What’s the Difference between “Sustainable Fashion”, “Ethical Fashion” and “Slow Fashion”?

As a person whose existence has been absorbed by the concerns of the ethical fashion industry for the last two years, I don’t think it would be big-headed of me to say that I’m well-versed in the industry and its concerns.


Yet, there always has been this niggling question at the back of my mind and, because of its seemingly simple nature, I subconsciously thought it would resolve itself as I ensconced myself in more and more articles on the subject.


This never happened.


If anything, the plethora of content being churned out on the subject of ethical/sustainable/slow fashion made it…even more confusing.


So, are ethical fashion, sustainable fashion and slow fashion the same thing? And if they’re not, how big of a difference is there between those concepts? Where do they meet and where do they diverge? Is it even that important for us to know whether there’s a difference between them? The answer to the latter question is: yes. Here’s why.


Imagine you’re on the search for some new clothes, but you want the peace of mind that Mother Earth was respected in the making and that no human being or animal was exploited at any stage.


So there you are, sat at your computer, full of good intentions and ready to make some conscious purchases. What should you type in the search bar: “ethical fashion brands”, “sustainable fashion brands” or “slow fashion brands”? Which of those terms is most likely to cover all of your concerns?


It’s confusing. And the last thing you probably want is to read a lengthy article on the subject, but having a good grasp of the nuances between those terms will

a) help empower you as a consumer and

b) reinforce your understanding of the industry so you can join conversations and educate others about fashion with confidence.

I find one of the main reasons people tend to not engage with sustainable fashion is because the terms related to it are often vague and confusing, leading to a very quick lost in interest.


So, today, we’re putting things right by delving into those 3 terms: sustainable fashion, ethical fashion and slow fashion.


Sustainable Fashion

If there is a culprit for all of this confusion, I personally think it’s the term “sustainable fashion”.  


In fact, after extensive research, I found out that even the industry experts seem to be a bit torn on the matter of what sustainable fashion means.


For some, it refers to the environmental aspects of the fashion industry only.


Safia Miney, founder of People Tree, one of the first brands to adopt a sustainable model, defines sustainable fashion as:


“…a product that is often made to environmentally-friendly standards including eco fibres like certified organic cotton, upcycled and recycled fabrics, reclaimed and fabric off cuts […] Some people will group Fair Trade Fashion under sustainable fashion as the production is considered ‘sustainable’ to communities of farmers and artisans in providing livelihoods and investing in eco-projects.”


The “some people” bit suggests that she’s aware of an alternate definition for sustainable fashion but does not necessarily agree to it.


Bloggers, across the internet, suggest that sustainable fashion has to do with the environment whereas ethical fashion refers to labour.


However, other sources have a different point of view; putting both eco-friendly fashion and fair trade fashion under the umbrella term “sustainable fashion”.


When I say ‘other sources’ I’m referring to bodies like “The Ethical Fashion Forum” and “Fashion Revolution”.


Needless to say, those organisations have made a strong name for themselves in the world of sustainable fashion.


But still, let’s peel back the layers of the onion, shall we, and find out what makes the most sense.

Defining Sustainable Fashion.


The Oxford Dictionary defines sustainability as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” 


To maintain, to sustain; those words have an element of continuity to them. So, what is it that the fashion industry has to maintain a.k.a continue doing?


According to Sarah Ditty, director of ‘Fashion Revolution’, three things need to be maintained as a sustainable business; “your profits, your human resources and your natural resources.” 


If a brand doesn’t maintain its profits, its own survival is at risk.


If it doesn’t maintain its natural and human resources, then it cannot continue producing in the long term which will essentially affect its profits sooner or later.


Fast fashion cannot carry on at the same pace it currently is because it is abusing of its human resources (think of the Rana Plaza tragedy) as well as its natural resources (According to Vox, the world will be experiencing a water shortage by 2040, and yet the average pair of jeans currently takes 2,700 litres of water to make).


Yes, fast fashion still remains a very lucrative business; generating billions in profits every year. It is not sustainable for the future, but a lot of businesses are ready to compromise that in the name of immediate gratification.


