Lately, we are seeing a shift in consumer behavior. More and more people are searching for more ethical products. Options that are kinder to our planet and the people who live on it. This demand is taking brands to develop responsible fashion collections, and motivating the creation of new labels dedicated to it.
All of this is fantastic. However, as a consumer, it is not always easy to find and choose these products. Many brands claim to be doing the work. But, how do we know what all of these claims mean? How can we tell who is telling the truth and who is just greenwashing?.
This article will help you understand what some of the most used terms for responsible and ethical wear mean. This way, when you make a choice, you will be fully informed.
The concept of sustainability revolves around the understanding that we have just one planet. Mass production has led to the over-exploiting of natural resources and communities, compromising their future. From deforestation to aggressive mining or the contamination of rivers and oceans. For decades industries have been abusing these resources like there is no tomorrow. The sustainable side of responsible fashion is about changing this dynamic so we can actually have one!
How can a fashion brand be sustainable?
It is all about thinking ahead, and understanding the consequences our actions have on the future of the planet. The classic “reduce, reuse, recycle” is key here. What many brands are working towards is a “circular model”. Leftovers and discarded pieces are reused or upcycled to avoid them ending up in the landfill. But there is other -easier- a brand can keep a sustainable business model. Some of these are :
- Reducing leftovers: Unsold items are a problem for the fashion brands as well as they are for the environment. Not only do they mean losses, but they also tend to end up either burnt or thrown in the landfill. Some brands are starting to work on smaller, better-planned collections to avoid this problem.
- Timelessness over trends: Collections that are less dependent on trends and that can be sold at any time.
- Sharing is caring: Certain companies are making the commitment to donate all their extra stock to different charities.
- Recycled materials/biodegradable materials: Using recycled or repurposed materials already can help reduce the exploitation of limited resources.
- Slow fashion: This movement is born in contraposition to the trend of fast fashion, which promotes a “buy cheap, throw away” mentality. Slow fashion focuses on smaller productions and items made to last.
The eco-friendly umbrella includes all initiatives destined to reduce or even counteract the negative effect humanity has on the environment. Fashion has been claimed to be the second most contaminating industry on earth. Although this statement doesn´t have a lot of data to support it, one thing is clear. The negative effect of fashion in the environment is notable and unsustainable, and change is necessary.
How can a fashion brand be eco-friendly?
Being friendly to the environment can mean many different things. Some of the ways brands are trying to be kinder to mother earth are :
- Responsible farming: Mass farming for the obtention of raw materials can take a huge toll on the environment and the rural communities. From the use of organic materials (see below) to helping the reforestation of certain rural areas, many companies are trying to come up with methods to reduce the negative impact of farming.
- Defense of animal rights: Many brands are now eliminating all fur and leather from their collections. Make-up brands particularly are making sure to use all vegan products and certifying that their products are not tested on animals. (see below “cruelty-free”)
- Reducing the carbon footprint. Some brands are putting the focus on sourcing and producing locally as much as they can, in order to reduce carbon emissions.
- Using recycled and biodegradable materials: Yes, I know we said this before, but it is so important that bears repeating. Every new button we make or yard of fabric we spin requires additional resources, which means putting more stress on the planet.
Responsible fashion is not only about environmental sustainability or animal rights. Treating our fellow humans fairly is very important too. The “socially responsible” label is the human approach to responsible fashion. It focuses on the fight for human rights and equality, in all of its forms.
How can a fashion brand be socially responsible?
- No more sweatshops. The world opened its eyes after the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013, where 1,134 people died due to the collapse of a factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This made both brands and consumers aware of the precarious conditions textile workers were forced to live under. Since then, many labels big and small have made an effort to ensure that the people who make their collections are treated fairly.
- Supporting local communities. The delocalization of the production often happened to the detriment of local craftsmen and factories. We see brands now showing an interest in revitalizing these communities, recovering traditional techniques and traditions, and showing them to the world.
- Inclusion: Sadly, there are several groups in our society that struggle to fit in. They have huge problems finding and keeping a job or even feeling supported by the community. Thankfully, there are more and more brands that are actively trying to fight for equality. Whether we are talking about the differently-abled, racial and social minorities, refugees, or the LGBTQ+ community. A brand can support these groups by employing them, creating products for them or even just by showcasing diversity on communications.
