Kari Vallury tackles the difficult task: what is ethical fashion?

What is ethical fashion exactly?

I’ve written and rewritten this short article several times over the last few months. Why has it been so hard to write? Well, because,  “hey Kari, what exactly IS ethical fashion?” is such a simple question, but the answer is so gosh dang complex! So excuse me while I skip some of the background and detail and get right to the point.

The way I see it there are two key issues at the core of our conversations about fashion ‘ethics’.

ONE is primarily about human rights and human wellbeing. Think more equitable distribution of wealth, safety and gender equity for people working (and their families and communities) at all levels of the fashion industry. 

TWO focuses on environmentally sustainable production and consumption, which can be distilled down to resource use, production and waste management.

Often, these issues are blurred within conversations about, and the use of terms like ‘ethics’ and ‘sustainability’. Don’t get me wrong – I use these words all the time – but I think it’s important we are as transparent about what we mean when we use them. We need to get specific. And, as a happy side effect, this reduces opportunities for greenwashing!

While these two core issues of human rights and environmental sustainability are undeniably linked (hint: they’re both fundamentally the result of capitalist, patriarchal, racist global economic and social systems and structures), they can also require quite distinct solutions.

I often see people write things like, “the most sustainable thing you can wear is the garment you already own”. And yep, environmentally, it almost certainly is. But is it sustainable for the people who work in the fashion industry around the world? Who are some of the lowest paid workers of any labor group, and whom, if we all stopped buying new clothes, would suffer immensely? Now, this is a global labour and economic structures issue, which can feel wayyyy beyond our individual influence, I know. But given we’re part of ‘the system’, it means we can also be part of the change. 

In order to address human rights issues in the fashion industry, we fundamentally need to redistribute power, including wealth. This includes paying living wages (wages people can actually live on) and safe workplaces. At its core, however, this requires taking some of the money earned through the fashion industry from CEOs and high-level employees and moving it into the hands of farmers, labourers, makers. You can see why not everyone would be supportive of this ha?! But there are some ways we can all support this goal, like: 

  • Supporting independent labels who pay living wages, and place the wellbeing of people before profits.
  • Using your consumer voice and power to place pressure on big brands to make commitments to pay living wages and clean up labor practices in the industry.
  • Be willing to buy less so you can pay more for (truly ethically made) garments.
  • And political activism, advocating for structural changes – things like laws, policies, and even social norms – towards achieving some of these goals. This is key – stopping at changing up individual consumption will never be enough.

On the environmental side of things, we need to limit natural resource use, and reduce and better manage pollution and waste - including air, water and soil pollution as well as fabric and fashion waste. Some of the ways we can all work towards supporting these goals include:

  • Reduced our consumption and disposal of fashion, and keeping clothes in circulation for longer (I feel like a broken record with this one, but repair and mindfully re-home/dispose of your clothes).
  • Paying attention to fabrics and dyes – we need to move towards manufacturing (and consumption) of fabrics that are least resource intensive and polluting. 
  • And support indigenous and traditional manufacturing methods which often meet these goals by using human rather than electrical energy, and use small-scale farming or manufacturing. This can also support the redistribution of wealth and sustainable employment, so win win!

“Sustainability” is fundamentally about doing things in ways that can be sustained indefinitely – by working within the limits of the natural world and supporting human wellbeing.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘ethical’, though, have become catch-alls in fashion marketing, using to describe anything that is even minimally better than the worst alternatives. 

So next time you hear a brand use those words, why not ask about whether they pay living wages? How they’re minimising resource use and waste outputs? The transparency of their responses will tell you most of what you need to know. 

And me? I’ll just be here floating around in Little Tienda and getting political. Fabulous and ferocious, all at once.

Join me?!


Kari Vallury is a researcher, speaker and writer, and the founder of Slow Clothes - an advocate for fashion ethics and sustainability. She's also one of the brightest and fiercest minds we've come across. You can find Kari Vallury on Instagram here.