Welcome, friend, to the second instalment of How to Slow.
It has been a long time coming (sorry!) as I recently got lost down a rabbit hole of ethical fashion research and confusion. I started writing, smashed out 4000 words, and then started again because, well, it’s Friday… and 4000 words! (I’ve always been an over-writer.)
So I’ve decided we need to start at the beginning (a very good place to start), with getting clear on some terminology – stay with me!
There are no singular, agreed-upon definitions of ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry (ethics does mean ‘values’ after all, and values are inherently individual and variable). As such, it is very easy for companies to make ethical claims, knowing full well most of us will assume that if they’re doing good things in one regard, they’re probably pretty good overall.
I ran an insta poll yesterday and the vast majority of people who responded consider the word ‘ethical’ to cover aspects of both human rights and environmental sustainability. And if we consider the word 'ethical' to broadly mean ‘morals’ or ‘values’, then this absolutely isn’t wrong. But, getting clear on our own values, and what ethical and sustainable looks like to you/us is important if we want to make easier decisions about whether companies and products align with our values, and de-code the array of confusing messages and advice we see in articles, on socials, the news and beyond.
This article was spurred on by reading yet another article last week which rehashed the good-ole piece of advice, “the most ethical thing you can do is buy nothing new”. I thought about it for a second, and thought… gosh, is that even true? It’s a bit confusing, so let’s explore!
Ethics vs Sustainability: getting clear on the definitions
As I see it, there are two primary end goals of the ‘fashion revolution’
- to ensure that we don’t overuse the earth’s resources and don’t overproduce waste and pollution (in quantities and at speeds the earth can’t sustain indefinitely), and
- that all people working in the industry, at all stages of the supply chain, are paid living, fair wages, and work in safe and respectable conditions (put super simply).
The reality is that it will take quite different strategies to meet these two end goals - strategies which may, at times, even be in conflict with each other. It is for this reason that I find it really helpful to define and separate the terms.
So, for me…
Ethical fashion is made in ways that reduce or eliminate harm to people working at all stages of the supply chain. It’s about human rights, paying living wages, safety, working conditions, etc.
Sustainable fashion is fashion made in ways that minimise or eliminate negative environmental impacts at some or all stages of the supply chain. This can be about selecting less resource-intensive fibres and fabrics, changing to low-tox or natural dyes, not using any virgin synthetics, closed-loop systems of fabric production and dying, waste management, better design that minimises fabric waste, and so on. It is also about how we consume, treat and dispose of our clothes.
"The most ethical thing you can do is buy nothing new" - but is it?
Let's explore this phrase as a way of describing why it's important to understand the differences between human rights issues and environmental sustainability.
Firstly, I think this piece of advice is referring primarily to environmental ethics or ‘sustainability’, rather than human rights. While use of the word ‘ethical’ here isn’t inherently wrong, I do think it’s a little confusing.
I like to ask the question of any piece or advice around ethical living, “if everyone did this, would it be sustainable/ethical? Is it even true?”
Let’s imagine for a second that we all stop buying new fashion, today.
Long term, I can only imagine it would be a win for the environment indeed! If we stop over-using the earth’s precious resources to produce clothes, CO2 emissions would drastically reduce (by around 10%! Woah!), and water, soil and air pollution, water use and shortages could all be alleviated. Incredible amounts of textile waste would never reach landfill each year. We might even see some of the earth’s major river systems come back to life. Utopia. And I think this is where this recommendation/quote/phrase intends to get us. But…
I also imagine that, in the short term we’d see the biggest fashion waste problem we’ve ever encountered. Already, huge amounts of unsold clothing become waste before ever seeing a wardrobe, as fashion is currently overproduced in alarming quantities. An immediate ceasing of all consumption would lead to unimaginable pre-consumer waste in the short term, and then…
It would seem logical to assume that literally millions of the world’s poorest people (around 80% of whom would be women) would be entirely out of work and income. Garment workers developing countries and already impoverished communities faced desperate times during the global financial crisis and the subsequent downturn in consumption. So while us all not buying anything new sounds like a fab (if unrealistic) ‘sustainability’ solution for mother nature, in fact, the farmers, the mills, the garment workers and all of the industries that support these people and businesses would be out of work. Retail would crash. It is likely that some entire, already struggling economies would crash. Fashion accounts for 2% of the entire world’s GDP and is the primary income generator for whole countries and communities. It employs over 300 million people (perhaps more if we think farmers and more broadly). The human impacts of such behavior change would be, frankly, devastating.
Whose fault is it anyway?
Before I finish up, I think it’s important to mention one last important piece of this ginormous puzzle.
The global economy relies on inequity to function.
The developed world and international business 'needs' cheap labour to be able to produce what it wants to at what we now believe to be ‘affordable’ prices. Poorer countries and communities use cheap labour as their competitive advantage in the global marketplace, and to attract investment and business.
Developed countries and multi-national institutions have historically held, and to this day continue to hold developing countries hostage through conditional development loans and 'aid'; for example the world bank gives a loan to a struggling economy in return for them adopting the US dollar and privatising public services, or opening up free trade or tax free zones. 'Aid' money is given in return for mining rights, etc. Big companies force factories in these countries to produce more for less according to their business needs.
We have created this system of dependence and now we are, the privileged few, advocating for everyone to stop buying all of the things we’ve demanded these countries produce. I’m not sure that this is at all ethical…?
While this isn’t a particularly practical post, I just wanted to get you thinking – because nothing is as black and white as it seems, and these bite-sizes, seemingly-simple quotes or pieces are advice are not always the golden bullets they’re sold as.
Yes, let’s be more conscious without our consumption. But let’s also not feel bad if we do make that purchase, or don’t do that ‘thing’ we read we should be doing. Go with your gut, do your best, and keep learning - about the industry, your triggers, your willpower, your style.
And finally, I'd encourage you to get clear on what ‘ethical’ means to you, and what your non-negotiables are, because it will help your willpower out, and give your brain a break. (Oh, those jeans were made in a factory in a location you can't disclose with no certifications to speak of and no information about where the fibre came from? No further thought required!) And it’s a Friday in September… our brains all need a break!