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What is ethical fashion?

The rise of fast fashion and media coverage of inhumane corporate practices have spun a debate around today’s fashion industry and the sustainability of its business model. The terms “ethical fashion”, “sustainable fashion” and “eco fashion” describe an industry that emerged as an alternative to mass produced clothing, where the consumer has little to no visibility about environmental and labor corporate practices. Increasing consumer concerns have led many global corporations to disclose the location of their factories and publish annual sustainability reports, but there are different opinions about what “ethical” really means in this context. In this piece, we will explain what people understand by ethical fashion and the relevance of this movement. The entire eBook will be available shortly with expanded content as a .pdf document.

Introduction: A Brief History of Ethical Fashion

The expression “ethical fashion” is relatively new; the first paper that can be found on the topic is from 2002. “Ethics and Innovation: Is An Ethical Fashion Industry An Oxymoron?” explores the question of how can fashion designers be more ethical, using a broad definition of what constitutes ethical behavior, from intellectual property to sustainability and human rights. In recent years, the debate about ethical fashion has focused on the last two factors, disregarding intellectual property issues, which are rampant in the globalized fashion marketplace.

Another early paper from 2006 (Joergens) “Ethical fashion: myth or future trend?” reads:

The findings from this research demonstrate little evidence that ethical issues have any effect on consumers’ fashion purchase behaviour. When it comes to fashion purchase, personal needs motivate consumers primarily to buy garments and take precedence over ethical issues.

That paper had methodological limitations that cap our ability to generalize its results to a broader population, additionally, consumer preferences have changed since then, but we believe the statement above probably holds well over time, given the nature  and evolution of the shopping experience, where the right side of the brain is pretty much disengaged as you tap on that buy or like button.

Fast fashion retailers have been very successful at acquiring consumers not only because they compete in price but because they bring the latest catwalk trends to the mainstream consumer very shortly after celebrities, fashion bloggers and models wore similar clothes at Fashion Week. This is a very tempting trap: affordable clothes that won’t last forever but allow you to look like a star on a budget, so you can do it over and over again.

That fast fashion vicious cycle is precisely where the core of the problem lies: all the incentives are aligned so that we buy as much as we want to, sending a market signal to sellers to make more of the successful trends as quickly as possible. The consequent strain on the environment and workers in developing countries is what has brought attention to fast fashion as an unsustainable business model, but these issues are still far from popular knowledge and mainstream media coverage.

Slow fashion, the alternative to fast fashion and part of what has been called the “slow movement” advocates for similar principles as slow food.

  • GOOD: quality, flavorsome and healthy food
  • CLEAN: production that does not harm the environment
  • FAIR: accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers

Source: Slow Food International

The expression slow fashion was coined in a 2007 article by Kate Fletcher published in The Ecologist, where she compared the  eco/sustainable/ethical fashion industry to the slow food movement.

The concept of slow fashion borrows heavily from the Slow Food Movement. Founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986, Slow Food links pleasure and food with awareness and responsibility. It defends biodiversity in our food supply by opposing the standardisation of taste, defends the need for consumer information and protects cultural identities tied to food. It has spawned a wealth of other slow movements. Slow Cities, for example, design with slow values but within the context of a town or city and a commitment to improve its citizens’ quality of life.

Source: Fletcher,“Slow Fashion”, The Ecologist, 2007

Some elements of the slow fashion shopper include: buying vintage clothes, redesigning old clothes, shopping from smaller producers, making clothes and accessories at home and buying garments that last longer. New ideas and product innovations are constantly redefining slow fashion, so marrying a single definition would be denying the evolving nature of the concept.

The first tips to slow down your wardrobe outlined in the same article still apply today

  • Repair your clothes with a smile (it’s easier than going shopping)
  • Or ask stores about repair services… that may get them thinking
  • Ask your friends for new ideas about how to wear the garments you already have… it’s always good to wear things in a new way.

Source: Fletcher,“Slow Fashion”, The Ecologist, 2007

The Problem

From a pure business perspective, most analysts would consider many of these brands outrageously successful businesses, when judging by revenues, profits and growth; however, what many people consider reckless outsourcing policies and business practices have led to a series of catastrophes that evidence how some of these companies’ business models are unsustainable in nature. Here is a list of events to illustrate this point:

Zara Accused Of Alleged ‘Slave Labor’ In Brazil | Forbes | August 17, 2011

Turkey: Sandblasting Jeans for ‘Distressed’ Look Proved Harmful for Textile Workers | The New York Times | October 31, 2011

Building Collapse in Bangladesh Leaves Scores Dead | The New York Times | April 24, 2013. This is the sadly famous Rana Plaza tragedy. The final dead count exceeded 1,000 people.