Sustainable fashion, on the other hand, seeks to maintain the levels of profit, human resources and natural resources over time.


In order to sustain their businesses, entrepreneurs need to make sure their workers are being remunerated at least the minimum living wage and that the working conditions are safe.


When it comes to natural resources, reducing the impact of fashion on the planet is key to achieving sustainability; be it by using resources more efficiently (less wastage), giving time for resources to regenerate (slow production), replacing used resources ourselves (by planting trees etc.) or recycling and reusing materials instead of using new ones (upcycled fashion).  


Seen in this light, you could think of sustainable fashion as a business model.


Sustainable fashion is a pragmatic approach to fashion and is led by logic. It does not neglect the ‘money-making’ aspect of a business and sees the environment and the labour force as assets that need to be maintained for the wellbeing of the business.


Sustainable Fashion is more of a balancing act between making money and preserving the future so that businesses can continue in the decades and centuries to come.


The Common Objective has a very interesting way of putting it; calling it the “triple bottom line”.


“Sustainability to us means generating value in three dimensions (3D) – the “triple bottom line” – in which people, planet and profits are considered equally fundamental to business success.


So when it comes to the entrepreneurial or commercial aspect of fashion, it sounds like ‘sustainable fashion’ might be more apt of a term to use.


Sustainable Fashion and Transparency


So does sustainable fashion take into consideration transparency towards its consumers?


Truth be told, there’s not much information on the matter from experts themselves, but if we are to follow the logic and pragmatism that governs the rest of sustainable fashion, I’d say yes.

If the core of sustainable fashion is to “maintain”, then surely you’d want to maintain the trust of your consumers as well. If anything, losing consumer trust poses a serious threat to the survival of a business.


The term sustainability is lodged in connotations of durability/longevity.


A sustainable fashion brand might not make the same profit margin as a fast fashion brand, but in the long-term, the sustainable fashion brand would continue to thrive because of its ability to balance generating profits, attracting loyal customers, maintaining resources for the future and keeping workers happy.


Problems with Sustainable Fashion: We Still Have a Long Way to Go

If I have a bone to pick with sustainable fashion, I’d say that it’s not measurable enough. And, for me, the ultimate way of making it measurable, is to have benchmarks.


You see, at this moment in time, calling yourself a sustainable fashion brand doesn’t indicate HOW much of an improvement you have to make in order to qualify as a sustainable business.


So if Brand A is producing a huge amount of carbon emissions and decides to reduce this by 9% this year and they then reduce it by 9.2% the next year, meaning that only a 0.2% change happened over the lapse of a year, would that mean they’re a sustainable business?


Probably not – especially if they could be doing much more.


However, brands often exploit the fact that there is no benchmarking to claim themselves as ethical or sustainable.


You have no idea how many times I’ve come across a brand that is under the hashtag ethical fashion when perusing on Instagram only to find out that their website says NOTHING about being sustainable whatsoever.


The point is, brands are using the momentum around ethical fashion to greenwash us and make us buy their clothes.


To the novice ethical fashionista, it is so easy to fall in the trap of those brands.


I know I have.


Brand rating organisations such as Good on You, still use subjective methods to rate brands.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the work of Good on You, but fact is, sustainable fashion is still an industry that is at its infancy and there are no real benchmarks out there to gauge whether a brand is sustainable or not.


The hope for the future is that we as consumers will be able to cross-examine brands and find out if they are truly sustainable or not.  For e.g we should know how few emissions a brand has to emit in order to qualify as a sustainable business.


But quantifying this kind of thing is not easy.


When it comes to being fair trade, sustainable fashion becomes easily quantifiable – pay your workers the minimum wage or above, provide audits to show that health and safety is being catered for and you are doing a pretty decent job in terms of caring for your labour force.  


But when it comes to the environmental aspects of sustainable fashion, it seems that almost anyone could get away with claiming themselves as sustainable.


There is an ocean of difference between the two following statements:


“We care about the environment and make sure we minimise the ecological footprint of our production”




“We pay all of our employees the minimum wage”


This poses a serious issue because it entails brands easily greenwashing consumers; consumers who are spending time, money and energy into trying to be conscious shoppers.


