Introduction to Eco Fashion

What exactly is eco fashion?  What is ethical fashion?  What makes it different to normal fashion, and how can fashion be called eco or ethical anyway?
I use the terms eco and ethical fashion interchangeably, but they do mean different things to different people.  If we think about the four system conditions that I use to define sustainability, we could define eco/ethical fashion as a fashion system that aims to:
  • use less stuff – eg: less water, energy, washing detergent and packaging and one that recycles and reuses;
  • use less chemicals – eg: less pesticides in cotton growing, less dyes in manufacturing, less petrochemicals in materials;
  • cause the least destruction – eg:  uses restorative farm practices, doesn’t pollute rivers and reduces waste to landfill; and
  • treat workers in a way that they are able to fulfill their needs – eg: paying a fair wage and treating workers with dignity.

Remember that when we talk about fashion and the fashion system, this includes the design, sourcing, production, distribution, marketing, sale, after-sale maintenance and disposal of clothing, shoes and accessories.  This graphic shows the various stages in the life of a t-shirt, and some of the issues associated with each stage.

LCA tshirt


Ethical Fashion Forum, an industry body that aims to transform social and environmental standards in the fashion industry, defines ethical fashion as:

“an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment.”

Livia Firth, founder of Eco Age and the Green Carpet Challenge, says:

“Call it ‘eco-fashion’ if you like, but I think it’s just common sense.” 

Which brings us to the elephant in the room……doesn’t fashion just promote the buying of unnecessary stuff that has no practical purpose?  That’s what a lot of people ask me at serious conferences.  I have two key thoughts on this, the first being the purpose of fashion, and the second being the size and influence of the fashion industry:

“I think of fashion as a sort of gift to the world — people adorning themselves to express their feelings and celebrate occasions; it creates memories and marks time in one’s life.”

(US fashion designer Barbara Tfank).

Fashion is not just about what colour and style is IN at THE MOMENT.  Throughout history it has been an expression of self and creativity, a way to celebrate occasion and a way to create sense of belonging or differentiation.  It also has its functional uses – warmth, modesty, and a way to protect bare feet!

The global apparel industry (clothing, footwear, textiles and luxury goods) was valued at $US2.5 trillion in 2010 and employs approximately 75 million people (Companies & Markets).  That’s a lot of influence.  A lot of history, tradition, lives, lifestyles, habits, systems, economies, lands.

The demand for eco fashion from consumers and from within the industry has been growing over recent years, particularly prompted by terrible disasters such as the Rana Plaza building collapse, that highlighted the need for safe and dignified work conditions, knowledge of the issues with cotton spraying for pesticides, water and energy use in clothing production, and the design of clothing in a way that promotes longevity and adaptability.

What is exciting and inspiring is how designers and the whole fashion supply chain are responding to the challenge of eco fashion.  How they are changing the way we design, farm, manufacture textiles, value the story of the makers, give back to affected communities, recycle, we can continue to value fashion and value our environment and people at the same time.

So, what can we do to embrace eco fashion?  How do we choose clothes that value these ideals?  Journalist Lucy Siegle’s 5 Ways to Build an Ethical Wardrobe is a great starting point.  In a recent article she came up with these 5 simple ways:

  1. Only buy if you can commit to wearing the item at least 30 times (choose quality and adaptable clothing for longevity)
  2. Invest in trans-seasonal clothes (so you don’t have to buy whole outfits every season)
  3. Spread your fashion dollar around (choose brands that give producers a fair share of profits)
  4. Detox your wardrobe (choose clothes that use less toxic chemicals in their production)
  5. Join the fashion revolution to be one of millions of consumers who want change.

Its also important to buy from transparent companies that want to tell you their production story.  Why wouldn’t they?  And instead of new, why not check out the bargains to be had in secondhand/op/thrift shops?  (Here is Jessi Arrington’s Ted Active talk where she brought nothing but 7 pairs of undies to the conference, and sourced the rest of her outfits from LA thrift shops!)


Some resources about issues with the current fashion industry:

Some of my favourite eco fashion reads:

What are your favourite eco fashion books and blogs?  What inspires your choice of clothes?

(Image source)