Sustainability and Ethics in the Fashion Industry
When it comes to progression in the fashion industry, sustainable fashion is a sector that has been gaining momentum for some time, slowly filtering into the mainstream culture from a flurry of grassroots businesses, educators and activists. As we become more aware of our impact on the environment and the world around us, the landscape of the fashion industry is transforming as a response to the culmination of environmental issues, developments in technology, digital shifts in influence and an increase in conscious consumerism.
So what defines sustainable and ethical fashion? Whilst there are many similarities and cross-overs between the two, they don’t always go hand in hand as they have slightly different core values. When looking at issues with the current model of the fashion industry, because production chains are so complex, there are unlimited approaches to address these problems so most businesses will focus on the issues they feel most strongly about, rather than attempting to tackle all at once…
A big buzz word at the moment, searches on sustainable fashion have increased by 66% from this time last year. A wide-ranging and varied topic, it can be summarised as clothing and accessories that respects our environment and resources, and is produced at a manageable rate. Sustainable fashion brands are transparent about their actions in addressing the current problems within the industry, sometimes extending to address wider issues through clothing (because of course, fashion is a powerful tool that can’t be underestimated!) The industry is currently undergoing a shift that has been threatening to happen over the last couple of decades, a number of progressive brands breaking through that are actively working towards a brighter and more innovative future for fashion.
Much of the negative impact of the fashion industry is a direct result of fast fashion, as it produces an alarming volume of clothes that isn’t created to last, despite the materials themselves taking years to decompose. Slow fashion is a concept developed as an antithesis to throwaway fashion, embracing the notion of buying less and wearing more, investing in quality pieces and rejecting flash-in-the-pan trends. Brands that identify as slow-fashion tend to focus their collections around wardrobe staples or variations of classic pieces that don’t date. Quality is key, with materials selectively chosen and often with elements of tailoring or craftsmanship involved in the making process. Pieces which are well made and fit the individual are held onto for a lot longer and can be passed down generations.
Textile wastage is a huge problem in the fashion industry. A whopping £160 million per year is sent to landfill, and 80% of textile landfill is from the fashion industry. Clearly this isn’t sustainable, but there are a number of ways in which sustainable fashion brands are tackling fashions textile waste. The most accessible method is the re-wear market, which involves pre-loved and vintage clothing being kept in circulation rather than landfill. A recent study by resale platform ThredUp shows that second-hand clothing looks set to take over traditional ways of buying clothes, showing just how popular it is becoming. Up-cycling and recycling textiles are another way sustainable fashion brands are addressing landfill problems, as for clothing that cannot be re-worn, it can be reborn as something else. All of this collectively reduces emissions, pollution and landfill, as it uses resources we already have without the need to create new materials. Uncaptive’s recycled range blends the finely milled fibres of discarded plastic bottles with scrap organic cotton fibres, addressing both textile and single plastic waste! GRS (Global Recycle Standard) is a useful label to look out for in recycled clothing, as it verifies responsible social, environmental and chemical practices in production.
Materials and processes
For those that prefer new materials, some are far better than others when it comes to sustainability, and often it is assumed that natural, biodegradable fibres are the most sustainable option. This viewpoint only takes into account the aftermath and not the resources needed to produce materials. For example, Tencel (lyocell) is very similar to viscose in that it is derived from wood pulp that has been converted into fibre. Both are considered to be semi-synthetic fabrics that are biodegradable, however whilst Tencel is created from renewable wood sources and is manufactured using environmentally friendly production processes, viscose relies on a chemically intensive process to break down the wood pulp and raises concerns of the release of carbon disulphide and salt by-products into the environment. Materials such as organic cotton, bamboo and hemp require less resources and by nature are gentler on the environment. There are a lot of sustainably focused businesses that use more organic and low impact materials in their ranges, including Uncaptive who have a great selection of organic cotton and bamboo garments and accessories! When buying organic, always check for the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) label, which verifies that at least 70% of the fibres are organic cotton produced through environmentally and socially responsible means. You’ll often find that with sustainable fashion, ethics tend to go hand in hand which is where a lot of the confusion comes from, as the terms are often used interchangeably.
Ethical fashion is garments and accessories that have been produced as humanely as possible, and often with social and societal benefits being part of a brands ethos. Ethical fashion covers the welfare of workers from crop to shop, ensuring products are cruelty-free, and addressing ethical issues in the industry whether they be related to workers payment or unrealistic expectations of how we should look.
Welfare of Workers
The most important and commonly talked about factor in ethical fashion is the welfare of workers. Quite often when we talk about this, we focus on the factory workers who are a massive part of the industry, but there are also those working at the stages of growing crops, producing fibres, spinning yarn, weaving and knitting fabric, and dyeing and finishing fabric, before it ends up in the sewing room. Ideally, ethical fashion should treat workers fairly at every stage of the process, including design, retail and everything in-between. The Fair Wear Foundation is a non-profit that works with garment brands, factories, trade unions, NGOs and governments to improve working conditions for those in the garment industry. Their standards include:
No forced labour
No discrimination in employment
No exploitation of child labour
The right to form and join trade unions
Payment of a living wage
Reasonable working hours
Safe and healthy working conditions
Legally binding employment relationship
More can be found on their website about the work that they do, and like the previously mentioned certifications, their tag will be found in any FWF approved garment!
Find out more about them on our blog.
Welfare of Animals
In ethical fashion, it is important that any animal products used in production are cruelty-free. Although there’s a high chance most animal products in the fashion industry have involved some form of unethical practice, there are brands who consciously research and use ethically sourced wool in their products such as Study 34 and TISKA London, where they ensure the animals are well cared for and aren’t subjected to cruel practices such as mulesing. Some ethical consumers say animal products shouldn’t be used at all, however others may not mind if garments are pre-loved, as they tend to fit sustainable fashion values, as they are natural, biodegradable, and can often last generations when cared for properly. Fur and leather have always been an emotive topic, with the debate between real and faux ongoing in the industry due to their ethical and sustainable pitfalls. Many high-profile fashion houses have recently started to exclude real fur from their companies, including Gucci, Burberry and Armani, and companies like our beloved Elvis & Kresse have partnered with Burberry to recycle their leather waste.
Society and Community
Socially responsible brands that give back to communities or promote positive values are on the rise, with more people engaged with feminist movements and social causes. As well as being able to have environmentally friendly, ethically produced clothing in your wardrobe, you can now also donate to environmental charities, support marginalised artisans in developing countries and pay for underprivileged girls in Africa to gain an education whilst you’re at it! As well as giving back to communities, more fashion brands are conscious of the messages they send out to women and girls in particular, and are addressing issues such as body image and unrealistic expectations through more realistic fashion photography, even embracing ‘flaws’ such as stretchmarks, cellulite and body hair. Collectively this all works towards a more positive and inclusive fashion industry, however a brands feminist message can be easily undermined if the women making their products are subjected to abuse in the factories they work from.
Hopefully this post makes sense of sustainable and ethical fashion, what defines them and how they’re able to go hand in hand. The examples I’ve mentioned are some of the biggest examples of sustainable and ethical fashion, but of course, there is a lot more out there! I think it’s important not to get overly concerned with labelling, however it’s great to see more brands than ever making conscious decisions to ensure their businesses have a positive impact, and are influencing for the better.
This article was written by Melanie, who is the director of Melanie Kyles. She is a contemporary embroidery artist based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
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