Sustainable fashion is still at its infancy, so it’s normal that everything is not perfect right now, but it’s important that we raise those questions, that we understand as much as possible so that we can pave a better future for sustainable fashion industry.


Ethical Fashion

Defining Ethical Fashion

Let’s now analyse what ethical fashion means. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term “ethical” relates to “moral principles”.


We can safely say that ethical fashion has to do with that which is morally correct and denounces that which is morally incorrect.


However, the big conundrum here is that morals are subjective. So defining ethical fashion is not clear-cut.


Ethical fashion can cover the morality behind any aspect of fashion, but the three most common topics it concerns itself with are the fashion industry’s moral behaviour towards the workforce, the environment and its consumers (relates to transparency and greenwashing).


You could say that ethical fashion is more of a philosophy and like all philosophies, there are divergences. For example, Marxism led to the birth of Neo-marxism (a different approach to Marxism), Existentialism (by Sartre) led to Absurdism (by Albert Camus).


Similarly, in ethical fashion, there are divergences too, mostly because of its subjective nature. One poignant example of that would be the production of leather. Some condemn the use of real leather and advocate vegan leather. Others, denounce vegan leather as not eco-friendly and prefer leather from the meat industry instead. Others prefer to spend their money on vintage leather only.


If you’re finding yourself in a bit of a dilemma about what to do when it comes to leather, I definitely recommend you read “Vegan Leather v.s Real Leather: Which is Worse?”.


The problem from the term ‘ethical fashion’ is that it’s based on an individual’s personal sense of ethics.


Already, ethical fashion and sustainable fashion are sounding strikingly similar with the distinction that one pulls onto logic and is used as a business model while the other is based on individualistic human values, principles and morals.


Often, the reason that a business decides to adopt a sustainable model is that the individuals who form it are motivated by their personal values and ethics. This blurs the line between sustainable fashion and ethical fashion even further.


So ethical fashion is more of an appropriate term for us individuals who are ethically concerned; those of us who worry about the moral implications of hurting the planet, animal life or other people.


Slow Fashion

We’ve seen that sustainable fashion refers more to a business model whereas ethical fashion relates more to an individual’s values, but where does the term ‘slow fashion’ figure in all of this?


The term “slow fashion” was coined by author Kate Fletcher in 2007 where she highlighted the benefits of the slow food movement (started in 1986) and the need for a similar movement in the fashion industry.


The slow food movement was born in opposition to fast food and is usually a proponent for organic food (pesticide and GMO-free) and locally-sourced foods. It’s also grounded in sustainability with the view of preserving heirloom varieties by creating and preserving seed banks.


Slow fashion is an adaptation of this alternate way of life for the fashion industry.


Defining Slow Fashion

To define slow fashion, who better to turn to than Kate Fletcher herself?


In an article for “The Ecologist”, she says, “Slow fashion is about designing, producing, consuming and living better. Slow fashion is not time-based but quality-based (which has some time components). Slow is not the opposite of fast – there is no dualism – but a different approach in which designers, buyers, retailers and consumers are more aware of the impacts of products on workers, communities and ecosystems.”

From this definition, slow fashion does include the impact of fashion on the environment, the labour force and consumers. In fact, it seems to be an attempt at looking at the fashion industry in a  holistic way.


But intuitively, slow fashion to me sounds like a great term to call those brands who don’t necessarily produce sustainably or ethically ― but focus on quality or small scale. When I think of slow fashion, I think of artisans in developing countries or small local businesses and hand-made Etsy products. Those businesses often don’t have sustainability at the core of their business models. They’re often just individuals on their own or a small business trying to make a living — They do not have the technology/resources/knowledge/education to be a sustainable brand.


I think it’s still important that we support those small businesses because it helps local economies and helps support struggling families.


When I think of slow fashion in terms of the consumer, I don’t necessarily think of someone who purchases fair trade or ‘eco-fashion’ – I think of someone who purchases clothes only when they need to and who focuses on buying quality so that the item of clothing will last them a long period of time.

