How to Make Ethical Fashion Part of Your Wardrobe

 two men standing back to back under trees - how to make ethical fashion part of your wardrobe

Fair trade. Ethically sourced. What leaps to mind when you read these terms on a clothing label or fashion retailer’s website? Do you envision a raw-materials-to-end-user chain completely devoid of exploitation that allows us to fill our clothing hangers and dresser drawers with a clean conscience? Gosh, that would be nice. Clothes shopping then becomes an act of benevolence to all humankind. Yes, this is a worthy ideal to pursue.

But how?

Perhaps the easiest first step for the budding ethical shopper is to spend your fashion budget with second-hand clothing vendors.

The Ethical Consumer website also offers a list of 10 easy wardrobe-stocking practices that have a big impact. Some are further reaching and more financially-based: shop with co-operatives to support democratic business models, challenge corporate power through organized actions and personal practices and choose an ethical institution for your financial service provider.

Another simple action is to read the labels of all potential brand new garment purchases.

Know Your Labels

Check this short list of the most popular certifications to find out the focus of each one:

B CorpJust remember that the “B” stands for beneficial. This mark denotes a business whose practices benefit society as a whole, though individual brands may emphasize different practices to get there.

Better Cotton StandardIdentifies companies that want to move towards using more ethical cotton sourcing but are not fully organic or GMO- and pesticide-free.

BluesignIdentifies textile mills focused on minimizing their toxicity through the use of processes and materials that reduce environmental impact.

Climate BeneficialIdentifies wool sources that help sequester excess carbon and minimize negative outcomes from farming.

Cradle to CradleIdentifies brands concerned with the end-of-life impact of their product and ethical material sourcing on the front end.

Fair Trade USAIdentifies brands that focus on garment labourers' rights in their supply chain.

Fair Wear (company mark)An independent, non-profit organization whose members work towards implementation of the FWF Code of Labour Practices and have all their factories third party scrutinized.

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)Aids in the verification of textiles made using organic materials and/or producers who implement organic practices in the creation of their textiles. Upholds the labour standards set forth by the International Labour Organization.

Leather Working GroupIdentifies brands that source leather from environmentally responsible suppliers.

Nest Seal of Ethical HandcraftA non-profit focused on artisan work handmade in home or workshop settings under fair and ethical conditions.

STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEXCertifies that textiles are free of substances harmful to humans and keep toxic dyes and chemicals out of their textile processing and final products.

Regenerative Organic CertificationIdentifies brands that are working with fibre farmers aiming to draw a maximum amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, as well as promote soil health, animal welfare and social fairness.

USDA OrganicCertifies agricultural products like cotton or cashmere that are produced free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or GMOs, but doesn't necessarily cover dyes, finishes or other treatments. The USDA allows GOTS-certified textiles to be sold in the United States as organic.

WFTO Fair Trade Organization Mark (company mark)Another fair trade labelling organization; this label doesn’t guarantee a certified product, but denotes that a company is making efforts to improve working conditions in its supply chain.

Consider Fabric Content

Look also at the source fibre of each garment. Even 100% organic cotton is fraught with ethical issues, from seed to material manufacturing to garment fabrication. Cotton is a very thirsty crop to grow and process, and its global labour force, usually made up of people in poorer, less developed countries, is highly susceptible to exploitative employer practices. Add to this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 20,000 deaths occur annually in developing nations from pesticide poisoning, of which many can be attributed to the traditionally grown cotton industry.

Flax linen is better, bamboo fabric places higher yet, and hemp reigns supreme as the world’s most sustainable and versatile textile crop.

Big names are joining the sustainable fabric movement. Levi’s has a hemp jean now, a return to founder Levi Strauss’ original fabric of choice for his workman’s pant for the 1850s gold rush miners.

Ask About Workers’ Rights

close up of industrial sewing machine with man's arm in background - how to make ethical fashion part of your wardrobe
A growing number of fashion retailers are actively pursuing the issue of human rights through purchasing choices and policies which aim to maintain fair standards, but this cannot guarantee ethical practices because of the complexity of supply chains. Companies are still frequently sourcing from factories where workers are treated unfairly and/or employee health and safety is put at risk.

It is up to the end user to ask questions about sourcing to avoid purchasing sweat shop products and buy fairly traded clothing instead. By doing so, you help ensure that early supply chain producers and workers, usually in developing countries, receive a fair piece of the pie for their labour and that labour is performed under decent working conditions. Fair trade’s ultimate goal is a higher standard of living for all through the reduction of poverty and the promotion of sustainability.

Look for Eco-Collaborations

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that fashion conglomerates are finding their guiding lights in the initiatives of smaller garment industry start-ups. The very nature of a start-up is to address a recognized shortfall in the supply for a very specific and new popular demand. Small fashion businesses must be particularly responsive to consumer requests and the #shoplocal movement has empowered artisans and entrepreneurs to pursue their ideal product dreams, bringing them to a more and more receptive market that seeks planet-friendly solutions.

“As the solutions to a lot of sustainable issues are technology and algorithm-based there are also growing numbers of examples of niche start-ups filling very specific gaps in the armoury of larger companies” Glynn Davis, Retail Insider.

Enter eco-collaborations. Fashion has often been, as Davis says, “held up as the worst face of consumer culture,” and with good reason. Industry behemoths lumber along in their well-established paths, finding it difficult and expensive to risk a lane change on such a large scale. Davis explains, however, that nowadays, savvy corporations like Adidas are collaborating with little innovative fashion manufacturers who are more adroit to market trends to learn the newest green techniques and best ethical practices.

Where to Shop

City-dwelling fashionistas have a better selection of ethical clothing outlets, but retailers in smaller urban centres are stocking eco-responsible and fair trade options as consumer awareness and ensuing demand grow. Some popular brands with their focus on ethical, fair trade production include Patagonia, the outdoor gear company; Eileen Fisher, best known for her organic linen women’s clothing; and tentree, the Vancouver, Canada manufacturer of cozy, casual essentials.

Ask questions when browsing the racks. The staff is there to share their product knowledge with you and help you make the best choice possible. If they don’t have the answers, your phone is your next best source for referencing label definitions and planet-friendly brands. There’s always an answer.

By Jane Thornton

Feature image: cottonbro; Image 1: Anna Tarazevich