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: 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: 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 clothing 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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  • Saying your sustainable needs to encompass environment and people as in Fair Trade certifications- If someone has certification we can see who and how the garments are made and that they have in fact been vetted. That isn’t different than saying ethical.
    The problem with people saying “ethical clothing” is that often the meaning is empty. We can’t see where or how the clothing is being sourced – that is not ethical. Too many people are throwing the word around.
    If your not transparent or have standards of certified clothing and process/ manufacturing the truth is no one knows exactly what your doing.
    It’s a good conversation.

  • If not informed well, it’s very confusing. Even if you’re somewhat informed it’s hard to follow sometimes. This was a great breakdown and guide because companies slap all kinds of labels on their products that make you feel you’re doing the right thing. Although it’s a good awareness method, knowing what you are supporting and logically choosing what you support is the next better step. I hadn’t heard what slow fashion was until now and I’m glad I do now. Thank you for the post!

  • Your article is very useful because it spreads the concept of sustainable business. Human rights are often violeted in the textile sector, we must work to build a new way of experiencing fashion

  • OMG I’ve been hearing so much about slow fashion vs fast fashion as a concept since I just began my minimalist journey and this cleared things up 100%! This is exactly what I was looking for right now! Thanks! x

  • The definition of of sustainable means not only environmentally sustainable, but include the social and economic aspects of something. För something to be sustainable its needs to be sustainable in economical terms and socially sustainable for people as for the environment.

  • Kia ora,
    I came across your article while trying to craft a succinct paragraph for the concept of a business I have recently launched your definitions of sustainable, slow and ethical fashion a great!. Vegan Fashion as a separate category could be:
    Vegan Fashion – Concerns Animal Rights
    Nga mihi

  • Hi and thank you for this post, interesting and useful.

    I define myself a slow crocheter and tunisian crocheter, maker using only 100% natural fibers in the sense of non “man made” ones: wool, cotton, linen etc.
    Ethical, sustainable, organic, natural were all concepts I wasn’t able to differentiate till I read this post. Can you suggest me some more reading on this subject, so that I can go deeper in it?

  • This was super helpful, thank you! Personally, I started off trying to build a capsule wardrobe, and learned about ethical/sustainable fashion midway through. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who and what’s what.

    I’ll be back to check out some more posts! ♡

  • Slow fashion is indeed just that. It is concerned with quality textiles designed and often made by the clothing designer sometimes synthetic, sometimes natural but made or purchased in small amounts before hand making limited editions of the designers’s ideas. These pieces are unique in their quality and design and will still be stylishly wearable fifteen years from now. Slow limited edition Fashion is purchased slowly, worn longer and retains its value over time. Some will even end up in the V &A..

  • It’s great that you want to make things clear and understandable, but I’m sorry, but I fear you are confusing sustainable fashion with eco-friendly fashion. Sustainability includes both environmental and
    social aspect in the overall goal to sustain possibilities for future generations. Sustainable fashion is fashion that focuses on improving matters in terms of environmental impacts and/or ethical/social impacts.
    The term slow fashion was also coined by Professor Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion. These are also important thought within sustainability.
    I work within sustainability in fashion and such a narrow understanding of the field makes my work more complicated to communicate.

    • Hi Lisbeth, thanks for your comment! When I wrote this post a while ago, I was approaching it with a mindset of how these terms were used by ethical/sustainable/slow clothing brands. And I found that, much of the time, large brands would use “sustainable” to refer to environmental impacts (i.e. the about pages/websites of PeopleTree, Matt & Nat, Reformation, to name a few). I completely agree that sustainability includes both – however, at the time I wrote this I was using different sources of information and experience than the ones I’m sure you are used to using. I am thinking of rewriting/rewording this post to reflect that 🙂
      As for Kate Black coining the term slow fashion, do you have a link or reference to this? I thought it was a term that was around for a while longer, but I may be wrong and I’m always looking to learn more! Thanks 🙂

      • HI! Sorry, didn’t see your response to my comment before.
        About Kate Fletcher, she has researched sustainability and fashion over at least the least 15 years. According to Wikipdia, she coined the term in 2007, though of course, that is Wikipedia. However, she is the founder of the design for sustainability consultancy Slow Fashion, that has operated for over a decade. Here’s her web site:
        Hope this is helpful!

    • I agree that ethical fashion is the broadest definition available, encompassing everything from vegan fashion to slow fashion to fair trade and/or American made fashion. Slow fashion or ecological fashion would be examples of more specific subsets of ethical fashion. And sustainable fashion would be an even narrower definition of ecological fashion that contains within it the 3 tenants of sustainable businesses: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. Because a production method can be ecological (ex: upcycled polyester) without being perfectly sustainable for future generations (ex: hemp).

  • Hello, nice piece. I just felt that slow fashion’s definition is too narrow. From where I see, slow fashion also regards preventing environmental and social impact. You see, the motivation behind it, is precisely the negative impact that the industry has today. Why do we see as important to reduce our consumption? Because of its impact. It’s simply no longer sustainable, meaning possible to sustain. And why is it important to “slow down”? In few words, fast consumption requires faster ways of production which includes environmental impacts and doubtful labor relations. Not to mention the society pressure on us to buy, be in shape and all the known standards that we all should achieve.

