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The Importance of Fashion Ethics

Last Updated: April 16, 2024

You've seen the news stories about the horrors of the fashion industry. You've seen some of the big fashion brands saying they're being more "eco-friendly" or supporting their workers. Or you've noticed the rise in fashion sustainability. But what is it all about? What are the problems in the fashion industry and why do they exist? This article is here to answer those questions with a deep dive into ethics in the fashion industry. We'll answer those questions, along with explaining what to look out for when you go shopping.

Fashion is Moving too Fast

The fast-fashion model of production revolutionized the fashion industry. The model focuses on fast turnaround and they do this by shortening supply chains, with tight control over the key parts which include:

  • Raw material supply
  • Design
  • Production
  • Logistics

By doing this, a garment can go from design to shopfronts rapidly. Online shopping giant Boohoo can design, manufacture, and dispatch 300 copies of a design in just 2 weeks. They test which items do the best with the initial 300, then up production of those that do well. The fashion industry even puts a huge amount of effort into forecasting future trends, with agencies constantly analyzing data from retailers and social media to predict future trends.

What all this means is that the fashion world has gone into over-drive. The speed with which fashion moves creates the constant feeling of needing to buy more to keep up. Items are created and replaced fast, speeding up the 4 seasons of fashion to an almost weekly change. The result is that the amount of clothing we consume globally has increased by 400% in the last 20 years.

The Human Cost of Fast Fashion

With the rise of globalization, companies in all industries began to outsource production to parts of the world where materials and labor are cheaper, aka the developing world. This includes Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and other regions. Some of the biggest producers are Bangladesh, India, China, and Vietnam.

However, it’s cheap to produce in these countries for a reason. In many, protections for worker rights are either non-existent or not enforced. As a result, human rights violations run a mock in garment production. Here are some of the key issues:

Modern Slavery

It’s sad to think that in 2021, slavery still exists, but it does. The meaning modern slavery means is that one individual or business controls another's freedom. Anti-slavery international estimates that roughly 40 million people worldwide are part of modern slavery. Of these:

  • 1 in 4 are children.
  • Around 71% are women or girls.

A big part of those is working in fashion. Slavery in the fashion industry can be found with the people collecting the raw materials, creating the fabrics, and sewing the clothes. A report in 2018 estimated that $127.7 billion in clothing arriving in high-income countries involved modern slavery.

Child Labor

An estimated 260 million children are employed worldwide, 170 million of those children are involved in jobs that are considered harmful due to the working conditions or the nature of the work. Many of those are working in textile and garment production, all of which feed fast fashion demands in the US and Europe.

Unlivable Wages

If they are paid, it's likely that it's not enough. Only around 2% of those working in fashion globally are paid a salary they can actually live on. For example, in Bangladesh which is a huge producer of clothes, income is usually around $100 a month. This is far below living wages, meaning it's not enough for food, rent, healthcare, education. So while brands may say they are paying "minimum wage" they are in fact paying far below what's needed for people to live.

Working Conditions

Rana Plaza is what brought poor working conditions in garment factories to global awareness. The collapse of the factory killed 1,134 people (including children) with thousands more injured. It was found afterward that it was known there were structural issues in the building foundations, but no one closed the factory. After this several movements were started such as Fashion Revolution.

Working conditions continue to be an issue in fashion, with issues including:

  • Poor ventilation and heat
  • No access to water
  • Chemical exposure
  • Fainting
  • Malnutrition

An Issue of Race and Gender

Roughly 80% of those working in garment production are women, often with families to support, and the majority of these earn less than $3 a day. The injustice of the whole system is made clear when you consider that the CEOs (usually men) of fashion brands earn in 4 days what a female garment worker in Bangladesh makes in her entire life.

On top of this, they often face discrimination. 1 in 3 female garment factory workers experienced sexual harassment in a 12 month period, along with being threatened and/or hit by employers.

Added to this, is the issue of race. The majority of women working in garment production globally are women of color. The fact that the majority of the clothes produced are sold to western markets adds layers to this exploitative dynamic.

And That's Not All

Along with the above, there are issues with forced overtime. This is where the lines between modern slavery and bad practices become blurred in many garment factories, sure they may be going to work voluntarily, but is it because they feel they don't have a choice?

Migrant exploitation is another one, often those from the poorest countries migrate to find work, only to be exploited. A particular issue recently is Syrian refugees working in poor conditions in Turkish garment factories.

To top it all, fashion brands have abandoned the workers they were already exploiting during the COVID pandemic. In Bangladesh, fashion brands canceling orders that were already in production has to lead to more than a million garment workers being sent home without pay.

