Ethical vs. Sustainable vs. Slow Fashion Explained

If you’re new to the ethical/sustainable/slow fashion scene, you’ve undoubtedly heard these words being used and have probably wondered what the difference between all of these things are. You may have even noticed that sometimes, what one person or company considers ethical is quite different than another’s version of it’s definition. So let’s clear up any confusion right off the bat: there is no real, universal definition for “ethical fashion”, while there is a more or less stable understanding of what sustainable fashion and slow fashion means.

Sustainable Fashion:Β This refers to the effects of the production of clothing on the environment. This includes the use of pesticides in growing cotton, other natural, sustainable fabrics, the dyes used for various colours, water and waste treatment, energy reduction, using recycled materials, and sometimes even packaging. The list of opportunities to be a more sustainable fashion brand goes on and on.

Slow Fashion:Β This generally refers to the style, design and quality of the garment, as well as the intention behind how it was made (a.k.a. – not a fast fashion brand). It involves buying clothing made of durable fabrics and staying away from fluctuating trends so you can still wear the pieces you love years down the road.

But what’s ethical fashion? I have my own personal definition, which is this:

Ethical Fashion: This refers to how the clothing was made, encompassing everything from how the cotton was grown to how the garment workers who made the clothes are treated and paid, their safety (no sweatshops, child labour, worker abuse, or slavery involved).

Sometimes, sustainable fashion and animal treatment is also included under the “ethical fashion” umbrella, which is also a completely reasonable way to define it. Is caring for the environment rather than producing ridiculous amounts of waste ethical? Of course. Is treating animals with respect and dignity when using their products (i.e. wool, silk, etc.) and ethical issue? Definitely.

Still, I like to differentiate between these because I want to be as specific as possible when I talk or write about it. For example, if I was talking about fashion that focused on animal treatment, I would probably call it “vegan fashion”, unless you’re referring specifically to something along the lines of peace silk.

So here’s a quick little summary:

Ethical Fashion – concerns human rights.

Sustainable Fashion – concerns the environment.

Slow Fashion – concerns the clothingΒ piece itself.

How do you feel about these definitions for ethical, sustainable and slow fashion? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • I actually think sustainable is the most comprehensive term to use, because it ideally refers to a business that prioritizes sustainability in every aspect: fair labor, eco-friendly production, positive work environment, financial stability, original design, etc. “Ethical,” for me, is a way of framing positive business within the larger context of ethics and social good. I created some definitions here (http://www.stylewise-blog.com/p/terms-definitions.html) and alter them slightly when new information arises.

    For me, for something to be ethical is has to do more than be “mindful” in one way. It should be concerned with a long term benefit.

  • Thanks for that definition. I think it’s a good place to start, however I would disagree with you on sustainable being only about the environment. In theory, sustainable development is about social and economic development and environmental protection. So, I think sustainable fashion is both about the ethics and the environment. If I were only taking about the environmental aspect, I would probably use ecofashion. Therefore, for me, ethical fashion and ecofashion are both subsets of sustainable fashion.

    • Hi Stephanie, thanks for your input! I think it’s more rare to hear, at least within the slow fashion industry, of brands or people using the word ‘sustainable’ to refer to economic/social factors, just because I feel like it’s slowly becoming synonymous with ‘green’ and ‘eco’ for the general public. But you’re totally right, technically and in theory, it does also refer to those things, which fashion has started to refer to more within the ‘ethical fashion’ definition. These are based on the terminology that, in my experience, the majority of influencers and brands tend to use. It just goes to show that people do differ on what certain words imply to them, and that if we really care about a certain cause or aspect of it, we may need to dig a little deeper than simply seeing a specific word and checking off a box in our heads!