Why ‘Ethical Fashion’ Needs A Name Change

By Rachel Kibbe

Why ‘Ethical Fashion’ Needs A Name Change

Generally what happens when I bring up what I do in life to a group of people who aren’t directly involved in sustainability or fashion, their response goes something like this: firstly I’m on the receiving end of an overall facial expression that screams, “OK Gwyneth. Don’t we all wish we could waste our lives steaming our vaginas and disavowing vaccination?”

Then words come:

“Ethical Fashion. Psh. Does that mean like ‘honest pants’? Scoff. Humph.”

“Ohh! Ethical fashion? Is that like wearing shirts made out of recycled paper?”

Sometimes the words are cuter:

“Oh yeah! Like hemp stuff!”

While those questions, aside from the vaccines and vagina steaming, evaluated technically aren’t, um wrong. They’re wrong.

The term ‘ethical fashion’ to the unacquainted seems so contradictory that it’s been slow to get mainstream attention or sympathy. And while the movement has grown leaps and bounds still most people generally have no ideal WTF I’m even talking about when I talk about ‘ethical fashion’.

So here’s why semantics, rhetoric, nomenclature, the art of naming things, is important. 'Ethical Fashion', 'Sustainable Fashion', 'Slow Fashion' these terms are next to useless because they involve the term ‘fashion’ ­— a term which carries so many meanings and feelings around it, non of which are very serious.

The problem is that the fashion problem is serious. It. Is. So serious.

Here are some facts. Fashion is the second most polluting industry next to energy and oil. Fast fashion has created a monumental trash crisis where Americans alone throw out an average of 80 pounds of clothes per year, directly to landfills. Most of these clothes contain synthetics, which never biodegrade and whose production releases billions of pounds of crude oil soot into the atmosphere per year.  A single textile mill can pollute 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric dyed, causing local bodies of water to change color according to the latest season’s favorite color. Tainted with toxic chemicals, in some areas entire water ecosystems are dead because the water no longer contains oxygen. Not to mention the labor abuses in supply chains. In 2012 over 1,100 people died at Rana Plaza in Bangaldesh when the clothing manufacturing facility collapsed on them because of structural issues.

So how do we call something what it is, and address it, when its name is at its core not taken seriously?

We all buy and wear clothes. Unlike food, however, we don’t inquire as much about the origins and content of what we wear because we’re not afraid of doing bodily damage, irreparable harm, or not living our healthiest physical lives. In short, clothes don’t seem as intimate as ingestion. We believe we can just change shirts if we don’t like one and look better, while bad nutrition affects our looks and livelihood, possibly forever.

Food is inherently about nourishment of our selves and loved ones so convincing someone to eat in a way that makes them feel and look better is not logical acrobatics. “Oh you don’t even want to know what they did to that chicken,” is enough to stop a fork mid air. Whereas pointing out how ‘evil’ a simple cotton t-shirt or luxury leather handbag is, is tougher.

Whether the attitude is, “I don’t think about fashion. I just wear cotton t-shirts and jeans all the time. How could I possibly hurt anyone by my non-fashion lifestyle?” or, “I earned this luxury, status symbol handbag and don’t want to hear about how it was made," people generally just don’t want to believe they are part of a big problem.

But the textiles wear do affect our health. The contents of the material we wear seeps into our largest organ, our skin. Not to mention microplastics from our clothes seeping into our water systems which end up in most of our drinking water. So whatever our fears about food should be equivalent to what we are wearing. For some reason we just don’t view it in this context as readily as humans, yet.

While it’s easy to bemoan climate change and what big bad companies are doing, or not doing, to contribute to it, we don’t seem to compute that fashion, and our addiction to consuming fashion is a leading part of the issue. What my colleagues and I struggle with is coming up with education and solutions, while the terms “Ethical Fashion” of “Sustainable Fashion” or my personal least favorite “Slow Fashion” can seems trite to the unaquainted. No one wants to make a person named Mulva famous and not many wants to hear the term “Ethical Fashion” and take it seriously.

Now saying the words 'slavery', or 'mass poisoning', 'climate change', dead 'eco-systems' people’s ears perk up. But our entry point to the topic still contains the word ‘fashion’ so I still have no idea how to link the issue to fashion without losing people at the descriptive terms.

I’ll keep trying, for lack of better terms. When people ask what I do I say I’m an ethical fashion activist (refer to beginning of story for their responses). If they honestly want to know what that means, I’ll say I don’t want to bore you but if you have 3 minutes I’ll give you a quick summary. By the time I finish, non-sociopath people’s jaws are on the grounds, just having their first woke moments on how that t-shirt they’re wearing may have contributed to the loss of human and other animal lives, directly contributed to  climate change, etc.


Then people normally want to know what to do. There are no quick answers to that question but the fact that the conversation was had, even though ‘Ethical Fashion’ sounds like a Gwyneth-problem, I feel a little more hopeful.




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