Transparency and Supply Chains

What allows so much of this to continue, is the lack of transparency. Due to an often complete lack of transparency in supply chains, there's often no way of knowing if modern slavery is involved. While brands keep tight control over the supply chain, they outsource the labor elements to multiple factories/contractors. Brands are either unaware, willfully ignorant, or in some cases actively allowing many of the above issues. At the same time, the lack of strict policy and enforcement in the producing country allows illegal work practices and slavery to continue.

The Environmental Price

If all the ethical issues weren't enough, there's an impact on the environment too. The fashion industry is one of the least sustainable of them all. Here are the key issues:

Carbon Emissions

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the fashion industry contributes to 10% of the carbon emissions produced worldwide.

Part of this is in production. The majority of synthetic fabrics have fossils fuels as their base. This includes polyester, nylon, spandex, and many others. At the same time, the factories manufacturing the clothes require energy too, meaning more emissions.

Another element is the globalization of garment production, with the result being that clothes are transported around the world. Brands are now moving from shipping to air cargo, which is only making the problem worse.

Chemical Usage and Water

The amount of water used in clothes production is huge. One cotton t-shirt takes 2,700 liters of water to produce, which is how much H2O one human needs in 3 years. Take a second to think about how many people are wearing cotton shirts in the world, that's a lot of water.

Not only does it take a lot of water, but also a lot of chemicals. Chemicals are used in every stage of turning raw material into fabrics. These chemicals enter the water during production, after which the water is released out to pollute freshwater sources and the surrounding ecosystems. This is why the fashion industry is second only to the oil industry for pollution.

Waste

Waste is a huge problem in the fashion industry. Firstly, there is the problem of a lack of a circular economy in fashion. Only 25% of textiles are recycled in some form, the rest end up in landfills.

What's worse is what fashion labels do with "deadstock", this is clothing that doesn't sell. Many fashion brands decide to burn these clothes, rather than recycle them or give them away at a reduced price, to preserve "exclusivity". Brands that do this include Urban Outfitters, H&M, Nike, Victoria's Secret, Walmart, and others. H&M for example burned 60 tons of new and unsold clothes in less than 4 years.

Animal Cruelty and Wildlife

We've been over the human and environmental costs, but what about animal rights?

Many materials are based on different animal products, this includes wool, leather, silk, fur, goose down, feathers, and more. There is often very little attention paid to animal welfare in these industries, meaning animal cruelty is a big problem. Leather, for example, kills an estimated 1 billion animals every year to produce the cheap clothing found in stores. Then there's wool, which may not kill the animals, but animal welfare is often not considered.

Polluted environments have an impact on wildlife too. Polluted freshwater systems mean that animals are taking in these toxins. The effect of toxins can accumulate up food chains as well, impacting the biggest animals at the top.

There is also the problem that the expansion of animals used for fashion means more land is used to farm them. This removes land that would have originally been for wildlife.

What Can We Do About It?

So, it's not an understatement to say that the fashion industry is not pretty. It's often downright horrifying. But you as a consumer have the power to create change through what you buy.

Put an End to Fast Fashion

The Slow Fashion Movement calls for us to calm down on the trends. Do we really need new trends for every week of the year? Slow fashion focuses on buying high-quality ethical fashion that stands the test of time, along with finding your own style rather than following trends.

Ethical Fashion Versus Sustainable Fashion

The two are often used interchangeably, but they have some subtle differences.

Ethical fashion looks at the ethical impacts on people and asks questions like:

  • Who made the clothes?
  • Are they paid a living wage?
  • Do they have safe working conditions?

Sustainable fashion refers primarily to the impact on the environment and asks questions like:

  • What raw materials are used?
  • How many chemicals are used?
  • How much carbon is produced?

Ideally, you're looking for a combination of the two. As we've seen, the ethical and environmental impacts of fashion are pretty significant, so ideally you're looking for brands that are both ethical and sustainable. Luckily, there are lots of brands out there doing their best to create sustainable and ethical fashion.

Things to Consider Before Buying

Making sure the clothes you buy are ethical and sustainable means you need to become a little bit of a detective. Here are a few things to investigate next time you go shopping:

So, it's not an understatement to say that the fashion industry is not pretty. It's often downright horrifying. But you as a consumer have the power to create change through what you buy.

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a big problem. This is when a company presents itself as environmentally friendly to get sales, but in reality, they are not. Terms like "eco-friendly" or "green" are not vetted and are often thrown around with little meaning. Look for genuine evidence of good practices, such as certification labels. Price is another good indicator, if an item claims to be eco, but has a very low price, odds are it's not the real deal.

Transparency

Like we talked about earlier, transparency is a big deal and is one of the key factors that is likely to create genuine change in the industry. When fashion brands have to be upfront about where materials are coming from, who is making the clothes, in what conditions and for how much, it is easier to keep them accountable.

