What is the Difference Between Slow, Ethical and Sustainable Fashion? 4 Industry Insiders Tell Us What They Think

It can be difficult navigating the ever-evolving vocabulary in the fashion industry. We come across the terms ‘slow’, ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ fashion constantly, when researching for articles and interviewing designers. Although these are now commonly used terms, it’s easy to get them mixed up and feel as confused as ever. We wanted to make things a bit clearer for the first-time eco fashion consumers navigating the brave new world. So, Savant asked 4 industry influencers how they define the concepts of slow, ethical, and sustainable fashion.

Words: Johanna Raudsepp / Meri Frig

1. Emilia Wik, Head Designer at BYEM:

Image: Emilia Wik

Image: Emilia Wik

"Slow fashion is also about returning to a personal relationship with fashion."

What does slow fashion mean to you?

I think slow fashion has really risen up as a concept in opposition to the daily fast fashion trends, and therefore encompasses more than only sustainable and ethical production methods. Not to say that these aspects aren’t important, they are at the core of all slow fashion to ensure a fair future of fashion. But slow fashion is also about returning to a personal relationship with fashion. One where trends and seasons don’t matter, but where your ethics and aesthetics seamlessly unite, and you can escape the stress of constant consumption, focusing on the style that truly appeals to you.

For brands, this also means looking beyond the traditional business values and ensuring that all operations support a fair future of fashion. That’s why, we at BYEM are looking into how we can close the ‘design-to-landfill’ loop, to minimise our environmental impact, and other ways that help us to give back to our community. Because it’s about something larger than ‘us’ or ‘I’.

What about ethical and sustainable fashion?

I understand ethical fashion as considering ethical treatment of all workers in the supply chain with regards to, e.g. unionisation, fair wages, no child labor and fair treatment. Sustainable fashion, on the other hand, takes into account the sustainability of the supply chain, the dyes and chemicals used and the usage of the final garments; e.g. can they be recycled, re-used, or up-cycled? What is important to remember here is that when they are mentioned separately, this can still mean that workers in an ethical supply chain deal with hazardous chemicals that can cause them harm. It also means that sustainable supply chains might not always employ ethical labor practices. Because of this, I really do find the best choice is to choose fashion that is produced both ethically and sustainably, for a fairer future of fashion for all.

2. Outi Korpilaakso, Founder of Lovia: 

Image: Outi Korpilaakso

Image: Outi Korpilaakso

"Timeless design and high-quality materials are an important part when it comes to calling a product sustainable." 

How do you understand sustainable fashion?

I see it as taking the whole life cycle of the product into consideration: all the way from the idea to the material to the end of the final product's existence. It starts from thinking of the material sources and their production impacts. Another important factor is to consider where the product is made and by whom. This means the practices of the factory, how the makers are treated and even the energy efficiency of the process. Also, taking into consideration the logistics and the footprint of moving materials and products. Thinking about the lifetime of the actual product should also be included, to make sure the product itself lasts long. Timeless design and high-quality materials are an important part when it comes to calling a product sustainable. The last part is to consider what happens after the product has been used: does it have a second cycle market, can it be fixed by offering a service for that, or is it going to be, for example, biodegradable etc.

How do you understand ‘ethical fashion’?

I think it's a wider concept that considers social and/or environmental aspects, but it may have larger variation of practices that can be included as ethical, from some point of view. For example, when a brand has one or more specific ethical aspects, such as having strict, high standard employee's rights in place, as a part of their value chain.

And how would you define ‘slow’ fashion’?

Fashion made to have seasonless styles and not following the fast fashion trends and cycles. Also, garments that possess timeless design and a quality that lasts for years. 

3. Helen Puistaja, Owner of Slow.ee E-Store

Image: Helen Puistaja

Image: Helen Puistaja

"Do we need to create trend-stress for ourselves, if everything today is relative?"

What’s the meaning of slow fashion to you?

I think slow fashion comes with many different points of view. Whether it be related to the environment, production, or personal consumption, precisely. From my own perspective, I would summarise it with two words: insanely calm. Meaning that, we as consumers will have to take some time off and consider things with great calmness. Do we really need so many new things this often? Do we need to create trend-stress for ourselves, if everything today is relative? Every single item of clothing is ‘trendy’ according to at least some magazine, designer, or blogger. Slow fashion, however, reaches each person at a different point in life. Mostly, when you’ve overcome the possessing-more-and-more-things panic in life, found your own style and have begun to think about how our personal choices affect the world.

What about the term 'ethical fashion'?

To me, ethical fashion is avoiding causing suffering to anyone or anything. As a vegan, it means using nothing animal-related. But I also believe that grandma’s precious wool items are completely passable for others. Every worker needs to be protected from suffering at every stage of production. And not using any hazardous chemicals or too much water, which affect entire regions in the world.

What is sustainable fashion?

I feel as though 'sustainable' is a narrower term than 'ethical'. Ideally, it should ensure that 100 years from now, we will still have something to make clothes out of. So basically, the thoughtful use of resources, zero waste production (as much as possible), and circular economy. Ideally, companies should produce in a way that they can reclaim their products and put them back into the production line, like Mud Jeans does.

4. Liisa Soolepp, Ethical Knitwear Designer

Liisa Soolepp foto Gabriela Liivamägi.jpg

"When it comes to ethical fashion, it's a concept where passiveness and inertia are replaced with dialogue and collaboration."

What is sustainable fashion?

Responsibility as a creator and a consumer. A dialogue. Transparency.

What is ethical fashion?

Ethical fashion is a way of producing and consuming where you actually want to know and see how and in what conditions the things around us are made. It considers, what processes do we actually support or amplify when making our purchases. When it comes to ethical fashion, it's a concept where passiveness and inertia are replaced with dialogue and collaboration. It’s performing in a way that is sustainable, contributes to the community, and is transparent throughout the whole production chain.

What is slow fashion?

For me, slow fashion is primarily a lifestyle that’s characterised by a certain ’common sense’ with regards to clothing and everything else. Slow fashion is a way of perceiving the world that isn’t fuelled solely by economic gain, but rather wants to see the world as a sustainable whole. Ideally, you could compare it to meditating. There, the constant pressure of desires and fast living is replaced with peace and clarity, and the acknowledging of one's long-term values and needs. Both in the sense of producing and consuming.