    So slow fashion has also sustainable and ethical aspects. The three definitions are profoundly connected. By only saing that its focus relies “on the piece itself”, we could neglect all the motivations behind it. Yes, some brands choose neutral shapes and colors, timeless they say, so it is easier to match with other clothes, and the pieces are made of really good materials so it lasts. But, you know, all products should be!

    The problem is the massification, which is a product and a tool to accelerate consumption. Slow fashion is more about style, just as you said. And it is also about saying no to trends, to fashion mags and fashion as we know now, but only if you don’t really connect with it. So “timeless” should stop being black, white and nude in simple cuts, and start being each one’s personal style. Maybe the next trend will be sequins, for exemple, and you realize you love it and want to wear it forever. That is what slow fashion is about, buying something through wich you can express yourself. And saying no to massification when it comes and say “ok no more sequins, throw it away and now you’ll wear plain designs” or so.

    Slow fashion is about points of view, diversity and consciousness in all areas. To slow down, to think about what you really need, who you truly are, to buy only when you are sure about it and to care about products, extending it’s use, not letting it be forgotten in the closet. Slow fashion is about reuse, redesign, recycling. It is about the piece itself indeed, but not only. Not only about the design. Because we must not deceive ourselves, people are constantly changing and so does the way they see and express themselves. So they will get bored and tired of the peoducts they have. But changing, renewing them is a great way of satisfacting the need for change while reducing the impact.

    For me, sustainable fashion focuses on the product’s life cycle impact and mainly search ways to reduce these impacts from the beginning of the development project. It’s more practical. You know, the three pillars are social, environmental and economical, so I’m very critic with this definition, because I don’t believe it’s possible to have a free of impact industry right now. We’re not ready. And also there are many companies using this term but focusing only on one of the pillars (or none…)

    We think more or less the same about ethical fashion. It concerns ethics, which means thinking about us and the relation with others, how what we do can affect others. I see the focus here in what’s fair or not to do in any involved area.

    Sorry about the huge comment!

    • Hi Betina, don’t apologize, thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment! I totally understand where you’re coming from – slow fashion is definitely very closely intertwined with ethical and sustainable fashion. The reason I don’t use or refer to slow fashion as the overarching term that includes it all is because I’ve seem people adopt slow fashion (i.e. capsule wardrobes) without the motivators and intentions of also switching to ethical/sustainable fashion, and I think it’s possible to adopt slow fashion without also adopting ethical/sustainable fashion. Of course, I think it’s always best to adopt all three 🙂 I also agree that slow fashion doesn’t mean all neutrals or all simple pieces – it definitely is also about embracing personal style. When I mentioned trends, I was referring to when people buy and follow them blindly without considering if they even like the trend to begin with, and if they’ll still like it when it’s not “trendy” anymore.
      Thanks again for your comment! I love hearing other people’s thoughts 🙂

      • I agree with both of you, I think the terms are hugely overlapping in nature. There is a lot of confusion about which is a subset of which, and where the overlap happens. It would be interesting to put this question to some of the leaders in this movement and see what definitions they believe in. Maybe I’ll email Kate Fletcher this link and ask her to comment!

      • Hello, dear, thank you for your answer! Always good to talk with people that are also thinking, writing and making fair fashion! It feels like we’re able to multiply our knowledge by spreading it. My website is and I invite you to know my work and also, stay in touch if you’d like to! Regards, Betina

    • Hi Naomi, I’m glad you liked the article! What exactly do you wish there was more explanation for? I’d love to answer your questions!

    • Hello, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful! While I don’t do full syndication, feel free to include the first paragraph of the article as well as a link to this page for the full version. Thanks!

  • Thanks you for your insights and thoughts! I like the general, simple division you made between the first two terms. I would however, alter or expand your definition of slow fashion, to a term that concerns the intention of consumption. Slow fashion stands for an idea, it defines the mindset of respecting resources and valuing quality over quantity, as producers and consumers alike.

  • Hi Elena!
    It is great to read you! I enjoy reading your articles and love that you share great values with your followers! You also dig deep into ideas, which is just what I love! Challengers, questioners are SO my cup of tea! Haha =)
    I just wished to express my thoughts on one aspect; sustainable fashion.
    I personally believe that with sustainability, comes durability and stability. So for me, something sustainable should be useful on the longer term, last long, and be made in a way that will in 20 years from now still be accurate.
    So when I think of a sustainable garment, I think it has to last long. The design has to be thoughtful and purposeful, the fabric used has to be durable and strong (which is really what most of natural fabrics are) and the workers have to be treated in a way that will always be the right way to treat people. To me, sustainable fashion really embraces ethics, environment, and design. What do you think? Or should we call this “responsible fashion”?
    Will be looking to hearing from you and maybe all your readers as well :)!

    Cheers from sunny Paris *** woohoo ***

  • 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 ( 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!