How Can Fashion Be ‘Sustainable’ or ‘Ethical’?

CC BY 2.0. Nicolás Boullosa

The terms may be vague, but they allow shoppers to choose what really matters to them personally.

In recent years, a growing number of consumers have realized there’s far more to the fashion world than what you see at first glance. This is a good thing, as it has drawn much-needed attention to the atrocious working conditions, poverty wages, and pollution that is intimately connected to the world’s garment industry. On the other hand, it can be very confusing, trying to sort one’s way through the labyrinth of terms and certifications that are all claiming to make fashion a better industry for all.

So what does it really mean for fashion to be sustainable and ethical? It all depends on which practices and policies are adopted by companies. Very few companies do it all (as in, meet all the criteria of an ideal production model), which means that it’s pretty much up to consumers to weigh the pros and cons of the different methods and make shopping decisions based on what’s most important personally. These are some of the most common practices that companies do in order to be considered “sustainable” and/or “ethical.”

Fair Trade

Usually made overseas and imported to North America, garments that are certified as Fair Trade have been made in a factory that is inspected by Fair Trade International and meets certain standards for production methods, labor conditions, environmental considerations, and business practices. You can find the little symbol somewhere on the tag. The best thing about it is knowing that the workers have been paid a fair living wage for their work.

Organic Cotton

Cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. It uses approximately 25 percent of all petrochemical-based pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides globally, which is why opting for organic cotton is one way to reduce the chemical burden on the planet. There are certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard certification (GOTS) that will be printed on a tag.

Alternative & Recycled Textiles

Some companies are doing really cool things, such as fabrics made out of milk, tea, and coffee, as well as birch tree-based material. Others focus on recycling plastic bottles into polyester yarn, which has benefits (long-lasting, durable, recyclable) and downsides (non-biodegradable, non-natural fabrics, bits of plastic released in wash). Cotton and wool can also be recycled and re-spun.

Local Production

Buying locally made clothes is one way to make your shopping a bit greener, by cutting down on the transportation costs. I once saw it referred to as "the 150-mile wardrobe," which I liked. It supports local businesses, strengthens the economy at home, and builds relationships within the community. It’s also a great way to find alternative, one-of-a-kind fashion, such as upcycled or handmade items.

Made in the U.S. or Canada

The United States and Canada have better laws regulating the fair treatment and pay of workers than countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, so the workers who made your item of clothing are likely in a much better situation than if it were imported. That being said, the minimum wage is hardly a living wage in Canada and the U.S., if that’s all a family relies on for income, which means that ‘Made in U.S.A.’ is not a guarantee for ethical production.


A growing number of companies, such as Patagonia and Everlane, provide detailed descriptions on their websites of where and how each item is made. This new and radical kind of transparency is refreshing, and involves the consumer more actively in the production process by enabling them to make an informed decision.

One interesting site to shop is Ethica, which allows you to filter your search based on what matters most: Trade Not Aid, Vegan, Handcrafted, Made in U.S.A., etc.