What Is Ethical Fashion?

What Is Ethical Fashion?

At Stop Traffick Fashion, we want to help you find ways to be a more ethical consumer. To do that, we’ve put together this master page with all the key information about ethical fashion. It’s a great resource to bookmark and share with friends. (For more must have information from Stop Traffick Fashion, check out our About Human Trafficking page.)

What is ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion includes clothes whose makers seek to address at least one (but usually more) of the issues involved in fashion today.EcoFashionWorld breaks down the categories in ethical fashion this way:

Vegan: Products that have been made without the use of leather or animal tissue products. Examples are shoes and bags made from “vegetal leather” using Amazonian rubber instead of animal skins or other recycled or man-made materials.

Ethically Produced: Ethical fashion is fashion that has been produced with respect for people and the environment. Although there are existing certifications for Organic and Fair Trade, we want to encourage companies who are taking significant action but don’t qualify for certification. This might include companies producing locally or on small scales in developed countries, who might not qualify for Fair Trade certification or companies working with farmers to transition to sustainable crops but who might not yet qualify as Organic (which takes a few years). The “Ethic Chic” section of each brand profile should have details on the specific steps of the brand’s ethical production.

Craft/Artisan: Products that have been crafted using artisan skills such as embroidery, which preserve the perpetuation of ancestral traditions.

Custom: Also called demi-couture or made-to-order. This is a way of encouraging quality and “slow fashion” over mass-produced disposable fashion.

Fair Trade Certified: An organized movement that promotes standards for international labor (such as reasonable work hours, no child labor, the right to unionize, a fair living wage), environmentalism, and social policy in areas related to production of goods. Fair Trade focuses on exports from developing countries to developed countries. The main Fair Trade certification organizations are: Fair Trade International (FLO) www.fairtrade.net, and  FairTradeUSA (Canada and US) www.transfairusa.org and www.transfair.ca.

Organic: Natural fibers that have been grown without any pesticides and other toxic materials, preserving the health of humans and the environment. The process of organic growth can be certified by various organizations.

Recycled: Anything that has been made from already existing materials, fabrics, metals or fibers. These are often reclaimed from previously made clothing and accessories and reworked into new ones. Fibers can also be re-purposed from pre-existing fabric, re-spun and reused for new garments.

Vintage/Second-Hand: Vintage is a generic term for new or second hand garments created in the period from the 1920’s to 1975. However, the term is often used more generally for second-hand clothes or up-cycled clothes (second-hand clothes that have been given a new life through some sort of customization).


What issues are involved in ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion has become a hot issue in recent years as consumers have begun to realize the effects of the current clothing production system on people and the environment.

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London explains the issues that globalization and increased consumer demand have created in the clothing industry.

Ethical Fashion aims to address the problems it sees with the way the fashion industry currently operates, such as exploitative labor, environmental damage, the use of hazardous chemicals, waste, and animal cruelty.

  • Serious concerns are often raised about exploitative working conditions in the factories that make cheap clothes for the high street.
  • Child workers, alongside exploited adults, can be subjected to violence and abuse such as forced overtime, as well as cramped and unhygienic surroundings, bad food, and very poor pay. The low cost of clothes on the high street means that less and less money goes to the people who actually make them.
  • Cotton provides much of the world’s fabric, but growing it uses 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides, chemicals which can be dangerous for the environment and harmful to the farmers who grow it. (Ethical Fashion Forum)
  • Current textile growing practices are considered unsustainable because of the damage they do to the immediate environment. For example, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk to just 15% of its former volume, largely due to the vast quantity of water required for cotton production and dying. (Ethical Fashion Forum)
  • Most textiles are treated with chemicals to soften and dye them, however these chemicals can be toxic to the environment and can be transferred to the skin of the people wearing them. Hazardous chemicals used commonly in the textile industry are: lead, nickel, chromium IV, aryl amines, phthalates and formaldehyde. (Greenpeace)
  • The low costs and disposable nature of high street fashion means that much of it is destined for incinerators or landfill sites. The UK alone throws away 1 million tones of clothing every year. (Waste Online)
  • Many animals are farmed to supply fur for the fashion industry, and many people feel that their welfare is an important part of the Ethical Fashion debate. The designer Stella McCartney does not use either fur or leather in her designs. In an advert for the animal rights organization PETA, she said: ‘we address… ethical or ecological… questions in every other part of our lives except fashion. Mind-sets are changing, though, which is encouraging.’

With damage happening in so many realms, ethical fashion isn’t optional for today’s consumers—it’s imperative. As buyers, we have the power to change the way companies use their resources and treat their workers.

What is fair trade?

Fair trade is a rigorous certification process that ensures certain ethical production guidelines. It’s used for clothing, food, and other products.

