Ethical and Sustainable Fashion  – What’s the Difference?

If fashion is sustainable, is it ethical? If it’s ethical, it must be sustainable right? Does it even matter? Well, these are not some reject questions from a book of existentialist riddles. In fact, there’s a subtle but distinct difference to be had between these two industry buzzwords. As we’re a magazine that uses them quite frequently, it’s worth unpacking that difference.

Ethical Fashion

Ethical – (adjective) conforming to accepted standards of social or professional behaviour.

ethical fashion

Ethical fashion employs moral practices at every stage of the manufacturing process. Not to say that sustainable fashion is immoral – that would be a ridiculous assertion. However, the key difference lies in the fact that ethical clothing is made with the whole production line and supply chain in mind. This includes everything from cotton pickers, factory workers, delivery drivers and retail staff. Crucially, ethical fashion serves to empower each individual. It is underpinned by the belief that all workers and those affected by the clothing industry warrant fair and equal treatment. 

You may be familiar with ‘Fairtrade.’ A mark of approval on over 6,000 products across various industries, Fairtrade is a guarantee that the farmers at the grassroots level of production have been treated in a just manner. In many ways, ethical fashion is similar to products made in conjunction with the Fairtrade Foundation. Fairtrade guarantees better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world – in areas that much of the fashion industry employs exploitative practices. 

By requiring companies to pay fair prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade works against the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the most vulnerable. Currently, there are over 1.66 million farmers and workers spread across more than 73 countries participating in Fairtrade.

Ethical fashion will support workers’ rights and help create work cultures where employees can confidently negotiate with management about the issues that concern them. In short, ethical fashion brands treat every person at every stage of production as a respected business partner.

cotton field

Examples of Ethical Fashion Brands


Eco-friendly alternatives at every part of the supply chain are key to Boden’s ethos. The UK fashion brand is committed to responsible sourcing, fair trade, and ethical practices across the 16 countries it has factories in. Boden is a longstanding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promotes respect for workers’ rights around the globe.


The outerwear company is Fair Trade certified, dedicated to labour ethics and embodying a bold stance on activism. For example, the brand famously sued Trump in a bid to protect Bears Ears National Monument. Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. They have awarded over $89 million in cash and in-kind donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups working in their local communities. Through Fair Trade, the brand is able to pay living wages to the workers in its factories. 


Komodo has been championing ethical fashion since 1988. As a brand, Komodo trades fairly with factories in Nepal, China, Indonesia and Turkey, working closely with local workers. The brand is a pioneer of eco-friendly fabrics, using sustainable alternatives, such as hemp, bamboo and recycled rubber. Komodo prides itself on the fact that the vast majority of its products are vegan, and they are all cruelty free. Crucially, Komodo is GOTS certified, and a member of the Soil Association

Citizen’s Mark

Citizen’s Mark prides itself on being both empowering and ethical. In 2011, the brand entered the women’s workwear industry, launching its signature blazer. The blazer is made with 100% Italian wool, and lined with 100% cupro (a product made from the lining of cotton seed, once thought of as waste). Citizen’s Mark’s suppliers are “industry leaders” in both social and environmental responsibility, with a factory that is 30% solar powered and provides living wages for its employees. Their ‘Better Than Silk’ range is made with a Lyocell, a sustainable fiber that is made in a closed loop production process. 

Sustainable Fashion

Sustainable – (adjective) adjective capable of being sustained.

Sustainable fashion describes clothing that is made to last. It aims to cut down on the pollution and consequences that the industry has on the planet. Typically, this is achieved by the use of sustainable textiles, or by supporting circular fashion practices. 

Sustainable fashion centres on addressing the climate emergency by changing the practices that lead to overconsumption. According to a report published by Mckinsey and Global Fashion Agenda in 2020, 70% of fashion industry related greenhouse gases occur during the raw material to garment production stages in the supply chain. Sustainable fashion attempts to reduce these emissions by rethinking the materials that clothing is made from, the methods in which they are manufactured and the quantities in which they are produced. Unsurprisingly, terms like ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘green’ and ‘organic’ are often used when describing sustainable fashion. 

However, sustainable fashion also serves to extend the lifespan of a product, lending itself to a circular economy. This includes reusing textiles, developing ones that require less resources to produce and promoting upscaling. Ultimately, the goal is singular – to reduce the percentage of clothing that is condemned to the landfill. Currently, it is projected that 134 million tonnes of textiles will be sent to waste by 2030.

Examples of Sustainable Fashion


The first example doesn’t actually relate to a sustainable brand, but a platform for customers to buy in a sustainable manner. thredUP is the world’s largest fashion resale platform, encouraging consumers to breathe new life into secondhand clothing. The company operates by allowing customers to swap old clothes for new ones, or by buying secondhand (often marked down designer wear) at discounted rates. It goes without saying – when customers buy secondhand clothing, they do not contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that are a byproduct of new lines. 


People Tree

As a brand, People Tree strives to minimise its environmental impact by using sustainable textile alternatives.. Founded in 1991, People Tree launched its first fashion range to meet the Global Organic Textile Standard certified by the Soil Association. It was also the first fashion company to be awarded the World Fair Trade Organisation product label. Specifically, its clothes are dyed using low impact dyes, free from harmful azo chemicals (which are frequently used in clothing manufacturing). They use natural materials where possible, avoiding plastic and toxic substances. In 2018, the company launched its first 100% organic cotton denim jeans range, using 87.2% less water than in typical cotton production. In 2019, People Tree introduced its ‘Our Blue Planet’ collection with BBC Earth, aiming to highlight the importance of Ocean Conservation. 


Christopher Raeburn is one of the most well known sustainable designers in the UK. His brand, RÆBURN, produces high end garments by reworking surplus fabrics to create distinctive pieces.

To be specific, RÆBURN operates using 3 core principles. Number 1 is RÆMADE, the idea of recycling surplus materials, products and artefacts into new designs. Number 2 is RÆDUCED, where waste and emissions are minimised through the use of local manufacturing or by producing smaller batches. Finally, there’s RÆCYCLED – the company recycles pre-existing materials and uses green technologies in its production processes.

Ethical vs Sustainable

The words, often used interchangeably, are subtly different. Ethical fashion tends to describe the processes that support and empower people. Sustainable fashion, on the other hand, centres on protecting the planet. These definitions aren’t always upheld however. Whether or not a brand describes itself as ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable,’ their responsibility should be supporting both the environment and its inhabitants. 

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