Slow Fashion for Businesses

  1. One of the reasons fast fashion is called fast is because of the sheer amount of clothing that they mass-produce in a scarily short lapse of time. This usually means new trends every week in large collections.Slow fashion businesses, on the other hand, aim to counteract that by creating smaller collections with more classic pieces. Collections usually only come out every season (every few months) instead of each week.
  2. In order to produce clothes quickly, fast fashion brands have to compromise on quality. Cheap materials and quick sewing are usually preferred in order to reduce costs. Surprisingly, this ends up being beneficial to the fast fashion brand as it adds another layer of incentive for the consumer to buy more as the latter will have to get rid of the product after a few years. Slow fashion, on the other hand, focuses on quality instead of fast turnover. It takes the time and resources to source quality materials and is often associated with terms such as artisanship, made to order or hand-made. Invariably, the finished product takes more time as it usually involves only one person (or a few people at most) creating one item at a time.

Slow Fashion for Consumers/Individuals

If brands are producing at the speed of light, we are, unfortunately, consuming just as fast.


Slow fashion consumers purposefully try to reduce their amount of fashion consumption by choosing quality over quantity, mending instead of binning, buying second-hand and recycling instead of indulging in new purchases.


You’ll notice that slow fashion resembles the way we USED to consume and can be said to be an attempt at going back to the older days where our relationship with clothes was a much healthier one.


The idea is to cherish an item of clothing and to really make the most out of it so that it’s environmental impact is considerably reduced.


A Conclusion (Finally!) (But You Might Not Be Happy with it)

So over 2,000 words later, what’s the verdict? Okay, here’s how I see it. Sustainable fashion is about the environment, fair trade and transparency towards customers ― it is guided by the need to SUSTAIN the planet and all living things on it.


Ethical fashion has to do with MORALITY ― automatically that means caring about the planet – because it is not moral to kill the planet for own unnecessary wants or even for needs when there are better means of satisfying them.


So certain aspects of ethical fashion automatically overlap into sustainable fashion.


The MOTIVATION behind sustainable fashion and ethical fashion are different, but nothing says you can’t be motivated by both morality and the urge to make a sustainable business.


Slow fashion from the definition of the person who invented it, sounds just like sustainable fashion. HOWEVER, I personally see slow fashion differently and I see it as an umbrella term to put artisanship, handmade and made-to-order under.


Too complicated, still?


What I’d suggest is to use the terms ‘sustainable fashion’, ‘ethical fashion’ as initial terms to discover brands.


Then, and it is imperative that we do this, we need to look for more measurable terms once we’re on websites that claim that they’re sustainable or ethical.  


When it comes to the environment, those terms would be:

‘Organic’ ‘biodegradable’ (look for certifications)


When it comes to workers’ rights, those terms would be fair trade (look for the official certification), minimum wages, safety conditions.


It doesn’t matter if they’re calling themselves sustainable, ethical or slow.


What matters is whether their fabrics are eco-friendly and their labour is fair.


Take the time to read their ‘about us’ page and see how transparent they’re being. Are they being factual or are they vague and full of flowery words?


A good example of what a brand’s about us page should look like is People Tree. They have the official certifications for both organic and fair trade. They have a full page dedicated to fair trade and to the fabrics they use.

So before you trust any blog post or article titled along the lines of “10 sustainable brands you’ll love”, make sure you double check that their concept of sustainable fashion is based on a concern for the environment, animals and the labour force.


The more detailed the brand is ― the more transparent the brand is ―  the better.


Eco-fashion, eco-friendly fashion or green fashion are terms used to refer to fashion that is environmentally conscious.


Fair Fashion or fair trade fashion are terms used to refer to fashion that was made using fair labour.


There are a number of certifications out there to give credibility to brands for being eco-friendly or fair trade.


2 thoughts on “What’s the Difference between “Sustainable Fashion”, “Ethical Fashion” and “Slow Fashion”?

  1. Thanks Leena for this in depth take on the clothing industry. Fast fashion is so bad. Im guilty of this in the past, but trying to buy all new clothing second hand from charity shops, mending them to fit. But how to get the mainstream consumer to see this is a near impossible task. It is also a minefield to judge how any item you purchase isn’t somewhere down the line having a negative impact on a person, the environment or an animal.

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