In the fashion-for-good world, the terms “ethical” and “sustainable” are often used interchangeably, both seeming to express slow fashion and an understanding of the industry’s effect on people and the planet. They have entered the mainstream as tools for social impact and environmentalism, respectively. Taking a closer look, these terms have distinct definitions, yet they work in a complementary manner  — achieving optimal justice requires a symbiotic relationship between both. The bottom line? Companies can’t promote workers’ rights while creating products that destroy the environment, and they can’t label themselves as “earth-friendly” while endangering their workers.

So what’s the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion, and more importantly, how do they intersect?

Ethical Fashion

As its name suggests, ethical fashion focuses on social altruism and worker protections at every stage of garment production. We’ve covered topics in ethical fashion ranging from workers’ protests against resignation and unjust wages to COVID-19’s ramifications on clothing makers, always advocating not only for the environment fashion’s materials come from, but also the women who make our clothing.

Ethical fashion is human-centered: its critical lens assesses how every process in the supply chain impacts garment workers.

Organizations like ShareHope are dedicated to ameliorating labor standards for garment workers abroad and educating consumers on purchase power. However, while some brands have fostered fair working conditions in the fashion industry, they must also cultivate eco-friendly practices in order to be truly ethical, as the two are intricately woven together.

As it stands now, mistreatment of garment workers has become all too common in this trillion dollar industry. With the majority (97%) of garment manufacturing outsourced to the Global South, garment workers — especially women, who contribute to 85% of the workforce — are more vulnerable to unfair conditions; clothing brands can exploit workers more easily due to relaxed labor laws that allow for extreme hours, low pay, and perilous working conditions.

A garment worker in Los Angeles named Mercedes Cortez described her factory work environment as vermin-infested to The New York Times. She reported an average wage of only $4.66 an hour, compared to the $7.25 an hour required by federal minimum wage. Female garment workers for Gap and H&M detailed the gender-based violence they endured from supervisors who coerced them to make stringent production deadlines. In Bangalore, India, Radhika recounted being yelled at, hit, and kicked for not meeting targets; conditions did not change after reporting the incident, but she stayed in the position because of financial need to support her family. Sultana, a production-line manager in Bangladesh, discussed the incessant sexual harassment she received from her superior; when she filed the experiences with the police, her supervisor fired her.

The endless human rights violations garment workers endure range from ambient toxins to direct interpersonal violence. Though powerful, these stats and first-hand accounts only scratch the surface of what millions working in the fashion industry around the globe persist through to maintain their livelihoods.

However, ethical fashion doesn’t cease where environmental justice picks up. Rather, the two are intricately linked, with harm to the environment inevitable causing problems for those making the clothing.

Multiple studies have detailed the damage factory fumes can cause to reproductive health. Considered one of the world’s most polluted waterways, the Citarum River in Indonesia acts as dumping ground for chemical waste discarded by the hundreds of textile factories lining the riverbank. Providing drinking and communal washing water for 28 million Indonesians, the river contains dangerous levels of mercury, iron, and lead largely from printing and dyeing, which has resulted in inhabitants having skin diseases, risk of cancer, and other health issues. Skin infections afflict 60% local children. Over half the adult population works in the garment factories, which makes up 68% of the industry along the bank.

However, these alarming working conditions don’t exist only in the Global South. Viscose rayon, a common fabric, engenders the deforestation of 120 million trees but also poses major threats to occupational health. Falsely greenwashed as an eco-friendly material, rayon is fabricated using carbon disulfide, a toxin that ravages workers physically and cognitively. Poisonous fumes caused an epidemic of mental cases at a Delaware rayon factory in 1933. Despite the documented history, current carbon disulfide exposure limits in the United States are considered lax on a universal scale, matching those of only India and Thailand.

