprint in production and landfills. 

Sometimes, animal-based fabrics can be the more sustainable option, but is it the most ethical one? 

Again, it boils down to individual values. 

Wool

Wool is biodegradable and has useful waterproofing and temperature-controlling properties. Whether or not it’s ethical is a wooly subject. 

Ethical clothing brands that use wool work hard to source it from non-intensive, non-mulesing farms that follow strict animal welfare policies. 

Mulesing is a practice that involves cutting the sheep’s skin with a knife to prevent flystrike, a potentially deadly condition. It is often done without pain relief. 

It’s also illegal in many countries, like major wool producer New Zealand. But some, like Australia, still practice it.

Ensuring good standards of animal welfare can be tricky, however, as Patagonia learned when they found out about cruel practices on two of the farms they were using. 

We commend Patagonia’s action to address the issue, including the development of the Patagonia Wool Standard which covers animal welfare and sustainable land management. 

You can spot other brands that care about animal welfare in wool if they have certifications like Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) and ZQ Merino

Leather

Unlike wool, leather requires the animal to be killed. 

Some brands justify the use of leather as a” byproduct” of the meat industry, but this is a misconception. Leather is a “co-product” of meat, just as feathers and down are a co-product of poultry. 

Leather is a profitable industry in its own right. It exists to line pockets, not reduce waste. The global leather goods market is valued at around $444.17 billion. 

Leather is treated with chemicals like chromium during the tanning process, which pollutes the environment and makes the leather non-biodegradable and difficult to recycle.

Tanning also requires vast amounts of water (50 cubic meters per one ton of raw hides), which will contain various pollutants by the end of the process. 

Vegetable tanning provides a safer alternative to chromium tanning but it still doesn’t get around the whole ‘dead animal’ fact.

Silk

Silk is made from the cocoon filaments of silkworms. Traditionally, this involves boiling the silkworm while it’s still alive. 

Even Ahimsa silk (peace silk) which does not require the killing of silkworms is problematic in terms of ethics and has no certifications to verify the various production processes. 

The silk industry is also notorious for human rights violations, including forced and child labor. 

What To Look For:

Brands that use animal-derived materials such as alpaca, cashmere, merino wool, leather, and silk should, at a bare minimum, have an animal welfare policy and be able to trace their fabric to the production stage. 

Relevant animal welfare certifications include: 

Whether or not to use animal-derived materials comes down to individual values. 

Some will argue that animal products should never be used, period. 

Others may feel that it’s justified when small, non-intensive, and humane farms bring income to local communities. 

Some people avoid virgin animal fibers but are happy to support brands using recycled or deadstock fabric or buy vintage and second-hand clothing made from animal-derived materials.

If you prefer to stay vegan, look for certifications from The Vegan Society and  PETA

4. Materials, Dyes, & Finishes

What Is Ethical Fashion by pebble magazine

Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon are common in fast fashion as they’re cheap to produce. 

Unfortunately, they are made from petroleum-based plastics that shed microplastics and take hundreds of years to decompose in landfill.  

An alternative is to use recycled instead of virgin synthetic materials, as they give valuable resources a second life.  

Better still, opt for natural and renewable materials like organic cotton, hemp, linen, (some) bamboo, or plant-derived, biodegradable semi-synthetics like TENCEL. 

Organic Fibers

Organic fibers, grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, are more ethical and sustainable. 

Organic and, better still, regenerative organic farming is less intensive and benefits soil health and biodiversity.

Organic textiles also don’t expose farmers and garment workers to toxic agricultural chemicals. 

What To Look For: 

‘Organic’ is a term that isn’t regulated, so the best way to guarantee that clothing contains organic fibers is through certifications, including:

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): One of the most recognizable certifications, it requires that a product is made with a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers.
  • Organic Content Standard (OCS): Unlike GOTS, it doesn’t cover social and environmental standards but is strict regarding farming practices. 
  • Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC): A relatively new certification that builds on the USDA Certified Organic standard by addressing soil health, animal welfare, and social standards. 
  •  Fairtrade: While not always organic (65% of Fairtrade cotton farmers have an organic certification), it sets a benchmark for ethical treatment and fair pay in farming. 

It’s worth noting that certifications can be costly for small suppliers, so just because they don’t have one doesn’t mean they aren’t organic or sustainable.

