Making Sense of Key Ethical + Sustainable Fashion Terms

Are you ever confused about ethical fashion? Words such as 'ethical', 'organic', 'natural' and 'sustainable' have all become buzzwords popularised by brands keen to appear responsible.

However, what is essential is that we don't use these terms as a distraction from dealing with the very real problems such as labour exploitation and environmental degradation inherent in the fast fashion model.

While terms such as 'ethical', 'sustainable', 'natural', may seem obvious, developing a solid understanding of these terms is important to understanding different methods of production in the fashion industry. As such we will attempt to explain these terms and help shed light on common misconceptions. Stay tuned!

The difference between ethical and sustainable

For a product to be marketed as 'ethical', no certification is required by an independent organisation. However, it would be a pretty destructive to a brand’s reputation to market something as 'ethical' if it was not in any way. This is not to say that truths don't get bended.

I tend to consider ethical to be a more holistic and people-centred term than 'sustainable', 'organic' or 'fairtrade'. In fact, for a product to be labelled using the latter two terms a certification by an independent organisation is required. While the question of who gives these organisations the authority to issue certifications, without being accountable to a higher source of authority is another topic for discussion, the point is that these terms have very different weightings that can be easily overlooked.

Similarly, products can be marketed as 'sustainable' without requiring any certification. In my mind, 'sustainable' with regards to fashion relates to a series of processes across supply chains that are viable for long-term production due to each stage being environmentally sound. Crucially, sustainability also refers to taking proper care of and passing on our clothing when they are ready to experience a new lease of life. The current way in which fashion is consumed often dubbed as 'fast fashion' by, contrast, is highly unsustainable. In the fast fashion model, a garment follows a linear pathway from cradle to grave. In other words, clothing is made, worn, thrown out and left to degrade in a landfill site. This is not to mention the pollution and social devastation that is caused in the various stages of production.

The difference between natural and organic

I feel as though there might be some confusion or blurred lines between the terms 'natural' and 'organic', which although not mutually exclusive have different meanings.

Compared to natural, organic has to meet much more specific criteria to be certified and marketed under this label. Organic is defined by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) as:

"Only textile products that contain a minimum of 70% organic fibres can become GOTS certified. All chemical inputs such as dyestuffs and auxiliaries used must meet certain environmental and toxicological criteria. The choice of accessories is limited in accordance with ecological aspects as well. A functional waste water treatment plant is mandatory for any wet-processing unit involved and all processors must comply with social criteria. The key criteria of GOTS, its quality assurance system and the principles of the review and revision procedure are summarised in this section."

As mentioned to gain organic certification, a product has to meet a set of specific criteria. A carrot may be 'natural' but not so healthy if it has been sprayed with high levels of chemical pesticides! An organic fashion item will be labelled with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) logo as displayed below.

For more information on 'organic' products and the criteria that a garment has to meet to gain certification visit the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

The difference between organic and fairtrade

Fairtrade refers to trade between companies in developed countries and producers in developing countries in which fair prices are paid to the producers.

According to the Fairtrade Foundation:

"Fairtrade sets standards: Fairtrade Standards social, economic and environmental standards that are set for both companies and the farmers and workers who grow the food we love. For farmers and workers the standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, for companies they include the payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects of the community’s choice.

Fairtrade certifies products and ingredients: We independently check that our standards have been met by the farmers, workers and companies that are part of products’ supply chains. And in order to reassure consumers that this has happened, we license the use of the FAIRTRADE Mark on products and packaging to signal this. When all the ingredients that can be Fairtrade in a product are, the product carries this Mark."

For more information on the impact fair labour check out the Fairtrade Foundation.

As we can see organic has more to do with environmental concerns and preserving biodiversity whereas fairtrade has more to do with fair working conditions and fair prices for producers although there is some crossover between the two.

Please note: here we have only covered the two most well-known certifications as they often get confused with more generic terms. There are in fact many more different types of certifications which have not turned into confusion causing buzzword phrases and have therefore not been mentioned in this post.

I hope this post helped clarify any uncertainty surrounding these terms. Overall, let's make sure we're choosing Organic and Fairtrade!

With love,



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