Many will recognize the rewarding feeling of a new outfit, but is it ethical and sustainable? Which begs the question, how to shop ethically for clothes?
Picking up the latest style or a wardrobe refresh can feel great. But every time you buy a new outfit, you complete a chain of events, from growing and manufacturing the materials through production and shipping that all impact the environment. However, you’ll find a huge difference in the impact of that bargain-priced half-polyester fast fashion item through ethically produced clothing made to last.
Ethical fashion is a socially and environmentally responsible production and consumption system. It takes care to minimize the negative impacts of every step in the journey of your clothes from crop to home and tries to ensure that each stage is eco-friendly and morally ethical.
Moral ethics, in this sense, may refer to our collective conscience as a society. Ethical fashion concerns itself with issues of fair trade, humane working conditions, environmental impact, and sustainability.
Related: Check out our selection of ethical and sustainable clothing brands, sustainable yoga clothes, and upcycled clothing brands, all practicing clothing production better for people and the planet.
Fast fashion, the prevalent system of fashion production currently, is unsustainable. It is a way of designing, producing, and distributing clothing very quickly and cheaply. Although it has made clothes inexpensive, it has also encouraged a careless attitude towards consumption. Clothing, which we used to consider a careful purchase decision, may now be bought on a whim and disposed of at will.
Manufacturers often produce fast fashion products cheaply, thanks to a unique supply chain that capitalizes on cheap labor from low-cost countries. However, consumers need to understand that clothes cost more than the money they pay. Apart from money, an environmental and social cost is attached to every item in our wardrobe.
We list some issues ethical fashion hopes to solve below
There are multiple reports of poor treatment of workers in low-cost countries where most big fashion brands source their labor. These countries include Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, and India. Many of them do not earn what we consider a living wage. A lot of times, the factory bosses delay or seize their wages over minor errors. At worst, the working conditions are akin to modern slavery.
About 1,132 garment workers died in Bangladesh when the Rana Plaza collapsed in 2013. Many more incidents have occurred due to unsafe working environments. Quite a number of garment workers are in their teenage years, and they do not exempt these young people from the ill-treatment meted out by adults. Producers often coerce them into working overtime, cramped into overcrowded and unhygienic dormitories. Reports also exist pointing to child labor on cotton farms.
This injustice is not limited geographically, as immigrant workers often face similar situations in sweatshops in Europe and America. Workers who try to protest these ill treatments are usually dealt with violently. And for fear of losing their job or lives, many workers suffer in silence2.
Fashion brands often deny responsibility for the treatment of these workers as they do not directly employ them. However, suppose more consumers veered towards brands that ensure the people who sew their outfits are safe and paid well. In that case, we may further encourage other brands to pay attention and become involved in ensuring workers’ welfare.
There is also unfair trade, where intermediaries rip off illiterate farmers by buying their products at meager prices. They cheat the farmers who barely make profits.
We need land, water, and energy for textile production, but these resources are under intense pressure to meet the current demand. Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber; however, it is a water-intensive crop, which presents an enormous challenge to its sustainability.
An example of this dire situation is the Aral Sea in central Asia, which shrunk down to about 10% of its normal volume due to cotton farming in the area. Even fabric manufacturing consumes a lot of water. Producing 1 ton of dyed fabric requires about 200 tons of water4.
Also, we have fossil fuel, which provides the material for polymer-based fabrics like polyester. Such textiles account for 65% of clothing in the world today. Fossil fuel is a nonrenewable resource and could run out without conservation efforts.
One of the many downsides of purchasing from fast fashion brands is that they use inferior-quality materials and hurried craftsmanship. This results in clothing that falls apart in no time, which we send to landfills or incinerators.
Also, because clothes are usually stocked in excess by retailers, they often have deals that allow consumers to purchase clothes at almost nothing. People often buy clothes because they are good deals or it’s trending. All around the world, people have ‘inactive’ clothes hanging in their closets. According to WRAP, UK residents have over 30 billion euros worth of unworn clothes.
The world generates about 92 million tonnes of textile waste annually, and by 2030, we could produce 134 million tonnes yearly. In the UK, people throw away over 1 million tonnes of clothing every year. Americans throw away 85% of the clothes they consume annually3.