Find out more at Fair Trade USA and the Fair Trade Federation. Fair Indigo describes fair trade this way:

Fair trade is a growing movement dedicated to the principles of rewarding workers and producers fairly for their work or products. The goals of fair trade are economic and ecological sustainability accomplished through key principles:

  • A Fair Price or Wage. For commodities such as coffee or tea, fair trade price standards are set by international Fair Trade Labeling Organization. The price attempts to cover the cost of production and a living wage to cover the basics of food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical care. Importers and retailers are then screened and certified by TransFair USA to ensure that they are paying the Fair Trade price for products. While there currently is not a certification for crafts or apparel, businesses committed to fair trade principles focus their efforts on paying a living wage (as opposed to the legal minimum wage dominant in the industry).
  • Investment in People and Communities. Fair trade cooperatives and artisan groups work toward setting aside a portion of their income, called the social premium, to invest in community development projects, democratically chosen by the workers, such as health care, education, housing, and training/empowerment programs. Fair trade retailers often make contributions over and above the social premiums.
  • Environmental Sustainability. Fair Trade farmers and artisans respect the natural habitat and are encouraged to engage in sustainable production methods. Farmers implement integrated crop management and avoid the use of toxic agrochemicals for pest management. Nearly 85% of Fair Trade Certified™ coffee is also organic.
  • Economic Empowerment of Small Scale Producers. Fair Trade supports small scale producers, those at the bottom of the economic ladder or from marginalized communities, that otherwise do not have access to economic mobility. Fair Trade encourages and supports the cooperative system where each producer owns a portion of the business, has equal say in decisions, and enjoys equal returns from the market.
  • Direct Trade. Fair Trade importers purchase from Fair Trade cooperatives as directly as possible, eliminating unnecessary middlemen and empowering farmers to develop the business capacity necessary to compete in the global marketplace. The certification also secures long-term, stable relationships between producers and importers.
  • Fair Labor Conditions. Workers are guaranteed freedom of association and safe working conditions. Fair Trade also encourages women’s participation in and leadership of cooperatives. Human rights and child labor laws are strictly enforced.

A number of other organizations are working to stop unethical production practices:

How are ethical purchases related to human trafficking?

When you make ethical purchasing a priority, you can be more sure that no people were exploited or enslaved in the making of the product you’re buying. You also support the livelihoods of men and women who are supporting their families. Ethical purchasing gives these families financial security and drastically reduces the risk of family members being trafficked. When you make ethical purchases it shows companies that treating people fairly is important to consumers, so companies become more vigilant in setting and enforcing fair labor practices.

Ethical purchases help fuel the fight for freedom and fairness.


What other products does ethical purchasing affect?

There are unethical practices in seemingly every consumer industry. For example, Fair Trade USA has partnerships in these product categories:

  • • Apparel & Linens
    • Beans & Grains
    • Body Care
    • Cocoa
    • Coffee
    • Packaged Foods
    • Flowers & Plants
    • Fruits & Vegetables
    • Honey
    • Herbs & Spices
    • Nuts & Oilseeds
    • Spirits
    • Sports Balls
    • Sugar
    • Tea
    • Wine

But don’t be overwhelmed, there lots of ways to become more and more ethical in your spending, and every little bit helps. Certified fair trade products hold to a system of ethics and accountability that makes sure workers are treated fairly at every stage of the production process. This way you can be sure that slaves didn’t produce the product. Plus, workers who are paid fairly aren’t entrapped by poverty—they’re able to educate and protect their families from traffickers. Free2Work is a great resource to educate yourself as a consumer. When you can’t find a fair trade option or something your confident will have a positive impact, Free2Work can help you pick the better option between two retailers. This website (there’s also an app for reference while you’re shopping) shows you which companies do not have forced, trafficked, or child labor in their production. Each company is grade based on the ethical choice the business makes. So in the absence of an A+ choice, you’ll be able to find out who got a B- and chose them over a company that got a D-. Better World Shopping Guide is a similar app you can use when you’re shopping. Rather than getting overwhelmed by choices, choose a few items that you use often, like coffee or chocolate, and commit to buy fair trade. Read this post on ethical fashion and follow the blog to get more ethical spending tips.If you can’t find ethical shopping options, tell retailers that’s what you want. Tell the manager of your grocery store why fair trade is important and participate in Call+Response‘s Chain Store Reaction.

See lists with more fair trade vendors at the Guardian and Global Stewards.

How can I make ethical fashion choices on a tight budget?

Many of us want to make a difference but can’t afford a $200 sweater to wear with $185 jeans. Here are some ideas to help you make the most ethical choices with your budget. It can be easy to use money as an excuse for making unethical purchases, but with creativity and planning you can use our purchase power to help make the world better.

Buy less. This simple truth is that we all have more clothes than we need. By committing to buy one ethical shirt instead of two cheaper ones, for example, we can make a positive impact on the supply chain and reign in our consumption. If you’re really ready to rethink your consumption, you can look over your whole budget for places to cut or redirect your spending.Shop thrift. It takes a little work and a bit of commitment, but you can find fashionable, very affordable clothes at thrift stores. Even if your thrift store treasures were made by exploited people, you’ve saved them from the trash and reduced the consumer demand for new clothes.

Try your hand at homemade. This is for the really adventurous. It may be a challenge to find ethically sourced fabrics, but if you sew your own clothes, you always know exactly how the seamstress was treated. Plus, your stuff will be one of a kind.

While ethical products will always be a bit more expensive than less ethical ones, increased demand will help lower the costs. You likely won’t be able to totally revamp your spendng all at once, but that’s okay. Positive progress is a process. Do what you can and don’t be discouraged.