What Is The Difference Between Sustainable And Ethical Fashion?

What Is The Difference Between Sustainable And Ethical Fashion: An In-Depth Analysis

Posted by Brent Ferguson on

Fashion is more than just clothes and accessories; it's an expression of our personality and values. As consumers, we're becoming increasingly conscious about the impact of our choices on the environment and society. This has led to the rise of sustainable and ethical fashion, concepts that are often used interchangeably but carry different meanings. Let's delve deeper into these notions to understand their true essence.

Understanding Sustainable Fashion

Sustainable fashion primarily focuses on reducing the environmental footprint of the clothing industry. It encompasses the entire lifecycle of a garment, from the sourcing of raw materials to its production, distribution, and disposal.

  • Sustainability in Raw Material Sourcing: Sustainable fashion promotes the use of low-impact materials. For instance, ECONYL®, a regenerated nylon made from discarded fishing nets and other nylon waste, is a popular choice for sustainable brands.

  • Green Production Practices: Sustainable brands also strive to minimize their energy consumption. This could mean running factories on renewable energy sources like solar or wind power.

  • Eco-friendly Packaging and Distribution: Sustainable fashion also extends to packaging. Brands use recycled paper packaging or other eco-friendly materials to reduce their environmental impact.

Despite these efforts, the fashion industry still has a long way to go. It's a resource-intensive industry that contributes to significant greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation. For instance, producing a single cotton T-shirt requires up to 2700 liters of water. Moreover, the industry generates around 92 million tonnes of textile waste annually.

What is the difference between sustainable and ethical fashion: A Human-Centric Approach

While sustainable fashion is environment-centric, ethical fashion focuses on the human aspect of the clothing industry. It emphasizes fair treatment and adequate payment for every individual involved in the garment production process.

The ethical fashion movement is particularly relevant in the Global South, where the majority of garment production is outsourced. Due to lax labour laws, workers in these regions are often subject to poor working conditions and low pay. As per Fashion Revolution, only about 2% of fashion workers globally earn a livable wage.

Moreover, women, who make up between 70% and 90% of the workforce in the fashion industry, are disproportionately affected by these issues. Cases of worker exploitation are not confined to developing countries either. For example, UK-based online retailer Boohoo was accused of paying staff £3 an hour, £5 below the minimum wage in 2020.

The Gray Area: Sustainable vs Ethical

There's a growing confusion among consumers regarding the difference between sustainable and ethical fashion. Since these terms have no legal definition, they are often used freely and interchangeably by brands, adding to the ambiguity.

However, it's essential to understand that sustainability and ethical practices are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. A truly responsible fashion industry should aim for both environmental sustainability and ethical labor practices.

The Need for a Dual Approach

The fashion industry of the future needs to be both sustainable and ethical to ensure its longevity and positive impact. Bad environmental practices invariably lead to human consequences. For instance, when chemicals from clothing manufacturing seep into rivers, it affects local people's food and crops. Similarly, improper disposal of plastic packaging results in microplastics in our waterways and eventually in our drinking water.

While it's commendable that brands are investing in sustainable practices like zero-waste packaging or eco-friendly materials, they must also address the ethical aspects of their operations. Only by prioritizing both elements can we create a positive industry for the planet and its inhabitants.

The Role of Ethical Fashion in Sustainable Practices

Ethical fashion and sustainability are intrinsically linked. The human rights violations endured by garment workers range from exposure to harmful chemicals to direct physical and mental abuse.

For instance, factory fumes can have a detrimental effect on workers' reproductive health. In Indonesia, the Citarum River, one of the world's most polluted waterways, serves as a dumping ground for chemical waste from textile factories. As a result, local residents suffer from skin diseases and other health issues due to the high levels of mercury, iron, and lead in the river.

The Environmental Impact of Sustainable Fashion

On the other hand, sustainable fashion focuses on the environmental implications of garment production. The industry generates toxins that sicken factory workers, releases microplastics that harm our oceans, and contributes to 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

For instance, the use of pesticides in cotton farming has led to high rates of cancer and birth defects among workers and nearby communities in Punjab, India. Additionally, about 11.2 million tons of textiles end up in landfills every year.

Merging the Two: The Need for a Symbiotic Relationship

The ultimate goal of both ethical and sustainable fashion is to revolutionize the social, economic, and environmental systems within the fashion industry. Companies need to ensure fair treatment of workers while using earth-friendly materials.

Brands cannot truly claim to be sustainable unless they're also ethical, and vice versa. The protection of vulnerable populations and the environment should go hand in hand to create a truly sustainable and ethical fashion industry.

Supporting Ethical and Sustainable Fashion: 4 Effective Strategies

  • Reduce Consumption: The most sustainable shopping is no shopping at all. Consider swapping clothes with friends or restyling your existing wardrobe.
  • Choose Ethical and Sustainable Brands: When buying new pieces, opt for brands that prioritize both ethical and sustainable practices. Support second-hand shopping by exploring thrift stores and online platforms like ThredUp.
  • Be Informed: Educate yourself on intersectional environmentalism to understand the relationship between privilege and sustainable fashion. Also, learn about greenwashing to make informed buying decisions.
  • Donate: Support organizations that promote ethical and sustainable fashion. Your donations can help create more awareness and bring about positive change in the industry.


In conclusion, for a garment to be truly ethical, it must also be sustainable, and vice versa. By supporting a symbiotic relationship between these two concepts, we can create a fashion industry that's good for both people and the planet.

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