Is That Faux Fur Really Fake? | The Huffington Post | December 8, 2013. Some garments allegedly made of faux fur sold by retailers like Neiman Marcus and Marc Jacobs were found to be made of real animal skin from cats and dogs, among others.

Benetton admits it made clothes in illegal Bangladesh factory that collapsed killing 900 workers | The Daily Mail | May 9, 2013

3 Die in Cambodia Factory Collapse | The Wall Street Journal | May 16, 2013

Bangladesh Garment Factory Fire Kills 8 Just Weeks After Building Collapse Claims More Than 900 Lives | The Huffington Post | The Huffington Post | July 8, 2013

Bangladesh Garment Factory Fire Kills At Least 10 | The Huffington Post | December 8, 2013

Walmart and Gap Response to Rana Plaza Only Adds Insult to Injury | International Business Times | April 24, 2014

Unfilled Rana Plaza Fund Exposes Fashion’s Lack of Accountability | The Business Of Fashion | August 19, 2014

Factory collapse injures four | The Phnom Perth | October 22, 2014. The floor of a Cambodian garment factory collapsed during  regular business operations.

Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of | The Huffington Post | October 27, 2014. Fiber pollution in water sources might be a bigger problem that ecologists have given it credit for according to preliminary research by Mark Brown.

Ultimately, there are a lot of us who believe having access to cheap clothes does not justify the loss of human lives, animal cruelty or excessive environmental damage. And therein is the essence of the “ethical” in ethical fashion.

Being clear that anything considered ethical is subjective, we acknowledge that there cannot be a universal definition of ethical fashion, but we are bringing you some of the issues that have spun the movement and that consumers seem to be more aware of. 

Our definition of Ethical Fashion

We have also articulated our own definition of ethical fashion. We define ethical fashion in regards to three main pillars, acknowledging that a definitive definition of “ethical” is unrealistic, as what each individual considers ethical is subjective and depends on many cultural and social factors.

Environment | Ethical fashion | Fashionhedge

Minimizing the environmental impact of garment manufacturing activities.

Treatment of waste-water, origin of dyes, pesticides and fertilizers used, and pollution agents generated by factories are factors that can be controlled and supervised to some extent reduce the damage to the surrounding ecosystems.

Deliberately causing harm to the environment when alternative techniques to minimize it are known signals a lack of corporate responsibility.

Some talk about “sustainable fashion” in a separate category to ethical fashion, but the truth is that caring for sustainability and the environment can be included in someones’ ethical paradigm, so we believe that any efforts to propose more environmentally sustainable business practices falls onto the ethical category as well.


Workers | Ethical fashion | Fashionhedge

Respecting fundamental human rights regardless of the location or legal system of a country.

Many of the discussions around this topic revolves around fair wages, appropriate and safe facilities and general workers’ health considerations. Since outsourcing has become a standard practice in the fashion industry, dealing with different countries’ laws or lack of them is a real challenge for the companies that decide to manufacture abroad.

This has changed a lot and different tragedies showing the lack of safe working conditions in some factories have turned the responsibility back to the parent corporations, which have a larger pressure from the public and the media to respond for their vendors’ shortcomings. Deliberately disregarding people’s basic rights just because they are in a different country where laws might be weaker or not enforced is shady corporate behavior and many consumers make a statement by not shopping from such companies.


Consumers | Ethical fashion |Fashionhedge

Providing a quality service and transparent information about the characteristics of a product.

Increased public knowledge about injustice in the workplace, hidden animal components of garments and quality of the fibers used drive consumers to ask more questions and get more information before buying. Providing complete data about any relevant detail of a product is an essential component of what we consider an ethical behavior.

Lying, distorting or hiding information is not tolerated and brands should strive to find out consumers information needs and fulfill them the best way they can.

What to do?

Researching production methods, supply chains, and CSR practices is time-consuming and impractical. Not to mention, the fact that many brands do not disclose their internal policies regarding labor or sustainability. Finding a balance, where you buy only what you need and stay away from cheap, low-quality goods is a great way to start. We have created a conscious shopping directory where we feature brands and companies we trust and explain briefly why they made our list. I wrote the Ultimate Ethical Fashion Guide a while ago, but it’s still relevant for reference.



Transparent supply chainTransparent supply chain

Women empowerment

Made in USAUSA

Buy to last

Real beauty


Love for animalsfemale174

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