Sustainable Fashion

Unlike ethical fashion, the term “sustainable fashion” tends to concentrate more on the environmental aspect of garment production. While it does not center as much on workers’ well-being as ethical fashion, it does examine how fashion threatens human health in an environmental context. Like ethical fashion, the ideology analyzes ways to strengthen every level of garment creation in a more eco-friendly manner to achieve environmental justice. Goals like using efficient and minimal natural resources and energy sources in production and reducing, reusing, recycling, and repairing garments are at the movement’s forefront.

Sustainable fashion aims to both enhance the current practices AND transform consumer patterns. Brands such as Rothy’s integrate innovative sustainability approaches — like vowing to make shoes from only recycled plastics — into their blueprint. However, while many companies have made strides in environmental sustainability, many fall short in supporting ethical practices. For example, various sustainable fashion companies have recently come under heat for using organic cotton harvested by forced labor in China.

The urgency for sustainable practices is multifold: the industry generates toxins that sicken workers in factories, fabrics containing microplastics that devastate our oceans, and greenhouse gases contributing to 10% of all emissions.

Used to grow cotton for fabric, pesticides and its runoffs have caused disproportionately high rates of cancer and birth defects for not only workers but those living miles away from a plant in Punjab, India, both a sustainability and ethically-linked concern. To meet high demands of fast fashion consumers, the majority of harmful chemical byproducts disproportionately devastates communities of color, the crux of environmental racism. Ironically, the glutton of tossed-out clothes  often ends up polluting their lands of origins. Aside from clothes shipped overseas, around 11.2 million tons of textiles are discarded in landfills annually.

Intersection of Sustainable and Ethical Fashion: A Necessary Relationship

The rise of both ethical and sustainable fashion requires individual behavior and widespread policy changes. Both ideologies must be upheld simultaneously to do good for workers and good for the world. The symbiotic relationship between ethical and sustainable fashion holds more power together than separately.

After all, what good is organic cotton if harvested with slave labor? And what good is the living wage payment of a garment worker if her body is threatened by the toxins being output during the sourcing and sewing processes?

A single clothing item’s footprint indelibly molds our land, our water, our air — and each other. Our purchase power to choose companies is important, but it’s not enough. Sustainable and ethical fashion both call on revolutionizing the social, economic, and environmental systems in which the fashion industry functions. A shift is needed: companies must treat workers fairly and use earth-friendly materials — not one or the other. Companies must support the wellbeing of the individual worker and the environment.

Brands cannot be truly sustainable unless they’re also ethical, and vice versa. Though using earth-friendly materials is beneficial for all, the persisting unfair treatment of workers exemplifies the sometimes disingenuous nature of trendy environmental movements. The lack of intersectionality in protecting vulnerable populations is the antithesis of sustainability’s mission to reach environmental justice. The production of and access to sustainable products for consumers cannot come at the cost of violence of human wellness.

4 Ways to Support Ethical and Sustainable Fashion

1) Limit your shopping: The most sustainable shopping you can do is no shopping at all. Take Remake’s #nonewclothes pledge to invest in yourself and the planet. Think of fun new ways to style your already-owned items and consider swapping clothes with friends.

2) Shop sustainable and ethical: Opt for second-hand clothing first by shopping virtually on sites like ThredUp and in-person at local thrift stores by using directories like The Thrift Shopper. When buying new pieces, recognize your purchase power and #wearyourvalues. Support sustainable and ethical brands that pass Remake’s criteria.

3) Educate yourself on intersectional environmentalism to understand the relationship between privilege and sustainable fashion. Encourage brands to become more inclusive and accessible.

4) Learn about greenwashing. With the popularization of sustainability, some brands use marketing techniques to appear eoc-friendly and trendy while not actually upholding those practices. Make informed decisions by investigating before you buy.

The bottom line: In order for clothes to be truly ethical they must also be sustainable and vice-versa. These complementary ideas must function in the same paradigm to reach their ultimate purposes.

Learn More About How Intersectionality Plays a Vital Role in Sustainable Fashion

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