Ethical Fashion and Sustainability within the Fashion Industry

Ethical fashion is a term you’ve probably heard about in recent times. You probably saw it online in some big fashion brands website or you heard two hippie-save-the-world wannabes talking about it at a cafe. Whatever the case, ethical fashion is a movement that is gaining momentum and gaining more ground in the fashion and textile industry. Hence, the more you know about it the better. This article is here to discuss it and educate you.

Despite the boom of fast fashion and mass production, there has been a steady rise of ethically produced fashion items like Guatemalan Bags or Guatemalan clutched. These Guatemalan Bags are constructed using curated vintage fabrics purchased from loyal Guatemalan market vendors. These bags are one of a kind, made with locally sourced materials and made by local artisans who take pride in their work. This is a big contrast from for example, Primark mass produced bags that go for 2 euros a piece and fall apart after two days.

From textile production to retail, and purchasing. Ethical fashion covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and human & animal welfare.


In 1989, the Brundtland Commission gave a definition of sustainability that is so far the most articulate definition. Sustainability can be defined as

“[to meet] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The purveyors of ethical fashion and sustainability within the industry believe that a business or fashion company is not sustainable unless the triple bottom line is integrated at the core of business practices and policy, from board level to studio, shop, factory floor, distribution channel and finally the retail stores which is customer facing.

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability is the process of increasing the capacity and wellbeing of the people and communities behind fashion. Any fashion business depends on the people behind it. In a broader context, poverty and exploitation of the human workforce behind fashion affect the stability of the industry itself. This is common in instances where big companies use production factories in developing countries with no strong labor laws. These factories offer terrible working conditions, the workers are underpaid, and the hours are inhuman, to say the least. Factories like this are called sweatshops. Sweatshops often have poor working conditions, unfair wages, unreasonable hours, child labor, and a lack of benefits for workers. Despite many regulations put in place, these factory owners find ways to cut corners and maintain their terrible conditions in order to cut cost and maximize profit. The big companies at their worst demand these terrible conditions and at their best, turn a blind eye to what goes on. Read more about Sweatshops here.

Environmental Sustainability

Fashion businesses should pay attention to minimizing the negative impacts of their business on the environment. Business should dedicate resources to creating and pursuing an opportunity to reduce environmental issues (such as improper waste disposal). Being environmentally sustainable goes beyond the immediate business operations but goes on through the whole process from how they source raw materials to how the end consumer disposes of waste from their products. Companies should invest in and support environmental causes and pay more attention to their corporate social responsibility.

Commercial Sustainability

Commercial sustainability means the company has to be commercially sustainable as well as the afro-mentioned two types of sustainability. The company should be able to remain commercially viable and sustainable while pursuing other types of sustainability. This, of course, is not a big problem for bigger companies like H&M, Mango, or Zara. However, for smaller companies trying to go the ethical sustainability route, they need to have a robust financial business model so they can achieve other types of sustainability as good business conditions could backfire financially and cause the company to sink. A sustainable approach includes quality products or services that meet market needs and demands and are fairly marketed.

How Can Fashion Companies be Ethical

  • Countering fast, cheap fashion and damaging patterns of fashion consumption
  • Defending fair wages, working conditions, and workers’ rights, and supporting sustainable livelihoods
  • Addressing toxic pesticide and chemical use, using and/or developing eco- friendly fabrics and components
  • Minimising water use
  • Recycling and addressing energy efficiency and waste
  • Developing or promoting sustainability standards for fashion
  • Providing resources, training and/or awareness raising initiatives
  • Protecting animal rights

The Dynamics of Foreign Factories

A huge percentage of western companies produce their goods in foreign factories. The companies prefer to produce abroad because of the cheap labor costs, lax labor laws, capital subsidies, and reduced logistics costs etc. Therefore, they assign a limited range of work, responsibilities, and resources to those factories.

Despite the prevalence of these companies with sinister and selfish motives, there are companies that expect and demand more out of their factories in developing countries. They use these factories not just for production but also as an avenue to empower the local talent and in return get more out of them. For example, 3M’s operations in Bangalore, India, manufacture software and write that software, as well.

Companies who do this not only to gain access to the usual incentives but also to get closer to their customers and suppliers, to attract skilled and talented employees, and to create centers of expertise for the entire company. In Singapore, workers have designed and manufactured two popular pagers for Motorola. And Alcatel Bell’s factories in Shanghai are two of the most innovative plants in its worldwide manufacturing network. These factories perform functions beyond mere production—functions such as after-sales service and product engineering. For example, Hewlett-Packard Company’s factory in Guadalajara, Mexico, not only assembles computers but also designs computer memory boards.

Companies that use the latter approach (which is the better approach) have decided to use their foreign factories beyond the basic blue-collar uses and thus have empowered these factories to be competitive weapons against other companies in their industry. One key to this is to consider manufacturing not just as a means to an end but as a tool and an end in itself. When companies have a narrow view of manufacturing, they tend to establish foreign factories that have a narrow strategic purpose thus placing them in a disadvantaged point against competitors who have a more advanced strategy and company mindset.