Ethical Fashion, what is behind the label?


We are increasingly hearing more about brands that promote themselves as being part of the eco, ethical, or fair fashion movement.  But what does “ethical” fashion mean exactly? What are the criteria for certification?    Why is it important for consumers to differentiate ethical brands from non-ethical brands? When a brand is guided by ethical principles, the designers, manufacturers, and consumers are committed to garments and textiles with the smallest possible impact on the natural and social environment – from the product’s design to its manufacturing to its sale in the marketplace.   Brands that have fair-trade certified products show their consumers WHERE and HOW their products were made, increasing transparency through the supply chain.

The growing need for certified ethical apparel is mainly due to the fact that the apparel industry is still responsible for several cases of worker abuse and environmental degradation. Unethical practices have been largely covered by the media.   A few examples are described below:

  • Unhealthy working environment: Mix of cotton dust with hot and humid air can  cause lung and breathing illnesses.
  • Exploitation and abuse: Workers from textiles factories located in developing countries (e.g. Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Honduras etc.) have been found uncompensated for their overtime work. Field research report cases of child labor and adult workers treated inhumanely. Many workers earn less than $1.00 a day and work 11 to 13 hours daily with no breaks. In some factories, workers are constantly pressured, threatened, or fired by their superiors if they fail to meet mandatory production goals.
  • Unsafe machinery and long hours: Extreme tiredness of textile workers due to excessively long working hours  can cause serious accidents while operating factory machinery.
  • Textile growing practices are damaging the environment: Cotton is considered the world's 'dirtiest' crop due to its heavy use of insecticides. Indeed, cotton covers 2.5% of the world's cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world's insecticides, more than any other single major crop. The Organic Trade Association provides complete information on this issue. The Aral Sea in Central Asia, stands for one of the most tragic example of environmental and human disaster due to cotton production. The Aral Sea is once the world’s fourth-largest lake, but it has been disappearing since the 1960s, when planners from the former Soviet Union began siphoning water to grow cotton in what is now Uzbekistan. The Environment Justice Foundation provides a great report on this issue.

Bellow is a picture that shows how much the lack shrunk since 1989 (15% of its former volume).

As designers, manufacturers, retailers, or consumers, we need to recognize that despite our very limited exposure to the factory environment and the lives of garment workers in developing countries, our day-to-day decisions will have significant impact on workers in factories around the world. Through the acts of making and buying clothes, we influence a cumulative chain of events back through the supply chain that impact workers, their health, their communities, and the environment. Our consuming choices matter!

Here is a great video that highlights issues that need to be addressed in the global apparel industry. This video has been created by the Fair Wear Foundation, whose mission is to improve labor condition in the garment industry:

Fair Wear Formula, video from the Fair Wear Foundation web site:

  • IF YOU ARE A DESIGNER, there are a lots of great resources that you can use to help you apply ethical principles:

Fair Trade USA enables sustainable development and community empowerment by cultivating a more equitable global trade model that benefit farmers, workers, consumers, industry, and the environment. They achieve their mission by certifying and promoting Fair Trade products. If you are also interested in learning more about positive AND drawback impacts of fair-trade practices, articles such as "Big business, mass markets and fretting farmers, by Albert Tucker reports from the frontline of the battle for fair trade’s soul" from the New Internationalist magazine (Nov 2006), provide great information on fair-trade impacts for producers.

Source Network, Ethical Fashion Forum: Online Fashion community dedicated to sustainability.

MADE-BY Tools  is a European not-for-profit organization with a mission to improve environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry. They provide interesting tools for fashion businesses that want to go green and social. Below is an example of their virtual map that helps track and trace products all the way through the supply chain.

MADE-BY present its Wet processing tool in a short video:

For the Seattle Shopper: : Check out Spun on Capitol Hill!   This is the perfect place to buy quality garments and jewelry made by local designers and out of eco fabrics and materials. Sara, the owner, is an inspiring and talented designer. She will help you find the perfect outfit for yourself. Here is SPUN address:


For all Shoppers: YOUR CHOICES MATTER! You have the power to influence the market in the right direction. MUSES is interested in serving consumers who care about their communities’ health and well-being. MUSES will promote the creation of ethical products (clothing and accessories) that will be made by partnering with designers who follow ethical principles. MUSES will give back its benefits to support refugees resettling in the US. MUSES will also bring more transparency to the supply chain  by helping consumers track every stage of our products development.