What’s the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion? A beginners’ guide to the terminology

What’s the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion? A beginners’ guide to the terminology

‘Ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are two major buzzwords in the fashion world right now, but what exactly do these terms mean? What makes organic cotton better than regular cotton, for example, and just because a garment is biodegradable, does this also mean it is ethical?

There’s so much jargon slinging and greenwashing by brands, I totally understand if you feel overwhelmed. However, even reading this post shows you are willing to educate yourself and that is a heeeeuuuge head start in the pursuit of becoming a more considerate consumer. Well done! 

In this post I’ve broken down the ethical/sustainable fashion world into easy to understand terms, so you can continue your thoughtful fashion journey with confidence. 

Alice wears tencel blouse and cotton wrap skirt, both from sustainable British brandsI’m wearing: tencel blouse from People Tree; wrap skirt from Johnstons of Elgin; second-hand bag; old boots


Ethical fashion – an overview

The term ‘ethical fashion’ is the overarching term for the ethical/ sustainable segment in fashion, so this could apply to different elements – whether that be garments that are biodegradable, or produced in compliance with Fairtrade policies, or developed in factories audited with workers’ rights in mind.

However, if we really boil it down, for any garment to be considered ‘ethical’, it should be crafted with safe, humane, and all together socially responsible policies at its core. That means an item could in theory be sustainable (i.e. planet-friendly, see below for the full definition) yet NOT be ethical. 

Let’s break that down even more. So a company like, say, H&M *cough* could produce a t shirt from organic cotton. Great! Buuuuut, that sustainable t shirt could be produced by workers on as little as £25/ month, in crumbling, overcrowded, and ultimately hazardous factories, with no breaks or sick pay. Suddenly the fact that the t shirt is biodegradable and grown using rainwater seems much less significant. 

You might have seen #whomademyclothes on Instagram or Twitter. This hashtag from Fashion Revolution was created to encourage conversations around ethical clothing production, focusing on the very real, human impact of our wardrobes. The #whomademyclothes call to arms exists to challenge global fashion companies to put people ahead of profit, and ensure their garment workers are seen as people rather than cogs in the fashion machine. 

Truly ethical fashion takes the whole supply chain into account, from growing the raw materials, to creating the fabric, then fashioning the garments, and even how profits are distributed. Ethical certifications to look out for include:

  • Fair Trade – companies must pay sustainable prices throughout the production process
  • SA8000 – social compliance in factories across eight principles, including fair pay and no child workers, created by Social Accountability International
  • Fair Wear Foundation – features a code of labour practices based around the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights

The ‘ethical’ label is arguably the most complex concept of all to grasp –  heck, most companies don’t even get what it means! However, there are businesses really breaking the mould here, such as Everlane in the US who offer full transparency of the production process, People Tree who were one of the first to produce their garments to Fair Trade standards, and Armed Angels, who are part of the Fair Wear Foundation and GOTS certified.

The cowl back detailing of People Tree tencel top

Who says ethical brands have to be boring? I’m infatuated with the cowl back detailing on this People Tree top.

Sustainable fashion – the best fabrics for the planet

Here’s the other side of the ethical coin: sustainability. This specifically refers to the materials a garment is made from, and the environmental impact of the production process (e.g. carbon emissions, chemicals used in production etc.). 

The most sustainable fabrics are biodegradable, natural fibres. Not only are these fibres better for the planet, but they feel amazing on the skin too. Seriously, after wearing this lyocell top by People Tree on a hot summer’s day, I was converted! Natural fibres have moisture wicking properties, so no more sticky/ sweaty/ stinky feeling. 

Let’s be clear: just because a fabric is biodegradable doesn’t automatically make it sustainable. In fact, conventional cotton and viscose are two of the worst offenders, despite being made from 100% natural fibres. 

Some of the most sustainable materials you should look for include:

  • Organic cotton – chemical-free cotton, primarily produced using rainwater
  • Linen – made from the flax plant, and exceptionally biodegradable 
  • Hemp – a plant that grows in abundance using limited water, which is great for making shoes and bags (think that rope-like fabric you see)
  • Lyocell – made from eucalyptus leaves in a water-resourceful way, often used for denim-feel items
  • EcoVero – a type of viscose made with wood from sustainable forests, in a process with 50% fewer emissions and water usage 
  • Pinatex – I love this one! This is vegan/ faux leather, made from pineapple leaves. Awesome.
  • rPET – recycled polyester – this is good as conventional polyester uses finite resources like oil to make it
  • Wool and cashmere – the animals renew their biodegradable coats every year, though check for any animal welfare credentials (New Zealand wool is a good place to start)

Fast v. slow fashion – what you need to know

You’ll no doubt have read plenty of content slamming the ‘fast fashion’ industry. A lack of ethical and sustainable credentials aside, the main issue with fast fashion is its constant encouragement that we need to buy MORE.

The definition of fast fashion is: an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers. Fast fashion brands release new styles weekly – or often daily- with the quality and longevity of a garment falling bottom of the list of their priorities. The novelty, trend-led design of these garments means consumers don’t want to wear them long-term, even if they did last.

By contrast, slow fashion brands want to provide you with pieces you’ll have for years. Not only is the quality much higher, but the styles are more ‘classic’. Not that this means boring: simply, clothes that don’t follow micro trends but are designed to be worn, re-worn, then restyled again and again. 

For a brand to truly fit into the ‘slow fashion’ category, it should minimise its product drops. That means the company might offer a spring, summer, autumn, and winter collection each year, rather than release new styles on a regular basis. 

The point of slow fashion is to buy less, and buy better. Affordable British brands that fit this mentality include Komodo and Thought Clothing.

Close up of People Tree cowl back tencel blouse, worn by ethical stlye blogger Alice

What about greenwashing?

If you’ve spent any time looking into ethical fashion then you’ll definitely have come across this jazzy term. Greenwashing refers to brands overhyping small changes they’ve made towards sustainability, usually in an attempt to diffuse attention from its less savoury practices.

A typical example of this is a fast fashion brand releasing a capsule recycled polyester collection, as we’ve seen from companies including Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, and ASOS. Some brands exclusively exist to greenwash a company’s wider unethical policies, such as Arket for the H&M group. 

Greenwashing in a tricky one. On the one hand, any move towards sustainability is a positive, and I personally remain optimistic that an increase in consumer demand will make brands increase their investment in this sector. HOWEVER, the reality is that lots of these companies are merely pandering to a current social trend (much like the way everything seems to be labelled ‘vegan’ these days, whether that’s relevant or not), without showing any real commitment to improving their business model. 

There’s also the issue of sustainability v. ethical – sure, Boohoo’s recycled collection may be better for the planet, but is it any better for the people who made it? And what about the ‘buy, buy, buy’ message of fast fashion: do any of these allegedly ethical companies actually want to encourage longevity in our wardrobes?

It’s up to you whether you want to support these companies’ more sustainable offerings, after weighing up the pros and cons. It can be a good way to dip your toe into sustainable fashion, but if you’re passionate about ethical style there are plenty of other companies who deserve your money more. 

Hopefully you now feel armed with the knowledge to start or continue along your ethical and sustainable fashion journey! I’ll be writing about other hot topics soon – such as secondhand shopping, vegan textiles, and the reality about brand transparency – so check back for more information.

For now, feel free to DM me on Instagram if you have more ethical fashion questions.



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