Telling people I’m a supporter of sustainable and ethical fashion, I’m usually met with a furrowed brow and a response of, “What’s that?” After explaining it involves designers, companies, and consumers valuing eco-friendly materials and production methods and ensures workers receive fair treatment and wages, I’m met with a gentle nod of understanding. In some cases, people wonder why anything needs to change or if it’s possible to be eco-friendly and treat workers fairly given current standards. Researching the differences between sustainable and ethical fashion to help people further grasp and support these concepts, I often wonder, why are the two industries separate? Why is it that some companies support either sustainable fashion or ethical fashion but not both? Is it necessary to choose?
Before I continue, let me first explain the differences between sustainable and ethical fashion. Sustainable fashion focuses on using materials that cause little or no harm to the environment (such as organic or recycled), production methods that reduce waste, and finding ways to create fewer collections to deter over-consumption. Ethical fashion places emphasis on fair wages and treatment of workers, providing business trainings to empower artisans, and preservation of traditional handicrafts. You can also get a more in-depth look at the conversation of these definitions from Fashionhedge’s post “Ethical Fashion vs. Sustainable Fashion: What is the Difference?” which tells of other industry leaders’ concepts on these terms. Both sustainable fashion and ethical fashion offer great characteristics to aspire to, but is one better than the other?
While some companies pick one aspect over another to focus on, I fail to see how both sustainable and ethical fashion don’t intersect and overlap with one another. Ensuring workers are treated fairly and safely, as ethical fashion strives to do, means a company should find materials that aren’t dangerous or toxic, which is where sustainable fashion steps in. While a company may use eco-friendly production methods and reduce waste, how can the eco-friendly improvements not extend to current working conditions? Because of fashion both the environment and humanity have suffered. Protecting people and the Earth are equal and necessary actions.
So, if a company doesn’t support both sustainable and ethical fashion, does that mean I don’t support it? Not necessarily. I’m in favor of companies that work towards changes in either direction. I realize there may be elements in the way of companies achieving both sustainability and ethical practices at the same time. I want to be understanding, but when I’ve seen companies who empower and treat their workers fairly as well as use techniques from ancient handicrafts that reduce the use of toxic chemicals in favor of natural and eco-friendly ones, I begin to think some companies just need to look harder. The journey may not be an easy one, but it seems sustainability and ethics go hand-in-hand. No company, product, or situation is perfect, but if we can improve on the system we have now, the better of we can be in the future.
Why do you think some fashion companies are either sustainable or ethical but not both? Although I’ve specifically written about sustainability and ethics, what other changes would you like to see in the fashion industry?