Guilt-free fashion: A beginner’s guide to ethical style

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Ethical clothing is in fashion.

Two-third of consumers are now willing to spend more on brands that are sustainable. And fashion companies, increasingly cottoning on to that fact, are falling over themselves to promote their green credentials.

But if you’ve noticed brands using vaguely feel-good phrases such as “organic,” “conscious,” and “circular” in their marketing, you might’ve wondered what the jargon actually means — and which certifications or terms the ethically-conscious consumer really should look out for.

So in the name of making your next shopping trip less confusing — and so you can have more of an impact — we asked three ethical fashion experts for guidance on how you can shop with a clear conscience.

Hit the internet

Ethical, sustainable, or both? Learning the terminology

Sustainable fashion: Fashion that minimises its effect on the environment — whether it’s contamination of local waterways from toxic chemicals or dyes, production of waste scraps, overuse of packaging, use of pesticides on cotton, overuse of water during the manufacturing process, or use of oil and petroleum to make certain fabrics.

Ethical fashion: Focuses on human rights concerns such as abolishing child labour, ensuring garment workers are treated and paid fairly, and ensuring working conditions are safe. The term is also sometimes used to cover all issues related to ethics in fashion, including environmental considerations, animal welfare, tax dodging, or company marketing.

Circular fashion: Fashion that’s designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulated responsibly and effectively for as long as possible — and when it’s no longer of human use, to return safely to the biosphere.

Sources: Camille Reed, Gershon Nimbalker,

If you know your way around a search engine, you’ve got everything you need to start researching a brand’s ethical practices.

“Step number one is checking their website and finding out whether they’ve got a link to their manufacturing or supply chain,” says Camille Reed, a Melbourne-based sustainable fashion and textiles consultant, and founder of the Australasian Circular Textile Association.

About one in three businesses disclose this information, which will generally include a list of supplier business names and addresses, says Gershon Nimbalker, Baptist World Aid Australia advocacy manager.

But beware of vague, fluffy allusions to “social responsibility” in the absence of any specific information. It could be a form of greenwashing, warns Ms Reed.

“If you can’t find any evidence or facts or good news stories about a brand that they love, the chances are they’re not” engaging in concrete ethical practices, she says.

Mr Nimbalker, who co-authored his organisation’s 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, agrees that “nice wordage” on a website doesn’t always translate to “a strong policy where workers are protected”.

Several companies that scored the lowest grades in his organisation’s report “have some really lofty commitments” written in their marketing materials, he adds. 

‘Made in Australia’ isn’t a green light

Close up of woman sorting through rack of button up shirt, representing the extra effort that ethical fashion finding requires.
IMAGEBuying sustainable and ethical fashion requires a bit of digging work.(Unsplash: Becca McHaffie)

Choosing locally-made fashion is a sure-fire way to keep a clear conscience, right?

Sadly, not so much.

It’s a common misconception that “made in Australia” means “made ethically”. In reality, “firms headquartered in Australia and New Zealand are largely trailing behind their international counterparts” on the sustainability front, according to the authors of the 2018 Baptist World Aid report.

Australian brands may also unknowingly or knowingly exploit workers, either in Australia or abroad, by outsourcing parts of the manufacturing or supply process.

“Supply chains are complex and people might not know that some of the work they’re doing is actually being given out to someone else,” says Ethical Clothing Australia’s national manager Angela Bell.

Australian clothing, bag and footwear companies also sometimes employ home workers or outworkers, meaning workers involved in making products from home. These workers are predominantly women, people from non-English speaking backgrounds or migrant workers.

And according to a 2017 report by the Fair Work Ombudsman, they are all too often paid below the minimum award rate (which, at roughly $38,000 per annum, is already one of the lowest minimum award rates in Australia.)

When it comes to ethical manufacturing processes, not all fabrics are made equal.

Natural fibres including alpaca wool, cashmere, hemp, jute, leather, merino wool, mohair, organic cotton, organic wool and recycled polyester are among the more sustainable fibres on the market. They can biodegrade or be more easily recycled than some other options, explains Ms Reed.

“They can break down at the end of their life and there’s not so much synthetics,” she says.

Some of the less sustainable textiles include PU (polyurethane), unrecycled polyester (which uses a lot of oil and petroleum to make), and non-organic cotton “because it’s so heavily reliant on using water, leading to soil degradation,” Ms Reed says.

And don’t be fooled by terms like “vegan leather”. It doesn’t involve animal products, but comes with many of the same environmental problems as other synthetic fibres.

Large chain stores that churn out on-trend, low-cost fast fashion may have a reputation for less ethical practices.

But Mr Nimbalker says large fast fashion companies, including H&M, Zara and Kmart Australia, have stepped up their labour rights management systems to guard against forced labour and child labour.

Other resources to check out

To learn more about a brand’s ethical practices, you can also search independent resources such as:

  • Good On You, an ethical shopping app
  • Ethical Clothing Australia, which publishes a list of the Australian brands that have voluntary accreditation with that organisation
  • Baptist World Aid Australia’s ethical fashion guide, which includes a list of labels graded by ethical practices 
  • Independent ethical fashion blogs such as Ecowarrior princess

“There’s this expectation that there’s a correlation between the price you pay for an item and their labour standards,” Mr Nimbalker says.

“For the most part we don’t see that.”

That’s not a totally free pass to buy fast fashion, though: even if large chain stores are doing their bit to beat child labour and forced labour, “at that lower price point when you’re competing on price, it’s very hard to ensure their workers are earning a living wage”.

Fast fashion chains also tend to “push out more products faster and cheaper, and that drives demand for people to constantly be turning over products,” Mr Nimbalker says.

For that reason, many ethical fashion advocates adopt a “slow fashion” mentality, making a deliberate choice to buy high-quality items less often.

Avoid fad trends

Close up of man with beard doing up his tie, representing classic clothing styles that are ethical fashion for their longevity
IMAGESticking to classic cuts and styles will ensure your pieces last longer.(Unsplash: Freestocks)

Speaking of slow fashion, you might want to consider your attitude to fads and consumption. If you’re in the habit of regular shopping, buying fewer items at a higher quality could help reduce your contribution to unethical fashion practices.

“The challenge for consumers is to stop thinking of buying things that are sort of seasonal and instead buying things that actually last. And when you do invest in something like that and you put it on, you can tell the difference,” Ms Bell says

Adopting the old adage “repair, reuse, recycle”‘ not only saves money: “It creates the capacity to invest more in high-quality clothing where workers are empowered,” Mr Nimbalker says.

So next time you feel the urge to shop, how about trying an op shop?

Or if you fall in love with a garment that you’d like to buy new, Ms Reed suggests asking yourself: “Do you need the garment? Is this product quality? Does it require a lot of washing? Will I use it in five, 10 years?”

As she explains: “It’s just about making smart choices.”