Going into a grocery store, you can find numerous products that are sustainably harvested, non-GMO, or organic. When looking at almost anything from home furnishing to office products, it’s not as difficult as it once was to find products that are sustainably manufactured, environmentally sound, or recyclable. You may even be sipping a cup of fair trade certified coffee while reading this.
While we’ve collectively become more conscious of issues like sustainability and environmental impact over the last several decades, one area – which hasn’t been fully considered – is finally getting the attention that it deserves. Though it’s something that we (ironically) think a lot about, we often don’t consider the industry or product beyond the superficial understanding of how it looks or how much it costs. To gain a better comprehension, it’s time that we looked at a concept for those who care about what they wear: ethical fashion.
The first known use of the term can be found in a 2002 paper by S. Thomas and A. Van Kopplen of the School of Fashion & Textiles, RMIT University, entitled “Ethics and Innovation – Is an Ethical Fashion Industry an Oxymoron?”. Though being a newer concept, our term is a compounding of older words: the adjective ethical, first used in Lodowick Lloyd’s 1573 work, The Pilgrimage of Princes (“Certain ethical mathematics drawn out of divine and profane auctorities.”), and defined as ‘of or relating to moral principles’, while the noun fashion, though first entering the language in 1463’s Manners and Household Expenses of England in the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, this specific usage, defined as ‘with reference to attire or style’, originates in Richard Tracy’s 1544 Supplocation to King Henry VIII (“Sometime cap, sometime hood, now the French fashion, now the Spanish fashion.”).
Beyond what the term itself means, what is truly revolutionary is the concept behind it, which is the consideration of fair trade and sustainable/ecologically friendly industrial clothing production.
In order to better understand why this solution is necessary, it’s important to understand some of the most often cited problems with the clothing industry. At the base level, growing certain clothing fibres can be very resource-intensive: cotton, for example, requires a great deal of water to grow and is responsible for the use of 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides. The problem with usage of fur and leather is obvious. In production, textiles are often treated with chemicals, such as lead, nickel, chromium IV, aryl amines, phthalate and formaldehyde that are hazardous to the environment, labourers, and consumers. Producing these goods are labourers who work long hours, in potentially unsafe conditions, for poor pay. Finally, in an industry where fast fashion can promulgate up to 52 different styles within a year to boost sales, only around 20% of all clothes are reused or recycled, creating a massive amount of waste.
Ethical fashion is meant to be an umbrella solution by changing the consumer and industry mindset. Beginning with the raw materials, the idea is to promote plant-based fibres that are sustainable, require less resources to grow, and are more tolerant. Producing clothing should involve the use of natural dyes and treatments, the recycling of water, and safe working conditions for workers who receive a decent wage. At the consumer level, the importance lies in informing people of the differences between cheap, unethical fashion and ethical fashion (aka why this garment costs more) as well as getting back to understanding clothing as something that can have a much longer lifespan than a trend which may only last several weeks.
Writing in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, Catrin Joergens stated at the time that: “The findings from this research demonstrate little evidence that ethical issues have any effect on consumers’ fashion purchase behaviour. When it comes to fashion purchase, personal needs motivate consumers primarily to buy garments and take precedence over ethical issues.” Fast forwarding 13 years, with the ideas behind ethical fashion beginning to take root, there is hope and a chance of proving her early findings wrong.