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Is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Possible?

9 mins read. Published on 06 Jul 22, Updated on 09 Jul 22.
Is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion Possible?

With 85% of the world's textiles ending up in landfills or being incinerated, it is clear that the fashion industry faces a significant challenge that, at times, appears impossible.

The demand for the latest trends has led to a throw-away culture, which has devastating effects on the environment and is exploitative of workers in the supply chain.

There is a growing movement of consumers and sustainable fashion designers demanding more ethical clothing and sustainable fashion. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh highlighted the need for sustainability in the fashion industry. Over 1,100 garment workers were killed in the tragedy. Still, the question remains: can fashion be ethical and sustainable while meeting demands and remaining profitable? 

A Fast Fashion Future? The Current State of the Fashion Industry

Wearable art is often beautiful, but it can damage the environment. High-quality clothes and accessories often require lots of energy and resources to produce, resulting in a large carbon footprint and a lot of waste.

The True Cost documentary gave us alarming figures, including that we purchase around 80 billion new pieces of clothing globally every year, which is 400% more than 20 years ago. According to several United Nations groups, a lack of sustainability in the fashion industry is responsible for approximately 10% of the world's carbon emissions and nearly 20% of the world's water waste. It is also the second-largest consumer of water, and textile dyeing is the second-largest contributor to water pollution.

One reason for this is that a significant portion of clothing is made from synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic. When these materials are washed, they release tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic called microplastics. Some 35% of all microplastics in our oceans result from washed textiles, putting ocean life at risk and leading to the contamination of our food supply.

In addition to the effects of fashion on the environment, it is also one of the main culprits of unfair labour practices, forced labour and child labour. Much of the textile industry's supply chain requires low-skilled labourers, and some processes (such as cotton picking) are better with tiny fingers. There are an estimated 151.6 million child labourers around the world, with half of them working in hazardous conditions. This includes children working in fashion supply chains.

With these facts in mind, we must assess the question: can fashion be ethical and sustainable or is the industry too far gone for a workable solution?

What is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion? 

Before we discuss this question in depth, we need to make sure we understand what we mean by "ethical and sustainable fashion". The terms are often used as buzzwords without a clear understanding of their meaning.

Ethical and sustainable fashion are intricately linked but slightly different concepts. One deals with the moral principles of fashion production, while the other deals with environmental impact and reusability.

As the name suggests, ethical clothing concerns the ethics behind clothing - who made the piece, its origins, and how it was made. Ethical clothing is made with the intention of reducing harm to people, animals, and the environment. This includes everything from the design and production of the clothing to its distribution. Ethical clothing brands emphasise transparency with consumers about their use of materials, dyes, labour, and sourcing.

On the other hand, sustainable fashion is more commonly used to define how fashion impacts the environment. Similar to ethical clothing, it involves a considered approach to minimise its ecological impact during every step of the production chain. Sustainable fashion would be one where clothes are worn for as long as possible and then upcycled or recycled into new clothing.

Ethical clothing and sustainable fashion are intrinsically linked but have different definitions. Ethical clothing requires a sustainable fashion approach and vice versa.

A sustainable fashion solution: Is industry reform possible?

Exciting trends have emerged that may indicate we could be looking at a more sustainable fashion industry when it comes to how ethical clothing is produced.

Consumers demanding ethical and sustainable fashion 

The fashion ecosystem comprises a range of stakeholders, including buyers, designers, manufacturers, and the government. Designers are vital in setting trends and driving consumer demand. However, buyers are still the ones calling the shots regarding what is produced. The government is responsible for intervening when fashion production contravenes labour or environmental laws. 

We can move towards more ethical and sustainable practices within the industry when these stakeholders align and commit to a greener future.

Consumers are one of the most powerful forces in creating change, driving the demand for what manufacturers produce.

On this note, Nosto's poll shows that consumers support sustainable fashion but won't pay more for it. This means that to stay profitable, the industry manufacturers will need to innovate even more radically to produce sustainable and affordable fashion. 

The good news is that there's growing awareness of what sustainable fashion means for our environment's future, hopefully translating to increased pressure for industry reform.


The future of fast fashion brands is unclear

Fast fashion – a production model based on replicating runway trends as quickly and cheaply as possible – is undeniably a booming market. Fast fashion brands account for 10% of global pollution - even more than total emissions from global air travel. The fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, from manufacturing and transportation to clothing ending up in landfills.