A clean environment promotes good health, and a polluted environment harms our health and lives. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which may double by 2030. Chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute the air and groundwater.
Cotton farming consumes 6% of the world’s insecticides and 16% of pesticides. This is more than any other major crop requires. Fibers undergo washing, bleaching, dyeing, and some other processes before becoming finished products. These processes usually involve toxic chemicals like lead, chromium IV, and formaldehyde.
These chemicals often find their way into water supply systems, making them unsafe for fish and humans. Sometimes, these chemicals remain on the clothes and are transferred to the skin of people who wear them1.
Another problem is plastic microfibers that are products of disintegrated synthetic fabrics. Polymer-based fibers are notorious for shedding microfibers during laundry. A load of polyester garments releases over 700,000 microfibers per wash.
Few product supply chains can compete with the fashion industry in terms of complexity. The process that turns raw materials into trendy outfits is long, and different specialists handle each stage.
As a result, we may find it hard to classify any cloth as 100% ethically made, but many sustainable brands have made significant strides to close the gap.
Organizations like Fair Trade, PETA, and Oeko-Tex evaluate brands for their ethical standards and award certifications to those who qualify. These certifications help distinguish brands just trying to ‘greenwash’ consumers from those that actually adhere to ethical standards.
Organic cotton seems to be the most favored ethical fiber. Although it still requires a lot of water, farmers do not have to use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Other materials include hemp and bamboo lyocell.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Oeko-Tex standards provide certification for ethical clothing brands that use fibers grown with no harmful chemicals. Keep in mind that an article of clothing only needs to be 70% organic to get a GOTS certificate.
We can consider silk, alpaca wool, and other animal fibers sourced without endangering the life and welfare of the animals ethically sourced as well. Cruelty-Free International and the Leaping Bunny issue certificates for products ethically made with animal products.
Whereas materials like leather and fur require animals’ death, advocates of ethical clothing tend to avoid their use. They use vegan alternatives instead. The Vegan Society and PETA will give a stamp of approval to clothing brands that don't use animal products at all. Note that some vegan alternatives, like vegan leather, are made from plastic, which isn't exactly eco-friendly.
Almost all synthetic clothing is made from one form of plastic or the other. Such clothing is not biodegradable.
Instead, they break down into microplastic fibers that pollute rivers and oceans. Many clothing brands tackle this problem by recycling polymer-based clothing, but these clothes still shed microfibers during laundry. However, since a large amount of synthetic clothing exists in circulation, recycling them rather than trying to remove them from the mainstream is more ethical.
While most people prefer biodegradable natural fibers that are safer for the environment when disposed of. Many other people consider recycled synthetic fibers as ethical, too. Another important thing to consider is how brands produce raw materials. Here, we need to look towards eco-friendly and sustainable farming practices.
Ethical brands also seek energy and resource efficiency during manufacture. Clothing production consumes a lot of water and electricity, and ethical brands seek ways to minimize consumption without reducing quality.
Ethical resource management uses less water and electricity and cuts back on pre-consumer waste. Some brands use recycled materials to reduce pressure on virgin materials and use green energy to power their factories. For example, they produce the best bamboo lyocell fabrics in a closed-loop system to recapture and reuse 99% of materials and chemicals used in production.
Ethical consumers note environmental pollution as one of their biggest concerns. As such, you want to avoid companies with track records of polluting the environment.
When shopping online, many ethical brands transparently state their production process, so it makes it easier to make your preferences depending on whose practices you agree with. You may not have that information on the clothes tag in a store, but brands with EcoCert, Oeko-Tex, Cradle2Cradle, and Bluesign certifications are great choices.
The durability of clothes depends on several factors, including the production process. Ethically made clothing is more robust and lasts longer. This is important in preventing money and resource waste.
The fast fashion industry has gained a reputation for caring more about profit than people. We can all vote with our choices to play a part in reducing the worst of these practices. To begin with, only companies that broker fair deals with factory owners can influence working conditions. If the company has bargained for an unfair production price, it can force them to turn a blind eye to unjust practices in the factories.
