What Are Ethical, Sustainable, And Slow Fashion? Hanging rack of minimalistic white, brown, and grey shirts from a slow fashion wardrobe

What Are Ethical, Sustainable, And Slow Fashion?


You may have heard the terms “ethical fashion”, “sustainable fashion”, and “slow fashion” online or from a friend, but do you know what they really mean? In this post, I’ll define each term (because they don’t all mean the same thing) and discuss their importance in our lives.

Next week, I’ll be posting a How To guide on transitioning your wardrobe to include more of these pieces instead of cheap and trendy fast fashion garments. (EDIT: Read that post here!)

What Is Fast Fashion?

You’ve probably heard this term a lot more than its antithesis, slow fashion. Before we discuss the good approaches to fashion, we need to look at how a large part of the industry is producing goods.

Fast fashion started near the turn of the century and is all about creating lots and lots of trendy pieces that aren’t meant to last much more than a single season. They are low quality and sold at ridiculously cheap prices. The goal is to feed our desire for what’s new by constantly changing what’s on store racks and enticing customers with rock bottom prices you can hardly resist.

Fast fashion has coincided with brands sourcing work from less developed countries to reduce labor and production costs. These miniscule costs (compared to domestic factories with higher standards and requirements) allow brands to achieve prices like $5 t-shirts and $8 summer dresses.

Fast Fashion Brands

Most mainstream clothing brands could be counted as fast fashion. Here’s a quick list of some popular brands:

  • H&M
  • Zara
  • GAP
  • Forever 21
  • Primark
  • Victoria’s Secret
  • Uniqlo
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Rue 21
  • Charlotte Russe
  • PacSun
  • Wet Seal

Due to the pressure from consumer who want brands to be more accountable, some of these brands have raced to start sustainable clothing lines and increase transparency about their practices.

Fast Fashion Materials

Most fast fashion garments are made of cotton. Although cotton is a natural fiber, it is a very thirsty plant. It can take 20,000 liters of water to produce a single kilogram of cotton. While obviously not always the case, some cotton growers use child labor, but don’t think cotton is the only culprit!

Other garments are made of synthetic, manmade fibers like nylon and polyester. These materials are plastics. Yes, plastics. Fast fashion relies on fossil fuels, and not just to power the factories. For polyester alone, a whopping 70 million barrels of oil are consumed each year.

When washed, they release small fibers called microplastics into the water. Small organisms eat the microplastics released into our waterways and then are eaten by larger animals up the food chain until a larger concentration of plastic is in our salmon dinner.

Although viscose/rayon is a natural fiber, its production processes are energy and chemical intensive and cause harm to both workers and the environment.

Fast Fashion Ethics

Due to the high volume of demand, brands need lots and lots of garments produced quickly and cheaply. Read the labels on items in your closet, and you’ll find a lot of India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China. The labor is cheap, which means the saving get passed onto the customer. But at what cost?

Although the cost of living is lower in these countries, garment workers are living in poverty, their hours are long, they are usually not paid for required overtime, they work in dangerous conditions, and are sometimes verbally or physically harassed/assaulted.

As mentioned, child labor is a huge problem in the fashion industry. Children work at all levels of production, from growing cotton to sewing garments. They are oftentimes taken away from family, denied an education in addition to a childhood, and work extreme hours in horrid conditions.

Unsafe Factories

This post comes on the anniversary of a tragedy. Seven years ago today (April 24, 2013), a building housing multiple garment factories called Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. On April 23, the building was evacuated due to cracks in the walls. The owner then reportedly said the building was safe and threatened to withhold pay from workers who did not show up the next day. That day, the building collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring over 2,500.

Collapses aren’t the only problem. Factory fires have also killed hundreds. Also in 2013, a factory fire killed 112 workers, and there were reports that the exit doors were locked and trapped workers inside.

The True Cost

I made the decision to stop buying fast fashion after watching a documentary called The True Cost. This documentary goes inside garment factories to expose the ethical violations and environmental impacts of fast fashion. You can check out this doc and others on my List of Must Watch Eco-Documentaries!

Fast Fashion Production

As if the ethics weren’t bad enough, fast fashion production methods aren’t great for the environment either. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world.

From Farm to Factory and Beyond

Textile production uses a lot of water (see the Materials section above). Dying fabric takes a 200:1 ratio of freshwater to weight of clothing dyed. Untreated wastewater from factories oftentimes gets dumped into waterways, which harm plants, animals, and humans who live in the area. Fertilizers and pesticides run off into waterways as well, with similar problematic effects.

Speaking of fertilizers and pesticides, heavy use of these chemicals degrade the soil on cotton farms. Dyes, bleach, and other chemicals used in production are toxic to both workers and the environment.

During production, a full 15% of the total fabric gets left on the factory floor. This fabric will be thrown out as a complete waste of the resources that went into making it. Once in the landfill, it can take 200 years for a garment to decompose. Remember, plastics only degrade into smaller bits of plastic. They never truly go back into the environment.

From Factory to Customer and Beyond

While most of the world’s clothing is made in Asia, most of the consumers are in North America and Europe. Garments have to travel thousands of miles to get to stores, which results in a lot of carbon emissions.

Fast fashion encourages over-buying, throwing out wearable items, and frequent shopping trips. Over-buying results in a false higher demand so companies will continue making more and more items. Throwing out clothing fills up our landfills. Textiles make up 5% of landfill volume and the figure is growing. More trips to the stores means more emissions into the atmosphere.

At the end of their short lives, garments are usually tossed into the trash. Since the quality of the garments is low, it’s less likely the item could be donated or sold secondhand. While 95% of textiles could be recycled, only 15% are recycled or donated.

What is Ethical Fashion?

