Ask Kate: What Makes Something ‘Ethical’?
Dear Kate - I’m careful about what I eat and really care about the environment (I’m trying to be as zero-waste as possible) but I can’t figure out what brands mean when they say ‘ethical fashion’. It seems like it means different things to each brand. I want to buy from brands that share my values, but with everyone using the same moniker, how can I tell? - SK, London
You pose a question I get asked often. When brands use modifiers like: eco, green, environmentally-friendly, sustainable, transparent – it can be hard to weed through the terms to find products that resonate with your ethics.
In my book, Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-toxic Beauty, I suggest that “ethical” should be a term we use to match our personal values, and use that term to navigate the new retail landscape when we apply it to fashion. In the book I propose,
if you had a dinner party and asked friends around the table what’s more important — protecting the planet, the animals, or the people (supporting environmental rights, animal rights or human rights) — you would likely have a lively debate.
We don’t have to agree on what we value (as in life) and luckily, when it comes to fashion, there are brands and designers to match each. Ethical fashion can encompass all three: cruelty free treatment of animals, ethical and fair labor practices and/or positive environmental practices. Once your know what your ’ethical north’ is (people, planet or animals), you can find and support designers that share your ethics.
For example, if you love animals, then you should support the great work of vegan designers. Not all vegan materials are the most environmentally friendly (think pvc). But, vegan designers are raising awareness and attention toward the reduction (or elimination) of the use of animals. That’s their primary aim, so supporting their efforts and wearing their designs, moves this conversation forward. Some notable brands: Vaute Couture, Brave Gentleman, Matt+Nat. Same too, for environmentally-forward brands (notable examples: Nike, Patagonia, Levi’s) and fair trade brands (notable examples: PACT Apparel, People Tree, Oliberté).
Identifying what resonates with you as ‘ethical’ and supporting brands that share those values will go a long way to both moving the needle forward on which kinds of brands succeed in the market and help you vote for the kind of future you want to see with your consumer dollars.
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