Ethical clothing companies make an effort to ensure that each worker along their supply chain earns a living wage, works on a reasonable schedule, and in a safe environment. They also ensure that factories do not use forced labor or child labor.
Some brands have special programs in place to help improve the living conditions of the workers. Some certifications given to socially responsible clothing companies include fair trade and fair wear certificates. These certify the standards brands must meet to treat garment workers fairly.
You have an essential role to play in promoting ethical fashion. Shopping ethically requires more effort than the usual shopping style. Below are some tips to guide you toward seeking an ethically made and environmentally friendly wardrobe.
Before buying clothes, be sure you need them and that they'll serve you for more than one occasion. If you wish to make your wardrobe ethical, it is best to avoid single-use items. Go for items with thoughtful and timeless designs, not some trending style that will fade out in a week.
Also, watch out for transformable clothes that can be worn in different ways. Many people have wardrobes overflowing with clothing yet still wear a few favorites repeatedly. Redundant garments and unwanted clothes will end up in landfills sooner or later.
If you desire occasional diversity in your wardrobe, consider renting clothes rather than buying new ones.
Sometimes, new ethical clothing can cost a bit more and may prove out of your day-to-day price range. The solution is one of the many things to love about clothing resale.
You can buy pre-loved clothes at a growing number of online thrift stores. You will also save money because second-hand clothing usually costs a lot less than brand-new items. You’ll also find buying second-hand clothing items increasingly popular on social media.
Clothing swaps are also a great way to keep clothes in circulation after the original owner tires of them. Keeping that pair of jeans and old coat in circulation until it reaches its end-of-use means that factories do not have to produce new items at breakneck speed.
Something you need to keep in mind when shopping ethically is that quality beats quantity every time. Don't buy many inferior quality clothes that fall apart after a few months simply because they only cost loose change. Instead, get high-quality clothing that will stay in use for years.
This way, your clothes are still in good condition when it's time to donate, swap or resell. A lot of charity shops can only accept clothes that are still wearable, so if you want the money you spend on clothes to benefit someone other than yourself, buy quality.
One reason you want to buy clothes ethically in the first place is to play your part in providing social justice for garment workers. Take the time to research brands you like and find out how exactly they uphold human rights principles along their chain of supply. It is essential to look beyond certifications and do a little extra digging into a brand’s social responsibility.
It is equally important to check that the clothing is eco-friendly before you buy them. A quick look at the tag for the list of materials or certifications can help you choose to buy fair trade and make an eco-friendly choice.
Buying ethically made clothing is not the end of the process. You need to use your clothes ethically as well. Here are some things you can do to get the best out of your ethically made clothes.
Try to repair broken zippers, loose hems, and buttons as much as possible, and do it quickly, too. This is because delaying repairs can cause you to push faulty items into a corner till they become redundant.
Also, don't be afraid to alter clothes you no longer want to wear into designs you would prefer or at least try experimenting with. You reduce your carbon footprint when you use items already in circulation rather than making new purchases.
After careful use of your ethically made clothes, don't just dispose of them in the trash. You can complete the ethical process by recycling them. There are a lot of ways to approach recycling, and you can donate to thrift stores or charities like the Salvation Army.
Our shopping habits affect the environment and lives of garment workers, but we can mitigate the effects of ethical shopping. It is time to stop believing in the lie of zero consequences popularized by fast fashion companies and choose ethically made clothing.
Undoubtedly, shopping for ethically made clothes is more work than simply walking into a shop and buying whatever catches your fancy. But you’ll find the effort well worth the time to reduce the negative impact our fashion habit has on people and the planet. Take these tips with you as you embark on your sustainable fashion journey.
Akarslan F., Demiralay H. (2015) Effects of textile materials harmful to human health. ICCESEN 2014. VOL 128. DOI: 10.12693/APhysPo1A.128.B-407
|Ertekin, Zeynep. (2017). The True Cost: The Bitter Truth behind Fast Fashion. Markets, Globalization & Development Review. 2. 10.23860/MGDR-2017-02-03-07.|
|Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environ Health 17, 92 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7|
Sachidhanandham A., Jaisri J (2020) Harmful Effects of Textile Waste.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.