Similarly, certification schemes are subject to greenwashing, too, so as The New York Times highlighted in a groundbreaking expose, certified “organic” cotton may not actually be organic.

Still, third party certifications are the best defense we have to back up sustainable and ethical claims, but like anything, they aren’t infallible—which again, highlights the importance of brand transparency.

Sustainable Dyes 

Did you know that dyeing and finishing a single ton of fabric can require up to 200 tons of fresh water?

The dye itself is another problem and not just for the dye-house workers who come into direct contact with it. 

In China, there’s a joke that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers. Except it’s no laughing matter—an estimated 70% of the rivers and lakes in China are contaminated by 2.5 billion tonnes of wastewater from textile factories. 

Textile dyes often contain chemicals like formaldehyde and heavy metals, including cadmium and lead. This isn’t just an environmental catastrophe; it exposes local communities to pollution, threatening their health. 

Some can also be hazardous to the wearer, particularly those with sensitive skin. 

What To Look For: 

Ethical brands use sustainable, non-toxic inks and dyes in their clothing or leave the material in its natural, undyed state. 

Certifications to look out for include bluesign®, OEKO-TEX, and GOTS.

PFC Finishes 

Waterproof clothing is often treated with chemicals to provide a DWR (durable water-repellent) coating.

These include perfluorochemicals (PFCs), often referred to as “forever chemicals,” that, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), are “highly toxic, extraordinarily persistent chemicals that pervasively contaminate human blood and wildlife the world over.”

What To Look For: 

For non-toxic rain and outdoor gear, look for brands that use a PFC-free DWR finish. 

5. Water Management

What Is Ethical Fashion by Ivan Bandura

Water Use

The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest consumer of water. 

This is perhaps not surprising, considering that producing a single pair of jeans and a T-shirt requires 5,000 gallons

Conventionally grown cotton is the world’s thirstiest crop, and vast amounts of water are also used for dyeing and finishing. 

With water scarcity on the rise (affecting poor and marginalized communities most) and several major cotton-producing countries, like China and India, already experiencing concerning levels of water stress, fashion brands must take steps to minimize their water footprint. 

Water Pollution

Textile dyeing is the second-biggest source of global water pollution, which has far reaching impacts on not just the planet, but the people who need clean water to survive (hint: all of us).

Water is also contaminated by pesticide and fertilizer run-off, with conventional cotton being a major culprit. 

Washing synthetic fabrics releases microplastics that wind up in the ocean, entering the food chain and negatively impacting both wildlife and humans, considering they’re now being found in human blood.

What To Look For:

There are several ways that brands can help conserve water and keep it clean, including:

  • Working with more sustainable materials. Organic cotton, for example, requires 91% less water than conventional cotton. 
  • Avoiding the use of micro-plastic shedding synthetic fabrics. 
  • Water-saving manufacturing methods like closed-loop systems which treat and recycle water to be used over and over.
  • Strict effluent management protocols to ensure that any wastewater released back into the environment is clean and safe. 

6. GHG Emissions

What Is Ethical Fashion by Anastasia Collection

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.

While often looked at from the sustainability side of fashion, it’s important to remember that climate change affects people, too.

Fair wages and safe factories won’t mean much on a disaster-stricken, dying planet.

There are multiple ways a brand can reduce emissions, including:

  • Using sustainable materials. For example, organic cotton produces 46% less carbon emissions than conventional cotton.
  • Using renewable energy for manufacturing and powering company facilities.
  • Using sea freight instead of air freight for transporting materials and products. 
  • Supporting a circular economy to help keep clothing out of landfills where they biodegrade anaerobically and release methane gas. 
  • Carbon offsetting any unavoidable emissions (there will always be some). 

What To Look For: 

Look for brands with a clear commitment to reducing carbon. 

This commonly takes the form of a climate strategy with set Scienced Based targets for reducing emissions. Brands should also be transparent about their progress. 

7. Circularity & Waste

What Is Ethical Fashion by Loti

Fast fashion is responsible for a staggering amount of textile waste. Every second, a garbage truck’s worth of clothing is burned or trashed in landfills.

When an ethical fashion brand operates within a closed-loop system, it follows a circular production line rather than the linear ‘make, use, dispose’ model.

That means it designs, manufactures, and distributes its ethical, sustainable clothing in a way that uses minimal resources and creates minimal waste. 

