Ethical Fashion – What Does It Mean Anyway?

By Guest Contributor: Ingrid Vercruyssen

Ethical Vegan FashionNowadays, it’s impossible to go anywhere without noticing the words “Ethical” and “Company Xyz” in the same sentence.

As a consumer, we have a basic understanding of “Ethical”. We know that buying such a product is supposed to alleviate some of our guilt, by doing a little bit of good, but what does it actually mean? First, let’s look at the definition:

Ethical – adj

1. of or relating to the philosophical study of ethics;

2. conforming to accepted standards of social or professional behaviour;

3. adhering to ethical and moral principles;

1. I’m pretty sure this is reserved for a select few, who clearly have a much deeper understanding of the word than I do.

2. This is the most widely used in the business and professional world, mostly referring to a code of ethics and fiduciary duties. Interestingly enough, this also means that most publicly owned companies have a primary duty to their share holders, not their customers. That is the “accepted” standard.

3. So this is the one: Adhering to ethical and moral principles. Already you can see the can of worms opening, as this is a highly subjective definition. Who’s moral principles are we talking about exactly?

Well, according to Google, these are the top categories:

1. Recycled

Recycled, or “Upcycled” as some marketing guru decided to call it, is definitely top of the list. Recycling has been around for a long time, but only in the last few years has it become prominent in the world of fashion. This is definitely a great business model, as it embodies the phrase “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”.

It is the cornerstone of brands such as Elvis & Kresse – making handbags & accessories out of decommissioned fire hoses-, Japan-based Seal -turning old tires into handbags and shoes- and Amoosi -transforming unwanted fabric into contemporary clothing.

This definitely has merit, as landfills are filling rather fast in our all-consuming, disposable-minded society – so long as the recycling process does not do more harm than good.

Recycling also fuels creativity and brings us amazing designers who think outside the box (or should that be outside the recycled bin?), producing beautiful garments from the most unlikely left-overs.

2. Organic

Organics rank pretty high as well, in the world of ethical fashion. In essence, the materials used were grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers, supporting the soil and the environment. Fiber processing and finishing are also chemical free. This includes a variety of natural fibers, such as cotton, hemp, linen & wool.

The Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in the United States as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens (acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin). Many crop fields worldwide are still aerial sprayed, causing damage to the environment and creating enormous health hazards for nearby inhabitants.

The benefits of organic are obvious and are well documented in the fair-trade movement: Better soil, better crops, better farming practices and better health for the farmers (and animals, in the case of wool).

Some cool companies in the organic category: Intuitive Organics & Rapanui, which both also abide by fair trade principles.

Where companies begin to loose credibility and start sounding like used car salesmen, is when they make statements like this:

“It stands to reason, that if you wish your babies to lead an organic lifestyle, you will want them to wear organic clothes.

A baby’s skin is five times thinner than that of an adult, making it far easier for dangerous and harmful toxins to enter their bodies. Organic baby clothing is free of toxic residue, making them – and you – more comfortable with what they’re wearing.”

Seriously?! How did my parents ever manage, I wonder…

3. Bamboo

Bamboo is full of promise. It’s the new miracle fiber of the century and it appears in almost every search. The claims are endless: anti-bacterial, breathable, green, environmentally friendly, silky soft, renewable materials, etc.

Dig a little further and you realize that bamboo is anything but green:

Most commercially available bamboo fiber is chemically processed. It involves the use of bleach, harsh caustic chemicals and an enormous amount of water.

There is also a serious problem with the renewable claims, as vast amounts of forests have been decimated to make room for this fast-growing, lucrative crop, causing devastating environmental impact on local wildlife and severe soil erosion.

Don’t take my word for it: To learn more about bamboo, read this great article Bamboo sprouting green myths.

The only exception to the above, is responsibly farmed and mechanically processed bamboo fiber. But because it is a much more time-consuming and costly process, it is unfortunately not widely available.

4. Ethical treatment of people

This refers to the treatment of the workers: Providing fair wages, ensuring safe working conditions, reasonable working hours and enabling the formation of a cooperative or worker’s union.