- Making your employees happy: Although it might not be so attractive from a marketing perspective, change should start from those who are closer to you. Many companies are making an effort in making sure their employees are happy both at work and while they are out of the clock. Things as simple as flexible hours or the possibility of working from home can improve a lot the quality of life of the employees of a company, but there is much more that can be done. Including exercise programs or guided meditation during working hours can help boost productivity and motivation.
Hiut Denim Co. became popular for being Meghan Markle jeans of choice, however more interesting is the story behind the brand. For 40 years Cardigan was home to the largest denim factory in the UK. However, due to this factory closing in 2002, hundreds of jobs were lost. Hiut Denim gave jobs back to local people who were already skilled in the field. They also initiated the “no wash club rules”, which encourages customers not to wash their jeans for 6 months, and offers free repairs for life.
When talking about their take on responsible consumerism, a brand can also choose terms such as “ethical wear” or “ethical fashion”. This one is a bit trickier because it can include all of the above, and then some. When a brand claims that it´s ethical it should mean that they are very mindful of the impact that their activity has overall. This can be applied to almost anything, from avoiding child labor to using only recycled or recyclable materials.
How can a fashion brand be ethical?
This tag is normally used to highlight the fact that the main focus of the brand is not to make money. Of course they need to make money too, but their main focus is rather to fight an issue or generate a positive impact. For one brand this issue might be body-shaming, which they can fight by displaying and servicing customers of different sizes and shapes.
For another brand, the issue might be water usage and they might work on creating products that have anti-bacterial properties, which means you can wear them for several days without washing them.
In order to be ethical, a label doesn´t have to necessarily tick all the boxes. In fact, in some cases, some of the causes might be contradictory. A very good example of this is the use of leather in clothing and accessories. Leather shoes and bags are significantly more durable and sturdy than any vegetal fiber alternative. They are also far more friendly to the environment than artificial leather, which is derived from fossil fuels and is not biodegradable. However, it requires the use of animal products which many organizations consider unethical. Whatever the focus of the brand is, they should be able to very clearly explain and document what is their purpose and how are they fulfilling it.
When you see an “organic” label, this means that there have been no dangerous chemicals involved in producing this item. In the case of a cotton t-shirt, for example, to obtain an “organic” certification the retailer has to prove that there have been no chemicals at any step of the production. Not pesticides when growing the cotton crops, nor chemical dyes or washes on the production of the garment. This is important because these chemicals end up on the soil and water. From there, they enter the food chain and can be harmful to plants, animals, and humans.
When a company claims to be “cruelty-free” they are certifying that none of their products or their ingredients have been tested on animals. This term is mostly used for cosmetic and household product companies. There are several organizations (including PETA-beauty without bunnies) that provide said certifications.
The concept of “zero waste” is part of the sustainability approach. It focuses on the promise of not throwing anything away. Around the world, we are seeing more and more “zero waste” retail points, where you can bring your own containers and buy food and household products. In fashion, some brands are also trying to join this movement in the way they design their collections or by upcycling fabric scraps to create new items.
Fairtrade is used normally for companies that import products from developing countries. These certifications guarantee that the producer has been paid a fair price for them. But, how can we be sure, as consumers, that the brand is actually respecting these procedures? The key here is transparency and traceability. A brand that claims to be sustainable, eco-friendly, or socially responsible has to be open about its supply chain and its production methods. There are also several certifications that brands can apply for provided they ensure they respect the parameters. You can learn about most of them in this guide by ApparelEntrepreneurship.com.
We hope this guide can help you understand your options and be a more responsible consumer. However, it´s important to remember the most responsible thing we can do is limit what we buy and take care of the things we already have. Like our planet, for example 🙂
Wanna learn more about responsible fashion?
It is fantastic that you are trying to learn more about sustainable and ethical fashion. If you want to learn more, I invite you to take a look at some of the videos on my Youtube channel. For example, I recently talked with the lovely Araceli Gallego from Goshopia.com about the effects the Pandemic has had on fashion consumerism. You can watch this video right here, or go to my Youtube page for many more.
I personally don´t think that business and sustainability are mutually exclusive. I believe the success will be in finding the balance between enjoying the journey and growing while taking care of our planet and our fellow humans. This is why I offer ethical growth consultancy services. Through them, I help companies and entrepreneurs introduce sustainable and ethical practices and products into their business – without compromising their growth.
If you would like to know more about it, send me an email at email@example.com. I´d love to hear from you!
Thanks for reading,
Adela Alonso Alonso