The Beginner’s Guide to the Ethical Fashion Movement

What is sustainable fashion? Here are the details on the building fashion movement.
A new fashion movement is gaining momentum, but this isn’t just a fleeting trend like choker necklaces and off-the-shoulder blouses.

You may have already seen news headlines and Instagram influencer bios containing the terms, “ethical fashion,” “sustainable fashion,” or “slow fashion” — but what does it all mean, exactly? The term itself, “ethical fashion,” implies a moral obligation, which puts the average consumer on the defensive. You may be wondering, “Does this mean I’m a bad person for shopping at the mall?” In short, no.

But remember when organic food first hit the grocery stores and we all balked at its prices and rolled our eyes at people who only ate USDA-approved foods? Well, most of us today don’t think it’s so ridiculous to limit the amount of chemicals we consume. Similarly, ethically-produced clothing is becoming the new standard in the fashion industry.

Here is your crash course on everything you need to know about what’s happening with clothes.

What is ethical fashion vs. fast fashion?

Ethical or sustainable fashion refers to two main pillars of ethical clothing production:

  1. The workers along the brand’s supply chain are paid fairly and are provided with a safe working environment.
  2. The way in which the clothing is created does not harm the environment.

Sounds like something we can all get on board with, right? The problem is most mainstream brands are guilty of not upholding these standards. Because it’s cheaper to produce clothing in countries like China and India, which lack regulation laws, it is difficult to keep brands accountable for their methods and factory conditions. Many of these countries don’t even have laws that regulate what’s going on behind closed doors.

This lack of transparency results in consumers having no idea about what is happening in the supply chain, or even where their purchases are actually coming from. These brands are called “fast fashion,” because they produce clothing quickly and cheaply, and they keep their production process under wraps.

As a result, tragic accidents occur, like the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 workers who produced clothing for brands like Joe Fresh, Walmart, Gap, J.C. Penny, Mango, and Primark. In 2016, a study revealed that in America alone, 26 billion pounds of textiles and clothing end up in landfills every year. Most of this waste is polyester blend — a plastic-based fabric extremely popular with mainstream clothing brands. It is non-biodegradable, so every polyester item that has ever been made will stay on the planet forever.

Microfibers from these synthetic blends have also become a major polluter in our oceans due to runoff from landfills and even washing synthetic fabrics in washing machines. Not only is this pollution toxic to the the aquatic food chain, but we’re even consuming this plastic when we eat fish! Not to mention the environmental impact of the chemicals used in dying clothes.

How can you tell if it’s fast fashion?

Becoming familiar with brands that have been outed as offenders of ethical clothing production is a start. Zara has repeatedly been in the spotlight for not paying their workers, mice that have been sewn into dresses, and accusations of slave labor. Brands like Forever21, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, and Nike have also been listed as unethical for using sweatshops and child labor.

At the end of the day, any store with a fast fashion business model is contributing to this global problem, because they produce trend-based items quickly and cheaply.

Ever notice how some stores have totally new clothes every time you go in, even if it’s been just a week? Zara is known for releasing a completely new collection of items every two weeks or less. The items are trendy so they aren’t meant to be worn a long time — they are made with cheap synthetic fabric blends and constructed poorly. They will fall apart just in time for consumers to buy the next trend, continuing the cycle.

Another red flag is a brand’s lack of transparency in their production process. If there’s no explanation for their sourcing, it usually means the company is trying to keep it quiet. Brands with ethical supply chains will let their customers know because quite frankly, it’s more expensive for them to pay fair wages and choose environmentally-safe methods — they want customers to know they’re going the extra mile. Reformation, for example, is a brand that is very open about its production process.

Isn’t ethically-produced clothing expensive?

Yes and no.

Yes, because the quality of ethically-produced items is higher and every person in the brand’s supply chain is getting paid fairly. And no, because ethically-produced clothing will last longer, which means you won’t be needing to frequently shop at fast fashion stores.

Many of us use stores like Zara as a bandaid to quickly find something to wear, but $15–$20 here and there adds up and only fills your wardrobe with trendy items that quickly fall apart or become misshapen. If we restrained from shopping at fast fashion stores, we’d actually save money so we could afford ethically-produced products that will last us for the next ten years. It’s just a matter of saving and investing. Everlane is a very affordable (and stylish) ethical clothing line that could serve as a great foundation for any wardrobe.

Truth be told, secondhand clothing is the most economical approach to building an ethical wardrobe. Thrift stores, consignment shops, and vintage boutiques have decades worth of high quality items that can suit anyone’s personal style, no matter how basic or expressive. If you’re interested in exploring more shopping options, The Good Trade is a publication that releases lists on ethical brands that are both stylish and making a difference.

The switch to only shopping ethically takes time and patience. An ethical wardrobe cannot be created overnight and requires a few years of smart investments in versatile items that will last. If a global change is necessary for ending fast fashion, it can begin with us if we change the way we approach shopping.

The lure of fast fashion dissipates when we are purposeful in our purchasing. The benefits include knowing you are preserving natural resources and supporting the workers whose hands created the clothing you wear.

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