An ethical label also takes responsibility for its garments after they enter our closets by offering repair services and setting up take-back schemes. 

What To Look For:

There are several things an ethical fashion brand can do to help curb textile and packaging waste, including:

  • Using textile waste such as deadstock fabric and offcuts to create new clothing.
  • Creating high-quality, durable clothing that lasts.
  • Embracing timeless designs and offering limited collection runs.
  • Selling vintage and pre-loved clothing.
  • Helping keep clothing in circulation for longer by offering repair, recycling, and resale programs.
  • Using minimal 100% compostable, recyclable, and sustainably sourced packaging (Iike cardboard should be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to ensure it comes from sustainably managed forests).
  • Using water or vegetable-based inks for non-toxicity and to minimize the release of polluting volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

8. Diversity, Equality, & Inclusion

What Is Ethical Fashion by Girlfriend Collective

Fashion should be for everyone and every body. 

Ethical brands embrace this ethos by offering inclusive sizing and gender-neutral clothing and using diverse modeling to showcase their collections. 

Ethical brands also ensure equal pay and that women and BIPOC individuals are represented at all levels of their organization, including director and decision-making roles. 

Look for brands that are transparent with this information and are taking action to address any lack of representation. 

9. Giving Back

What Is Ethical Fashion by Joel Muniz

Since any fashion brand is, in essence, putting more ‘things’ into the world, it will have a footprint and an impact. 

Brands that give back use their business as a force for good and contribute to positive social change. 

For example, some of the most ethical brands not only pay fair trade wages, but pay additional Fairtrade Premiums, which are not wages, but rather a communal fund that worker communities are in charge of to allocate funds where the community needs them most.

What To Look For: 

Brands can give back in any number of ways, including:

  • Working with charity partners or regularly giving a percentage of their profits to a cause, e.g., via the 1% for the Planet program.
  • Donating products. For example, the underwear brand Y.O.U. partners with the charity Smalls For All. For each pair of underwear it sells it gives one pair of undies to someone in need.
  • Supporting individuals facing barriers to employment by providing meaningful employment and job training opportunities.
  • Helping to keep traditional crafts and important cultural practices alive by partnering with indigenous artisans.

Note that charitable giving shouldn’t be the only marker of an ethical brand, nor is it necessarily a signifier of one, rather one part of a bigger picture.

How To Spot Greenwashing

What Is Ethical Fashion by whitebalance.oatt

Greenwashing is rife in the fashion industry. 

In recent years, there has been an increase in greenwashing claims as brands try to appeal to growing consumer awareness about the impact of fast fashion.

As a consumer, it’s essential to exercise critical judgment and never take anything at face value. 

Words like “ethical,” “sustainable,” “eco,” “green,” and “conscious” are meaningless unless the brand is willing to provide specifics. 

If a brand mentions ethical manufacturing, ask how it is ethical. What policies and checks are in place? If they mention sustainable materials, ask why they are sustainable. 

A brand should be able to provide concrete details about how its materials are sourced and manufactured and about the labor conditions in its supply chain. 

While third-party certifications can help ensure the credibility of a brand’s ethical claims, it’s still wise to be discerning.

What To Look Out For:

Some indicators that a brand is likely greenwashing include: 

  • A lack of third-party verifications for environmental, social, and human rights.
  • Limited or no information about their supply chains.
  • Setting targets, e.g., climate or waste reduction goals, but not providing any evidence as to whether they’re on track to meet them.
  • Making confusing claims about recycled materials. For example, using the term “incorporates recycled materials” without providing the specifics. 
  • Cutting carbon emissions at their headquarters but not addressing CO2 across the supply chain.

Closing Thoughts On Ethical Fashion

What is ethical fashion? 

To a degree, what makes a brand ethical is up to you as a consumer. There will be causes and principles you deem more important than others. 

You might think Responsible Wool Standard wool is acceptable while your vegan friend might not tolerate animal-based fibers in any capacity.

While the definition of ethical fashion is not one-size-fits-all, there are deal breakers to look out for, including how a brand treats its garment workers and how transparent it is about addressing issues in its supply chain. 

For that, certifications and third-party audits can prove that a brand practices what it preaches.

If you’ve found this guide to ethical fashion helpful, pass it on so we can collectively support a better, fairer, and more ethical industry.