According to investment firm UBS, fast fashion may experience a decrease in revenue of 10-30% over the next 5-10 years. It is clear that fast fashion brands won't be profitable forever, leaving room for ethical and sustainable fashion brands to enter the gap.

Another major issue with fast fashion is their complex supply chain, often involving many suppliers in a wide geographical area, which increases carbon emissions.

Consumers have also shifted to wearing vintage, thrifts, upcycled, and recycled ethical clothing due to a greater awareness by younger generations of the environmental impact of fast fashion brands.

According to a recent report, there are 3,943 second-hand stores in the UK, with sales increasing by 17.6% over the past two years. This is a significant increase and shows that more and more people are interested in buying second-hand goods.

Some positive news is that the second-hand clothing market is expected to be twice the size of the fast fashion market by 2030.

Ethical and sustainable fashion is still a niche market. Still, there are positive signs that it could become more significant in the future. 

Sustainable fashion designers have agency

In reality, clothing designers have a voice in how their work is manufactured and whether they're creating ethical clothing and sustainable fashion. Increasingly, many sustainable fashion designers are invested in minimising the environmental impact of their clothing and looking to use recycled or ethically sourced materials. For instance, Lauded UK designer Stella McCartney only uses organic cotton, ethically sourced wool, regenerated cashmere, and recycled textiles in her ethical clothing.

Simply reducing the number of collections designers put out a year would make a difference in lowering production volumes. Most European brands used to release two collections per year, but now they release as many as 24.

Most fashion week events now make sustainability an imperative. This year, the Swedish Fashion Council cancelled Stockholm's Fashion week, deeming it wasteful and calling for it to focus on more sustainable alternatives. This shows how seriously designers are starting to take sustainable fashion and the power they have to make a change.


Ethical clothing manufacturing

Fashion manufacturers can use many organic materials instead of traditional materials in clothing. This includes organic cotton as well as 'rapid renewables' like bamboo. These materials are less harmful to the environment. They do not require the use of chemicals, solvents, dyes, or treatment processes.

At a manufacturing level, technology is a considerable driver in reducing the amount of energy, water and materials used to create clothes. They achieve this through newly invented colour diffusion technology, making it 95% more eco-friendly. Cosmos Studio is a sustainable apparel start-up brand based in Hong Kong. They have created an eco-friendly shirt that uses less water in production than any other type of shirt.

Additionally, garment worker exploitation is most likely to happen in textile factories. An article in The Guardian reports that workers in UK garment factories have been systematically underpaid by £27 million. We need to make systemic changes and push for better enforcement of fair labour conditions for clothing industry workers to change the global situation.

#PayUp is a UK-based group that encourages brands to honour their commitments to workers, like those in Leicester who were paid less than the national minimum wage. No Sweat is a grassroots campaign that uses protests, online auctions, and activist gatherings to support sweatshop workers worldwide and encourage ethical practices.

Government moves to more ethical and sustainable fashion 

Governments are responsible for intervening when fashion production contravenes labour or environmental laws and have the power to dictate manufacturing practices and hold companies accountable for their actions.

The UK has been working to reduce waste and improve the fashion industry's sustainability. In 2021, it introduced the Waste Prevention Programme for England, which targets reducing waste, increasing action on clothes production, and holding manufacturers accountable for textile waste.

In the US, a proposed Act would require all fashion companies that generate more than £82.5 million in revenue from business in New York to map at least 50% of their supply chains and disclose environmental and social impacts in public reports.

We can only hope that the trend towards more sustainable fashion continues and picks up speed.

Final thoughts: Is ethical and sustainable fashion possible? 

We need to find a balance between what consumers want and what is sustainable and ethical to make sustainable and ethical clothing financially viable for all stakeholders.

Though the industry's current state looks dire, we've seen several developments that indicate a move in the right direction. This includes increased consumer awareness around the benefits of sustainable fashion, manufacturer innovation, designers becoming more invested in ethical clothing, and governments implementing regulations in support of sustainable fashion.

Sustainability in the fashion industry may still be a distant dream. The idea that fast fashion brands will cease to exist is a long shot. Still, developments are promising, and it certainly looks like sustainable and ethical fashion is here to stay. We, as consumers, have the power to decide which direction the fashion industry will go. It is up to us to make sure that it is a sustainable direction. is committed to making sustainable shopping accessible to everyone by partnering with socially and ethically responsible brands, designers, and suppliers. Visit our site to find out how you can shop ethically and support sustainability in the fashion industry.


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