This should be, in my opinion, top of the list, but it isn’t.

We live in a society where pet abuse is a punishable crime and yet we can comfortably buy cheap garments, knowing (or at the very least, suspecting) that human beings are suffering a terrible fate in the production chain.

Why? I guess because it’s happening far away and it’s convenient? Of course, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the fashion world, it applies to most consumable goods and is strikingly captured in this photo documentary on child labour in Bangladesh.

But not everyone is comfortable with the status quo and great efforts are being made to educate consumers. Perhaps one of the best-known names in this category is, a company dedicated to making long-term changes on a large scale, or Cred, aiming to deliver economic justice to as many people as possible involved in the production of their jewelry.

There are many smaller, but equally committed companies such as Aura Que -producing leather and knit accessories in Kathmandu- and Lalesso – focussing on summer fashion in Cape Town.

5. 100% made in -insert your country-

This is based on products being locally sourced and manufactured, therefore supporting local communities, requiring less transportation and reducing the carbon footprint.

Although theoretically, this make sense, I find this category to be the most confusing. While searching the list of companies who boast “100% made in the U.K.” as their ethical credentials, I am somewhat confused:

Why are they selling organic cotton and bamboo products? Last time I checked, the U.K. does not produce either, so what makes these companies so special? Employing local labour? Well surely the majority of businesses, regardless of their credentials, can claim that.

This is definitely a slippery slope and I think that if a company is going to make ethical claims based on locally sourced, then surely that applies to the entire chain, otherwise it just comes across as misguided nationalism and doesn’t do a great deal to reduce the carbon footprint.

Here are a couple of companies who abides by this principle, along their entire supply chain and are well worth checking out: Ardalanish – producing fabric and clothing from native breed wool- and Green Shoes -Handmade shoes and accessories.

6. Vegan

Vegan fashion is clothing and accessories made from cruelty-free sources. No animal products were used in the making of the garments and no animal was harmed in the process.

Although personally, I don’t have an issue with animal products, as long as the animals are raised in cruelty-free conditions, I can certainly appreciate why this category is gaining popularity in the fashion world, after seeing some of the completely inhumane conditions that animals are put through (for direct consumption or by-production).

Another point here, is that it can be really hard, both as a designer and a consumer, to trace the source of the materials.

There are some big names that get a lot of press in Vegan fashion, such as Vaute Couture and Matt & Nat’s. Many other companies offer Vegan as an option in their line of products.

There are a few caveats however:

1. Although no animals were hurt in the process, very few ever mention people (with the exception of Blackspot Shoes). The conditions under which the fabrics & materials are made, remain a total mystery.

2. The use of high-tech polymers and man-made fibers. Although I appreciate there is more ongoing effort to produce such fabrics in a closed-loop environment, so as to limit the use of chemicals, it still is a chemically intensive process.


There are many tags that fall under the “ethical” umbrella. With almost every approach, you can play devil’s advocate and find flaws. That said, we have to start somewhere and I personally feel that any ethical effort, however small it may be, is a step in the right direction.

We are a consumption-based society and unless we stop breathing, we will never reverse the trend for consuming. But we can reduce the damage by making an educated choice about what we buy.

What I do have a problem with are misleading, exaggerated claims or cheap marketing tricks, because they damage the credibility of a genuine effort. Far from discouraging anyone from buying ethical, I would encourage consumers to check things out.

Poke around and check the “About” section above. Get a better overall picture of how the company fits into the ethical movement. It’s all about “Walking the walk” and not “Talking the talk”! Being “Ethical” isn’t just a tag line, it’s a conscious decision and a way of life. It’s about transparency and should reflect in the overall business decisions. What do you think?

About me – Ingrid Vercruyssen – Colour consultant and Creative director of Lilou – An artisanal company focussed on creating colourful fashion accessories that are 100% hand-made, timeless designs and made to last.

You can follow Lilou on Twitter (@liloucolours)

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