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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.”
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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

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