Force of Change

Ethical Fashion: Transcending Hot-Button Issues

From sustainable production practices to fair wages in factories, there are numerous arguments to be had around the ethics of fashion. Not Just A Label contributor Ruth MacGilp tackles this topic by asking a question we should all be putting forth: how can we make a difference?

As the fever around ethical fashion bubbles over, it is more important than ever to bring back the conversation to what really matters. The dictionary defines ‘ethical’ as ‘adhering to moral principles’ or ‘conforming to accepted standards of social behavior’, but when it comes to fashion, we tend to ignore the simple maxim of doing what’s right, and instead hurry towards clickbait headlines and hot-button issues.

Like many of my contemporaries, I have questioned myself over and over on my decision to continue to pursue work in the fashion industry. Objectively, as someone whose values include environmentalism and human rights, the status quo of the fashion industry certainly does not align with my moral code. The facts are there in black and white: clothing and textiles production is the second largest industrial polluter in the world, UK households sent over 300,000 tonnes of textile waste to landfill last year, the majority of garment workers for fast fashion brands are living below the poverty line, and as reported from Fashion Revolution, on a single day in 2013, 1,138 innocent people died from a factory collapse in Bangladesh as a direct result of the ignorance of health and safety laws in fashion manufacturing.


But as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. I truly believe that lasting change happens when it starts from the inside out. So how do I make a difference?

For those passionate about the growing movement towards a more ethical and sustainable industry, it quickly becomes clear that until we move on from the #trending topics, we will be forever banished to the bottom of the global priorities list. Fashion is already dismissed all too often as a frivolous and flippant pursuit (despite every person that puts on a pair of pants in the morning taking an active role in the fashion world), so to latch on to hot-button issues as they come and go only sets that stereotype in stone.

The topical, newsworthy topics that the industry almost exclusively gravitates towards can be categorized into social, economic and environmental. The social theme is largely focused on health and safety, as a result of the Rana Plaza building collapse and the subsequent launch of Fashion Revolution, a global ethical fashion charity. The economic theme can be simplified as the movement towards paying more for our clothes so that garment workers can be paid a fairer wage, and the environmental theme is very on trend, centred around the plastic apocalypse and landfill. However, it is imperative to take on a holistic view, and educate ourselves on the multitude of issues that make up our highly problematic fashion industry.

Let’s start with the social. One issue that is not often considered in the ethical fashion debate, although it has gained media traction in recent years with the help of social media accounts like Instagram phenomenon @diet_prada, is that of intellectual property and copyright. This is without a doubt a fundamental ethical issue because it is legally and colloquially classified as theft, an act which is undeniably unethical.

Another similarly newsworthy ethical issue is cultural appropriation, whereby largely Western designers use traditional signifiers of external civilisations for capital gain in their designs, without the active involvement of local communities and craftspeople. Why don’t we classify the theft of cultural heritage in the ethical fashion umbrella? 


What’s more, in the post #metoo era we are currently living in, arguably the most important social issue here is the sexual harassment that occurs at every stage in the supply chain, from farms to factories, shop floors to boardrooms. Curiously, this is seldom included in dialogue surrounding ethical fashion. 

This movement also routinely excludes the historical and continual reliance of the fashion industry on unpaid labour. Anyone would argue that paying fair wages for hard work is a significant ethical standpoint, however the hypocritical world we live and work in periodically depends upon a never-ending supply of unpaid internships and freelance creatives working for ‘exposure’. Even certified sustainable fashion brands employ interns on an ‘expenses only’ basis, while fighting tirelessly for a minimum wage for garment workers on the other side of the world.

Much of my passion around this comes after reading Fashion Ethics by Dr. Sue Thomas. This book is a deep dive into the world of ethics in the fashion industry, exploring everything from animal and human rights to racism, ageism and sexism, from carbon emissions and landfill waste to cultural appropriation and child sexualisation. I am astounded by just how refreshing the writer’s approach and attitude to the multitude of ethical issues within the fashion world really is, focusing on a completely holistic approach with an equal exploration into every possible ethical dilemma in every single stage of the fashion life cycle. 

None of this is to undermine the immense importance of our current hot-button topics; garment worker wellbeing and fundamental rights, and of course reducing landfill and the use of plastics. Instead, my purpose is to refocus the attention of the sustainability warriors back to the very definition of ethics: doing what’s right. And if we endeavour to do the morally ‘correct’ thing in every area of our lives, why not in every area of the fashion industry, too? Let’s look beyond organic cotton t-shirts, corporate social responsibility policies and philanthropic fashion influencers, and instead embrace a truly inclusive conversation about a systematically flawed industry.