No-Jargon Difference Between Ethical & Sustainable Fashion

Giada Nizzoli

No-Jargon Difference Between Ethical & Sustainable Fashion

Fairtrade, eco-friendly, green… There are so many adjectives describing not-fast-fashion clothes that it’s normal to feel a little confused. 

So, is there a difference between ethical and sustainable fashion, the two main umbrella terms you keep bumping into?

Technically, yes.

In our opinion, though, there shouldn’t be! 

Ethical vs sustainable fashion in context

To understand the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion, let’s look at them individually first. 

What’s ethical fashion?

Fashion garment workers

Ethical fashion refers to garments that have been designed and produced in a way that’s fair towards workers and their communities. 

It’s more human-focused and socially responsible in every stage of its supply chain.

And, if you think this should be a given, we agree… but, unfortunately, it’s not!

  • Most fast fashion brands still rely on sweatshops, child labour, and modern slavery 
  • They get away with it by outsourcing garment production to factories in faraway countries with different labour laws or no supervision. In fact, 75% of them admitted to not knowing the actual source of their fabrics and inputs!

Ethical fashion, on the contrary, is transparent. 

These brands either have their own factories or collaborate with trusted third parties, visiting them regularly in most cases.

What’s sustainable fashion?

Model wearing a sustainable fashion dress

Sustainable fashion involves clothing that’s designed, produced, and transported in a way that reduces its impact on the planet. 

It’s more about the eco-friendly and environmentally conscious side of things.

How’s this different from fast fashion? For example:

  • Fast fashion mostly relies on cheap but polluting materials like traditional cotton—“thirsty” and loaded with pesticides—and polyester, which can take centuries to decompose
  • These brands design and market their products as being disposable: they fall apart after a few wearings, and you’re encouraged to replace them with new trendy garments regularly

Sustainable fashion prioritises eco-friendly materials, renewable energy, and recycled options to reduce waste. These brands’ garments are also made to last. 

So, what’s the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion?

Technically, the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion is that the former focuses on the humans behind it; the latter, on the environment.

We shouldn’t see them as two separate things, though!

We believe sustainable and ethical fashion must be intersectional

Ethical fashion clothes

At Project Cece, we don't think a brand can truly be considered ethical if it’s not also sustainable, and vice versa.

When a ‘strictly ethical’ company relies on polluting materials or practices, it’s still harming humans: 

  • Farmers constantly exposed to pesticides have a 20% higher risk of cancer
  • Some toxins can affect the reproductive health of garment workers and that of their unborn children
  • Dumping toxic dyes into rivers pollutes the drinking and washing water of entire communities. It can also cause health issues like skin diseases and higher risks of cancer

At the same time, a ‘strictly sustainable’ approach is questionable if it doesn’t take humans into consideration:

  • Would it feel good to wear an eco-friendly cotton dress if you knew this material was harvested through child labour?
  • Or a linen blouse with natural dies, but made by a woman who gets abused at her workplace and doesn’t get any maternity leave?

So, while we can’t ignore the terminological difference between ethical and sustainable fashion, we believe all brands should strive to be both at the same time.

We need clothes that are designed and produced in a way that’s kind towards garment workers, local communities, and the planet. Not just one of them at a time.

That’s the kind of fashion that actually sounds fair, don’t you think?

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Project Cece is a platform that collects ethical fashion from vetted brands and shops in one place. Browse ethical fashion for women and men and find items that fit your style, budget and values!

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