Ethical fashion is exactly what is sounds like: fashion created in an ethical manner where workers are treated properly by employers. Workers are paid a fair wage, provided safe working conditions, and are not worked to death.

Example Code of Conduct

Ethical fashion brand Reformation holds all its suppliers to a strict Code of Conduct. This Code of Conduct ranges from disallowing child or slave labor to limits on overtime to health and safety requirements. Reformation also requires third party audits of all of its factories to ensure a good working environment.

Ethical Fashion Brands

Because of the problems uncovered in the fast fashion industry, many ethical brands have emerged to give consumers peace of mind when shopping.

Check out these ethical fashion brands:

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion uses natural fibers grown responsibly and low impact production methods to create built-to-last garments. Workers do not have to handle toxic chemicals to produce and dye textiles.

Waste products are dealt with responsibly (no poisonous wastewater and massive heaps destined for landfill). Oftentimes, garments are produced closer to where they will be sold, such as brands with factories in America.

Sustainable fashion also includes secondhand garments because they extend the life of an item and cost no additional resources compared to buying new. If you aren’t convinced secondhand shopping is for you, I suggest reading my 8 Reasons To Thrift Shop to change your mind!

Sustainable Fashion Materials


Organic cotton is a popular choice for sustainable fashion garments. These plants are grown from non-GMO seeds, and fertilizers and pesticides are not used. However, because organic cotton uses even more water than conventional cotton, it is not necessarily the most sustainable choice.


Linen comes from the flax plant. This plant not only absorbs lots of carbon from the environment, but it also can grow in poor soil unsuitable for food crops. Linen uses 60% less water than cotton, and even non-organic linen uses less added chemicals than cotton.


Lyocell comes from eucalyptus (and at times other trees) and is a form of rayon. The textile is made of the wood pulp from trees that require neither irrigation nor pesticides to grow. It also goes by the brand name Tencel. I have a sweatshirt that it made of lyocell, and it is super soft. Hard to believe it came from trees!


Bamboo grows super fast, and the plants help restore soil quality and prevent erosion. While the usual process of making bamboo into a textile is chemical-intensive (not great), the brand Monocel uses a closed loop process that recycles water and less harmful chemicals.


Like bamboo, hemp is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. It requires less resources than other plants (50% the water cotton needs) and does not degrade soil as fast as other plants do. The only problem is hemp growing is highly restricted because the plant is in the cannabis family (although has none of the effects).


Alpaca comes from the animal of the same name. Alpacas produce much more hair much more quickly than goats or sheep and are low maintenance animals. Manufacturing alpaca textiles does not require harsh chemicals either.

Recycled Materials

What about recycled textiles? Although it is a plastic, recycled polyester is a good option because it uses 70% less energy than new polyester and cuts the CO2 emissions in half. It is made from PET (the same plastic as water bottles) and diverts waste from landfills. Recycled nylon is also a plastic but reduces carbon emissions by 18% over new nylon.

There’s also recycled natural fibers. Recycled wool and cotton also divert waste and save on the large amounts of resources to create new wool (taking care of sheep) and new cotton (all that water we’ve talked about).

With the exception of recycled polyester and recycled nylon, all of these textiles are 100% biodegradable.

Sustainable Fashion Brands

Eco-fashion has grown in popularity as more and more consumers are concerned about climate change and the health of our planet.

Here are some of the best sustainable fashion brands.

What Is Slow Fashion?

On the opposite end of fast fashion is slow fashion. The term “slow fashion” was coined by Kate Fletcher from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion as an echo of the emerging slow food movement.

Slow fashion garments are high quality and built to last by incorporating high quality materials and expert craftsmanship. Instead of a new collection of clothes released every month or even more frequently than that, slow fashion brands release only a small handful of collections per year.

It shuns the consumerism and impulse buying that come with fast fashion, and encourages buying less and only when you need to. In addition, many slow fashion brands look for sustainable materials and methods as well as have high ethical standards.

Beyond Buying

Slow fashion isn’t just about the garments you buy. It’s also about how you take care of them.

Increase the longevity of your clothing by following the care instructions on the tag. Reduce how often you wash your items so they won’t stretch, shrink, or fade as quickly. Mend your clothing in the places it does wear out. You can learn yourself or hire someone to do it for you.

I’ll get into more details about clothing care in next week’s post about creating a responsible wardrobe so be sure to check it out.

Slow Fashion Brands

Like with ethical and sustainable fashion, slow fashion brands will charge a higher price, but it is well worth it for a garment that lasts. If pricing “per wear”, it really isn’t all that expensive.

Here are some great slow fashion brands:

Why Are Ethical Fashion, Sustainable Fashion, and Slow Fashion Important?

While on their own, each approach to fashion can make you feel good about your purchases, together they create a wardrobe you can feel great about. Many brands already combine all three. I had a hard time deciding which category the example brands fell into because of that!

You will know neither workers nor the environment are paying the price for that “steal” you found at the mall last weekend. You also know that garment is built to last for years instead of weeks.

By choosing transparent brands or secondhand markets over fast fashion, you’re voting with your wallet. You’re voicing your distaste for the practices of fast fashion brands and reducing their profits. In addition, you’re encouraging and supporting smaller brands to keep doing what they’re doing (since many ethical or sustainable brands aren’t huge multinational companies found in every city).


The impacts of the fashion industry are widespread around the globe and harm uncountable lives and our planet’s future. So what can you do about it? How can you transition your current wardrobe so that it focuses on ethical, sustainable, and slow fashion?

Stay tuned for my post next week on that very subject! (EDIT: Read that post now!)

What Are Ethical, Sustainable, And Slow Fashion? Hanging rack of minimalistic white, brown, and grey shirts from a slow fashion wardrobe

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