texts & textiles

Sustainable, Ethical, or Slow Fashion: What's the Difference?

Someone once asked why I make “sustainable” fashion, and I hesitated to answer. Was my clothing sustainable? Or was it ethical? Slow? Did it even make a difference?

I’ve been on this journey toward more mindful consumption for years, and when this gave me pause, I couldn’t help but wonder how those who are new to conscious consumerism feel.

More and more people are transitioning their wardrobes to focus on ethically produced garments, small brands, and sustainable options. But the world of slow fashion can seem daunting to those who are new to it; there's so much information out there, and some of it can be unnecessarily self-righteous, dogmatic, or preachy.

And when many brands are online, selling direct to consumer, it's not always easy to differentiate one brand from another. Screens have a kind of flattening effect, and it’s hard to decipher what’s actually “ethical,” and what’s slick marketing.

I love providing one-on-one guidance and advising, but before diving in, it’s helpful to know the distinctions between each.

Fast Fashion is characterized by brands who design, create, and produce products to align with trends, often knocking off major designers and cutting corners in order to produce very cheap garments. I won’t go into detail about the atrocities of fast fashion here because there are other resources out there (The True Cost), and there’s an abbreviated list of brands that fit the distinction on Wikipedia. Usually if the cost seems too good to be true, it is.

Slow Fashion usually encompasses sustainable and ethical fashion and takes a holistic approach to consumption. There’s some debate over what constitutes slow fashion, but to state the obvious: with slow fashion, we literally slow down our rate of consumption. Instead of purchasing more pieces, proponents of slow fashion focus on taking care of what they already own—by mending clothing, relying on a tailor to update garments, and seeking a cobbler to care for shoes.

When it comes to purchasing items, there are brands that fit the slow fashion ethos, where pieces are made with high quality materials, with environmentally and ecologically sound practices, and in styles that will last. A great indicator of a slow fashion brand is one that fine-tunes or tweaks patterns or styles over time, as opposed to releasing new styles each week, month, or season. Another indicator is a brand that produces made-to-order garments.

Buying secondhand is also a great option for slow fashion proponents, as the movement also takes into account the full lifecycle of a garment to ensure fabrics don’t wind up in landfills. (Turning towels into cleaning rags or hosting a swap for items that are still in wearable condition are two examples of actions that would fit a slow fashion ethos.)

Karen Templer, the founder of Slow Fashion October and owner of Fringe Supply Co. says, “It’s the opposite of fast fashion.” While she notes that it carries different meanings for different people, for Templer, “it primarily means not thinking of your clothes as disposable. It’s about trying to be informed and conscientious about where things are made, under what conditions, and at what human and environmental cost. Choosing carefully; owning fewer things for longer; incorporating handmade and secondhand; and taking care and responsibility for what you own.”

Sustainable Fashion, according to Green Strategy in Sweden, “can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects.” So ‘sustainable’ fashion takes the environment into account all stages of the product’s life cycle: from design, production, sale, ownership and usage, and disposal. Likewise, it also keeps in mind the socio-economic conditions and how to improve them.

From an environmental perspective, the aim should be to minimize any undesirable environmental effect of the product’s life cycle by: (a) ensuring efficient and careful use of natural resources (water, energy, land, soil, animals, plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, etc); (b) selecting renewable energy sources (wind, solar, etc) at every stage, and (c) maximizing repair, remake, reuse, and recycling of the product and its components. From a socio-economic perspective, all stakeholders should work to improve present working conditions for workers on the field, in the factories, transportation chain, and stores, by aligning with good ethics, best practice and international codes of conduct. In addition, fashion companies should contribute to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns, caring and washing practices, and overall attitudes to fashion. (Green Strategy, June 2014)

Ethical Fashion is an umbrella term that tends to focus on how people and animals are treated in the manufacturing and production of clothing. It pertains to working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare. WhoWhatWear defines ethical fashion as “fair treatment and respect for the people employed to create the clothing.” But one (now-defunct) website noted that a definitive definition is unrealistic, given the subjective component of personal ethics. What one person constitutes as “fair treatment” might be considered unfair to someone else.

For instance, for some ‘ethical’ brands, fair treatment means adhering to local labor laws, like paying minimum wage. In the USA, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which would put a full-time worker slightly above the federal poverty level. An ethical brand might commit to paying minimum wage, which is technically ethical when compared to brands that pay garment workers below minimum wage. (But keep in mind most garment manufacturing happens in cities like NYC and LA, where the cost of living is higher.)

For other ethical brands, they work to go above and beyond labor laws, understanding that some countries don’t enforce legislation and have low standards to begin with. Some ethical brands choose to pay a “living wage” instead, which would put workers above the poverty level. So there’s no real uniformity to the term “ethical” in garment manufacturing.

Clearly there’s some overlap between ethical, sustainable, and slow fashion. Yet a brand can be environmentally sustainable but not necessarily ethical, while another can be ethical in their treatment of workers but not environmentally sustainable. And another brand could check the boxes of being environmentally sustainable and ethical, but produce new products at such a fast rate that they come nowhere close to “slow fashion.”

I point this out not to confuse you, but to let you know that if you’re confused, you’re not crazy. I made a lot of mistakes when I was starting out, which is why I offer personal styling and wardrobe advising for clients. As a designer and seamstress, I aim to empower clients to learn more about garment construction and manufacturing, so you can make informed decisions about how to best integrate quality items into your wardrobe. I'm here to help guide you in your quest to support conscientious brands and practices, and make this process as easy as possible for you.

A partial list of other terms to know:

Circular Design: products that are designed and produced with the intention of being repaired, remade, reused, and recycled or biodegraded at the end of its lifetime. This often includes a “closed loop” system, and products that are non-toxic and biodegradable, minimizing waste. Certain companies have “take back” programs, but beware of slick marketing tactics from brands that turn around and incinerate or send items to a landfill. Also, note that certain fabrics (like synthetics) can be recycled but not repeatedly, and the processes for converting waste into new materials can sometimes be toxic, energy-intensive, or harmful to the environment.

Cruelty-free: a term implying the product or brand is mindful of animal welfare; manufactured or developed by methods that do not involve experimentation on animals. (Not clearly defined by law, and the term is not standardized.)

Living Wage: a wage that is high enough to maintain a normal standard of living (usually above the poverty level).

Organic: products manufactured without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial ingredients. This may not account for toxins like dyes that are introduced at later stages in production.

Transparency: brands publicly (and usually willingly) share information about where products are designed and manufactured, and who produces them. (Take transparency with a grain of salt though, as it’s easy for online-only brands to share what they want you to see.)

Traceability: the ability to trace products and their components from raw material through each step of the supply chain. (The only brand that I’ve seen do this successfully is Elizabeth Suzann’s 2016 Cold Weather Collection.)