Ethical vs. Sustainable Fashion: Is There A Difference?

When it comes to clothing, most of you reading this are likely concerned about where your clothes come from or the materials they are made out of and how they're affecting the environment. You may tell people you purchase "ethical" clothing while someone else with your same ideals will say they purchase "sustainable" clothing. So is there a difference? 

While the terms "ethical" and "sustainable" are similar and often used interchangeably, their definitions are different. The requirements for some piece of clothing to be deemed ethical are vague, as the idea of what is ethical will differ from person to person. However, there are a few key characteristics that are widely accepted as ethical.

  • Fair trade
  • Employing women or certain ethnic groups
  • Made without animal components
  • No animal testing
  • Donating part of the profits to a charity
  • Made in a developed country
  • Handmade
  • Fair wages paid
  • Contributing to preserve traditions of an ethnic minority
  • Revealing manufacturing locations and workforce policies
  • The product itself rises awareness or promotes an ideal or cause

If on that list you see (or don't see) something that you agree with, that's ok. Like I said, this is all subjective depending on your personal values and perceptions. It is, ultimately, the consumer's decision to judge whether something is ethical based on the facts behind the garment. 

When describing "sustainable" fashion, some key characteristics are: 

  • Made with organic fibers, sometimes certified by an international body like GOTS or USDA
  • Made with more eco friendly fabrics, like hemp or bamboo (which need less chemicals and/or water to be grown)
  • Natural origin of the dyes
  • Use of discarded fabrics
  • Upcycling of used materials
  • Made with recycled fabrics
  • Use of less toxic glues
  • Garments made to last for a long time

When reading these lists, I recognize a pattern that you probably have already caught on to. I notice that something considered ethical usually has human and animal rights as the top priority, i.e. fair wages, no animal testing, made without animal components, etc. The term sustainable largely refers to the environment. So, clothing made of organic or nontoxic materials would be considered sustainable. 

I'm sure many of you strive to purchase sustainable and ethical, but it's important to realize that sustainable clothing is not always ethical and vice versa. I've said this before and I'll say it again, ALWAYS DO YOUR RESEARCH. If you're curious as to whether a company is ethical or sustainable (or both) a simple Google search will answer that question.