Demystifying Labels: What is the Context Behind Conscious, Sustainable and Ethical Fashion?

Fashion can be understood as a cultural barometer measuring what society celebrates aesthetically and representing what we as consumers bestow value on. Following the ascent of the Millennia, fashion has only grown to fuel multi-million dollar industries, with countries like Bangladesh employing over 5 million people in textile production alone. 

Words: Mariam Sheikh



As fashion has become more accessible, nevertheless, opportunities for social and environmental exploitation have increased, influencing the emergence of corporate campaigns that promote fairness and sustainable practises in the fashion industry.

This response to fast fashion has led to the rise of several sub categories, referred to as eco, 'conscious' or ethical fashion. It would be prudent at this point to emphasis that there is no universal definition for ethical or sustainable fashion, as classifications will change depending on the company or designers endorsing them. However, the principle of producing fashion that respects human rights and the environment is a common thread that connects these various categories.


Demystifying Labels: The Context Behind Conscious, Sustainable and Ethical Fashion #Savant

Image: Gunda Hafner Ltd. 

Sustainable Fashion: This category refers to the environmental effects of textile production, which may include the use of pesticides in growing cotton, dyes, water and waste treatment, energy reduction, the usage of recycled materials and sometimes even packaging.

Sass Brown of Eco Fashion Talk describes sustainability as ‘the conservation of life through ecological balance – human, animal, vegetable and planetary. A self-sustaining system is a system that does not take more from the environment than it gives back ; it does not deplete resources, but sustains itself. In clothing, it means sourcing and production that do not pollute through the process of manufacture and do not deplete non-renewable resources, whether those are planetary or human’.

Slow Fashion: This generally refers to the design and quality of a garment and the intention behind how it was made. It involves buying clothing made of durable fabrics and high quality textiles, and avoiding fluctuating trends so the wearer can invest in pieces that will last for years to come.

Ethical or Fair Fashion: As well as environmental sustainability, ethical fashion emphasises the 'human' aspect of creating clothing, encompassing everything from how the cotton was grown to how garment workers are treated and paid. This includes consideration for their safety (no sweatshops, child labour, worker abuse, or slavery involved), and impact on local communities.

The Victoria & Albert museum defines ‘ethical fashion’ as ‘an umbrella term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment and animal welfare.’

Elizabeth Cooney of the blog Fashion Conscious also emphasises the importance of an economic element to be included in the understanding of ethical and sustainable fashion. She writes that 'Poor working conditions and a massive carbon footprint are ultimately a result of an economic squeeze. When a consumer wants to pay less and buy more, the knock on effect (is) profound across the board. However, if we remove the sale of a garment, this also impacts negatively on business for manufacturers and farmers alike'.

"Using these new labels gives brands a more meaningful narrative, as the intense commercialisation of the industry has left many consumers disoriented and with a bad taste in the mouth."

Image: Liisa Soolepp

Image: Liisa Soolepp

Ultimately, any major shift in an industry as expansive as fashion takes time, as substantial change needs to be defined. Because, without early distinction, real understanding becomes diluted and any aspiration for sustainable impact becomes tricky without points of reference. Using these new labels gives brands a more meaningful narrative, as the intense commercialisation of the industry has left many consumers disoriented and with a bad taste in the mouth.

The presence of sustainable and ethical fashion, therefore, manifests as a reassure for buyers that a product is not just another mass produced good created in a foreign factory by nameless labour. And that businesses are prioritising how their clothing is made, while paying attention to whether the hands they have passed through were treated well.

I personally look forward to a time when the fashion industry will no longer need the classification of fair or sustainable fashion. When these principles will form the foundation of brands, rather than being seen as exceptions or diversions from business as usual. Change can already be seen with high street and luxury brands alike embracing sustainability. So this may very much become a future reality if not already an aspiration. Definitions for sustainable and ethical fashion will also continue to develop, as our understanding of complex supply chains and dynamic economic factors further evolve.