Wednesday 7 July 2021

Sustainable vs Ethical | Slow Fashion Simplified #1

CW: brief mention of gender-based violence, rape, and murder

Welcome to a new series on Another Ranting Reader! I have a couple of other blog series in the works so keep your eye out for those, but first, let me introduce you to Slow Fashion Simplified. This series aims to deconstruct terms relating to the fashion industry that often may seem confusing or are used a lot without real consideration for what they actually mean. I’m going to try to publish one instalment of this series every month (emphasis on try, they may be slightly more irregular than planned), and I’ll be focusing on a wide range of terms and issues, including greenwashing, union-busting, circularity, outsourcing, and the Garment Worker Protector Act (also known as SB62). Keep your eyes peeled for the rest of the posts in this series and if there’s anything you want to learn more about in the fashion industry, let me know! 

But first, we’re talking about what we mean by ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ fashion. 


These terms are often a lot by a wide variety of brands, organisations, and individuals, but while we’re using them we need to delve into what they actually mean and we mean when we use them. 


‘Sustainable fashion’ is used to focus on materials and processes’ impact on the environment (including dyes, pollution and the growth of raw materials). ‘Ethical fashion’ is mostly be used to refer to workers’ rights, for example, living wages, working conditions, maternity leave and sick pay. 


However, to me and many others in slow fashion spaces, for fashion to be sustainable, it has to be sustainable for the people who at all levels of the supply chain, and for something to be ethical, it must have ethical treatment of the environment. Like any binary, using these terms in such a separate way misses out a whole lot of nuance and complexities and doesn’t show how people and planet are truly interlinked. This is what is so frustrating about massive brands like H&M claiming to be ‘sustainable’ and yet not doing enough to prevent sexual and gender-based violence in their supply chains (demonstrated in their lack of action after the rape and murder of 21-year-old garment worker, Jeyasre Kathiravel) and are not committing to renewing the Bangladesh Accord, a legally-binding Accord requiring basic levels of health and safety. You simply cannot be sustainable if your workers are not protected and empowered.


Even in purely environmental terms, brands such as H&M who boast about their extended use of organic cotton (despite this only counting for a minimal amount of their entire production) but are still producing at rates that are ridiculously high and completely unnecessary.  Even organic cotton, often hailed as an incredible sustainable material, still has a significant environmental impact (mostly relating to water) and manufacturers need to ensure they are thinking critically about their use of it and if it is the best option. In a recent Remake Community Call, Nat Kelley highlighted how cotton farms are being created in areas where it really isn’t suited to the local environment. Nat particularly highlighted how more and more cotton is being grown in places like Australia, where the plant isn’t indigenous and which already have a history droughts and low-rainfall, which is further exacerbated by cotton’s heavy water usage. Don’t get me wrong, using organic cotton instead of inorganic cotton is certainly better for planet as it reduces water and chemical usage, and also reduces the harmful impact of a wide variety chemicals on the workers who farm it. Clothes brands and manufacturers need to think beyond one ‘fix-all’ fabric to ensure that their materials are adapted not only for the function of the garment they are creating, but also for the benefit of the environment where their clothes are produced. 


Similarly, the most environmentally friendly materials in the world will mean absolutely nothing if big brands don’t reduce their production rates. In their horrific documentary with Channel 4 last year, Missguided founder and CEO admitted that the brand listed over 3,500 new items a month, with over 50 per cent of their stock under one month old, and 90 per cent under three months old. Unsurprisingly, he also shared how in the past the brand had had issues with having too much leftover stock. With brands producing this number of new items, even if they try to use the best possible fabrics, they will still end up causing enormous harm to the planet and their workers. It is their business model which is fundamentally unsustainable and unethical. 


This is why, when discussing a more positive future of fashion, I prefer to use the term ‘slow fashion’ wherever possible. To me, this term encompasses the entire vision of ethical treatment of people and planet while also pushing back against capitalism’s demand for us to keep buying new items despite our complete lack of need for them. The terms ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ still suggest newness, which is the opposite of what we need to be striving for in the middle of a climate emergency. They are still useful terms, don’t get me wrong, and often need their own contexts, such as when talking about the histories of specific garments or when relating to businesses producing new clothes. 

If you like my work and have learned something from it, please consider helping support me (so I have more time to write posts and articles like these!) by buying me a virtual cuppa

If you liked this post you might like: 50 Questions to Ask Your Favourite Fashion Brands

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