Living Wages Versus Minimum Wage

Be cautious if a fashion brand says they pay minimum wage. As pointed out by the Clean Clothes campaign, minimum wage as set by the producing country is often far below what's needed to live with dignity. This keeps millions of people living in poverty. Instead, look out for ethical fashion brands that pay living wages.

Respect for Those Making the Clothes

This encompasses all the elements of working conditions, safety standards, preventing discrimination, and everything else. You can look for this with certification schemes that show that ethical fashion brands are working to high standards (more on this later).

Questions to ask are:

  • Are they open about where their factories are?
  • Do they own their own factories?
  • Do they guarantee good working conditions?
  • Are their clothes produced abroad or in the country?

Good ethical fashion brands will be upfront on these things. They might even be able to tell you #whomademyclothes !

Fair Trade and Other Certification Schemes

Certification schemes mean that an external body has audited an ethical fashion company to ensure they are reaching certain standards. These are great because they mean a brand has actively sought out certification, a good sign.

A good example of certification is Fair Trade. Fair Trade certified clothing ensures ethical practices like living wages, improved working conditions, access to healthcare, and many other things.

There are other certification schemes as well. Bluesign is another one that focuses on legal compliance with environmental health and safety standards. This is a good list of certifications to get you started.

Think About Fabric Types

The topic of what fabrics are the best for the environment and which are the worst could be the subject of an entire blog in itself. So this a summary of what to think about:

What to avoid:

  • Anything that uses toxic chemicals during production, aka not organic
  • Fossil fuel-based synthetics: nylon, polyester, spandex, etc.
  • Animal-based materials: leather, wool, silk, etc. (unless you can be sure they are ethically produced)

What to look for:

  • Those that are made from natural fibers. Linen, hemp, and bamboo are good examples.
  • Organically produced. With all of the above natural fibers, make sure they are organic.
  • Fabrics like Tencel and Lyocell are made from process natural fibers. These have a low environmental impact and are both biodegradable and compostable.

Closing the Loop

Consider what happens when the item you purchase comes to the end of its time with you. Clothes won't last forever and there needs tobe a plan for what to do with them at the end of their life. The key here is producing something high-quality and durable but that can also eventually be broken down naturally or recycled.

Brands are approaching this issue by doing things like taking back old clothes and recycling them, or even by producing compostable fabrics.

Organic

As we said, chemicals are a big problem. So look for organically produced clothing. This is especially relevant for cotton. Organic cotton uses no toxic chemicals, 88% less water, and 62% less energy. The GOTS certification scheme is a world leader in certifying organically produced textiles.

Handmade and/or Artisanal

Artisanal items are handmade by skilled individuals, likely using traditional methods like block printing or natural dyes. It can be a great way to support a culture and the items are almost always beautiful and unique.

Be careful though as "artisanal" is another one of those words that the fashion industry likes to exploit. Make sure that when buying artisanal items those making them are paid properly and that you're supporting the culture it came from instead of supporting cultural appropriation.

Shipping

Ask where the clothes are made. If they are made overseas, do they ship the products? Do they make any efforts to offset the carbon emissions? If a company uses air cargo, they are probably a no-go.

Inclusivity

Granted this is at the very end of the clothes production line, but important nonetheless. How a company chooses to present itself to the world via its marketing can say a lot about the company. Do they feature models of all sizes, shapes, and colors? If the answer is yes, that's a good sign.

Charity

Many brands contribute towards charities or have created their own charitable foundations. Patagonia for example gives 1% of all their sales towards grassroots environmental groups. This is lower on the list as, while charity is a good thing, systemic change is what's really needed to make the fashion industry more ethical and sustainable.

Activism

Another good thing to look for is activism. Is this brand promoting ethical fashion or change in the industry? A good example is the #whomademyclothes movement, a part of the Fashion Revolution. This is something you can get involved with too, they have a Get Involved pack for citizens.

Final Thoughts

So that's the (somewhat extensive) list of things to look for. It can be overwhelming. There are so many things to think about and, let's be honest, no one company is going to be able to achieve all those things. But, each is trying in their own way to create change in the industry. Equally, there's no way you as an individual can tick off every single thing on the list and buy something with zero consequences for the environment or people. What matters is that you make sustainable and ethical fashion something that is achievable for you.

About the author, Leafy Souls

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This is the staff-writer's account for Leafy Souls' blog.

We aim to make ethical consumerism simple with helpful guides, tips, and recipes to inspire you to make the best decisions.

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  1. "Thank you for shedding light on the crucial intersection of fashion and ethics. Your insightful article emphasizes the importance of making mindful choices in the fashion industry, from supporting cruelty-free and sustainable practices to advocating for fair treatment of workers. It's inspiring to see a commitment to ethical fashion, and your message serves as a valuable reminder to consumers and industry leaders alike. Keep up the great work in promoting a more compassionate and responsible approach to fashion!"

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