Ethical Style: Fashion Advice for the Socially Conscious

Introducing GOOD's new column on dressing ethically.

Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.

Its reputation is shallow, but fashion’s influence runs deep. Americans have spent $250 billion on clothing and accessories each year since 2008. Today, the fashion industry employs 25 million people worldwide. My entire adult life, I’ve been one of them. But my immersion in the fashion industry has shed little light on the source of most of the clothing in my wardrobe. When it comes to consuming fashion ethically, I’m plucking blindly from the racks just like everyone else.

The fashion system is complex, and the clothing it churns out has economic, social, and environmental implications that reach far beyond our closets. As we consumers grow increasingly aware of our role in this system, we’re beginning to make fashion choices beyond style and fit—we want to know how our sweater’s production has impacted the environment, and whether the factory workers who made our shoes work decent hours. As a whole, the fashion industry has been slow to respond to these demands. But that's changing.

Buy-one-give-one initiatives like TOMS wed charity with footwear (even if they fail to fix the problems of factory-made shoes). On the runway, Stella McCartney is a forerunner of vegan fashion (at a price inaccessible to many). Environmental consciousness has inspired the use of organic cotton and low-impact dyes for the t-shirts in Alternative Apparel’s Alternative Earth line (which constitutes about a third of the company’s total output). Even big corporations like H&M have made moves toward integrating organic and recycled raw materials in their supply chains (even as their focus on throwaway fashion has cut a skirt’s lifespan to a matter of months). Companies like Nike have committed to airing internal audits of their factories to ensure safe working conditions, fair wages, and no child labor (Nike still calls its commitment to sustainability a “journey”).

Welcome to the thorny landscape of “ethical,” “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” and “organic”-branded companies. Ethical terminology is highly marketable, but it’s hardly illuminating. With so many wide-ranging issues at hand, it’s virtually impossible to make an informed decision. At best, ethical labels indicate one fashion company’s adherence to a single issue—an emphasis on environmentally-friendly production processes, maybe, or else a commitment to buying fair trade. At worst, they’re nothing more than misleading greenwashing with little oversight. Consumers lack the industry know-how and supply-chain access to discern the difference.

What is ethical fashion, really? The truth is, even industry leaders don’t know. Two years ago, Financial Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman interviewed a host of fashion designers about what constitutes sustainable fashion. After finding little consensus, she called for the creation of “some sort of public lexicon” to guide the way—a system for defining and substantiating the claims behind the labels.

In the United States, at least, such a lexicon remains elusive. But one U.K. nonprofit organization has posed a definition of “ethical fashion” that offers a few simple guidelines. The Ethical Fashion Forum calls it the “triple bottom line”—three pillars necessary to consider a business truly “sustainable.” They are:

  • Social: “Increasing the capacity and well-being of the people and communities behind fashion.”
  • Environmental: “Minimizing the environmental impact of all business operations, throughout the supply chain."
  • Commercial: “Without a robust financial business model, none of the above can be achieved… A sustainable approach includes quality products or services that meet market needs and demands and are fairly marketed.”
  • \n

In other words, a sustainable company must consider the people, the earth, and the bottom line—after all, if the clothes won’t sell, they won’t make our closets any more ethical. The EFF offers an array of information and help on establishing sustainable practices for fashion professionals.

That still leaves fashion consumers like us with little guidance and plenty of questions. In this column, I’ll tackle your ethical fashion queries in the hopes of demystifying supply chains, dissecting new trends, and highlighting the companies that are making the best efforts to do better. The concept of ethical fashion is still in the works, and that’s ok—actually, it’s exciting. We have to start somewhere. Today, we as consumers have a lot of power to affect change in the clothes we wear. So let’s start asking the real questions.

Got an ethical fashion quandary? Email Tabea at

via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

Keep Reading Show less

Offering parental leave for new fathers could help close the gender gap, removing the unfair "motherhood penalty" women receive for taking time off after giving birth. However, a new study finds that parental leave also has a pay gap. Men are less likely to take time off, however, when they do, they're more likely to get paid for it.

A survey of 2,966 men and women conducted by New America found that men are more likely to receive paid parental leave. Over half (52%) of fathers had fully paid parental leave, and 14% of fathers had partially paid parental leave. In comparison, 33% of mothers had fully paid parental leave and 19% had partially paid parental leave.

Keep Reading Show less

Bans on plastic bags and straws can only go so far. Using disposable products, like grabbing a plastic fork when you're on the go, can be incredibly convenient. But these items also contribute to our growing plastic problem.

Fortunately, you can cut down on the amount of waste you produce by cutting down on disposable products. And even more fortunately, there are sustainable (and cute) replacements that won't damage the environment.

Coconut bowls


Who says sustainable can't also be stylish? These cute coconut bowls were handmade using reclaimed coconuts, making each piece one of a kind. Not only are they organic and biodegradable, but they're also durable, in case your dinner parties tend to get out of hand. The matching ebony wood spoons were polished with the same coconut oil as the bowls.

Cocostation Set of 2 Vietnamese Coconut Bowls and Spoons, $14.99; at Amazon

Solar powered phone charger


Why spend time looking around for an outlet when you can just harness the power of the sun? This solar powered phone charger will make sure your phone never dies as long as you can bask in the sun's rays. As an added bonus, this charger was made using eco-friendly silicone rubber. It's win-win all around.

Dizaul Solar Charger, 5000mAh Portable Solar Power Bank, $19.95; at Amazon, $19.95; at Amazon

Herb garden kit

Planter Pro

Put some green in your life with this herb planter. The kit comes with everything you need to get a garden growing, including a moisture meter that helps you determine if your herbs are getting the right amount of food to flourish. All the seeds included are certified to be non-GMO and non-hybrids, meaning you can have fresh, organic herbs right at your fingertips.

Planter Pro's Herb Garden Cedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazonedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazon

Reusable Keurig cups

K & J

Keurig cups are convenient, but they also create a ton of plastic waste. These Keurig-compatible plastic cups are an easy way to cut down on the amount of trash you create without cutting down on your caffeine. Additionally, you won't have to keep on buying K Cups, which means you'll be saving money and the environment.

K&J Reusable Filter Cups, $8.95 for a set of 4,; at Amazon

Low-flow shower head


Low-flow water fixtures can cut down your water consumption, which saves you money while also saving one of the Earth's resources. This shower head was designed with a lighter flow in mind, which means you'll be able to cut down on water usage without feeling like you're cutting down on your shower.

Speakman Low Flow Shower Head, $14.58; at Amazon

Bamboo safety razor


Instead of throwing away a disposable razor every time you shave, invest in an eco-friendly, reusable one. This unisex shaver isn't just sustainable, it's also sharp-looking, which means it would make a great gift for the holidays.

Zomchi Safety Razor, $16.99; at Amazon

The Planet