Author: Elizabeth Bennett
With eco credentials hot property, greenwashing is now commonplace across the fashion industry. Brands may tout that they are ‘slow’, ‘conscious’ or ‘thoughtful’ but in reality these words have been rendered almost useless. Similarly, the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ are bandied around so frequently it’s becoming confusing to get to the bottom of what they actually mean.
However, understanding these concepts is crucial if we want to make positive change in an industry which is notoriously bad for both the planet and its people. Transparency is key in highlighting the issues at play and subsequently making the progress to fix them.
First, let’s break down the key differences between the two ideas. Put simply, sustainable tends to refer to environmental impact whereas ethical refers to the human one.
In general, sustainability means the environmental ramifications of an item’s sourcing, production, and distribution. For a piece of clothing to be truly sustainable, every element of the supply chain needs to have as minimal damage as possible.
This includes everything from sourcing raw materials and running a factory to shipping and packaging the piece that ends up in your wardrobe. For example, using low impact materials like ECONYL®, producing garments in a factory run on renewable energy or shipping products in recycled paper packaging.
The fashion industry doesn’t have a good track record here. It’s a resource heavy practise (one cotton T-shirt takes up to 2700 litres of water to produce) that creates huge levels of greenhouse gases (around 8% of global emissions). The mammoth levels of waste – 92 million tonnes of textiles waste are created every year – only compounds this further.
Ethical fashion normally focuses on the human impact of a piece of clothing. Much like with sustainable fashion, every step of the supply chain needs to be considered here whether that’s the farmer growing the raw material, the garment worker in the factory or the sales assistant on the shop floor. Every person that is involved in the process should be treated fairly and paid correctly.
With the majority of garment production outsourced to the Global South, workers are more vulnerable to poor working conditions and low pay thanks to insufficient labour laws. According to Fashion Revolution, only an estimated 2% of fashion workers around the world are paid a livable salary. In Bangladesh, where garment making is the number one export, the monthly salary of a garment worker is 8,000 taka (£73.85). This is something many unethical fashion brands take advantage of when they put profit over people.
Across the fashion industry, women are disproportionately affected with on average between 70% and 90% of the workforce women. Closer to home, worker exploitation isn’t necessarily avoided. Just last year, online retailer Boohoo was accused of paying staff £3 an hour, £5 below the minimum wage.
Sustainable and ethical fashion is now big business. The global market value is projected to grow from $6.35 billion as of 2019 to $8.25 billion in 2023, and by 2030 reach $15.17 billion. With the words sustainable and ethical having no legally binding meaning, these buzzwords can be used freely without the evidence to back them up. Often used interchangeably, consumers can easily conflate the two. We however must prioritise both equally, one can’t be achieved without the other and vice versa.
Why We Need Both
A fashion industry that is healthy and long-lasting for both people and the planet needs to be both sustainable and ethical. The two can’t exist without one another and the success of this symbiotic relationship is crucial to that of the future of the planet and its inhabitants. After all, global warming, human rights, and animal rights are all intrinsically linked.
Bad environmental practices will always have human consequences. Everything is connected. When chemicals from clothing manufacturing infiltrate into rivers, it’s the local people’s food and crops that are damaged. When plastic clothing packaging isn’t recycled properly, microplastics end up in our waterways and eventually back in our drinking water. The impact of global warming – from floods to fires to droughts and storms – is already causing terrifying human impact.
With sustainability dominating mainstream conversations, it’s clever marketing for brands to invest in zero-waste packaging or eco-friendly materials but by doing so this only addresses half of the problem. You can’t have sustainability if the ethical elements haven’t been taken into account too.
Moving forward, let’s hope fashion brands can prioritise both elements equally. If so, we can create a positive industry for the planet and people.