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Style SOS: What is the difference between ethical and sustainable clothes?

Style SOS: What is the difference between ethical and sustainable clothes?

"I like to shop sustainably, but with all of the terminology out there, it can be hard to know the right place to start. Can you explain the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion, and which is best to shop?" - Matt via Facebook

The focus on ethical and sustainable fashion has – quite rightly – become a fast-growing topic over the last few years, but when it comes to understanding the differences (and similarities) between the two, the lines often become blurred. 

In some instances, ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ can feel like buzzwords used interchangeably – and often performatively – so you’re not alone in feeling a little confused about their true meanings, Matt. 

Fortunately, both are issues that are close to Thread stylist Artemis Crowley, so we asked her to help clear up the similarities, differences, and many crossovers in ethical and sustainable fashion, and whether it’s better to prioritise one over the other when shopping.

Firstly, what is the difference between ethical and sustainable?

Both labels refer to the sourcing, manufacturing, and development of clothing that has positive effects on both the fashion industry and wider society without contributing to environmental damage. However, the two words have essentially different meanings. 

“In general, ‘sustainability’ is more prevalent as a term linked to the environment and the impact of practises that cause damage, like using good-quality fabrics that are made to last,” Artemis says. “While ethics tend to focus on the way a business is run and how the people within that business are treated.” However, for many businesses both concepts have become inherent operational concepts, and there is plenty of crossover between the two in the fashion industry.

“When we talk about ethical production, it is linked to the moral principles of right and wrong,” Artemis says. “For example worker conditions, industry standards, and conduct.” Sustainability, on the other hand, is a practise or product that can last a long time. The factors that assist sustainability, such as viable infrastructures, renewable energy, or a focus on reuse, can vary greatly.

So why should you consider ethical and sustainable fashion?

The fashion industry at large has developed a bad reputation for being unsustainable, and in many cases unethical. This tends to stem from the ‘fast fashion’ side of the industry that exploits workers and uses unsustainable practises to develop vast quantities of clothing at a high turnover rate. 

This way, the customer benefits from cheap clothing and a constantly evolving range to choose from, but the unethical and unsustainable business model means workers are underpaid and often made to work in dangerous conditions. You may even be surprised to learn that  the unsustainable production of garments has been found to cause more environmental damage than the global transport industry.

“Prioritising ethical and/or sustainable shopping is one of the best – and easiest – changes you can make to ensure that your day-to-day habits are better for people and the planet,” Artemis says.

Consider which option suits you best

While many brands have put the concepts of sustainability and ethics front and centre, many others continue to ignore these priorities in favour of high turnover and quick profit. Knowing which brands are best at honouring these principles may seem like a minefield, so a good starting place is understanding the more effective way to shop, and considering which works best for you in terms of budget and lifestyle. 

“If your budget is restrictive, it can be better to prioritise sustainable clothing as second hand, vintage, and upcycled clothing contributes significantly less to climate change than brand new clothing, and is often much cheaper,” Artemis says. 

If that’s not your thing, there are reasonably priced brands like Colourful Standard, Basic Rights, and our own in-house brand Spun that design good quality, fairly-priced basics in organic cotton, and are transparent about their focus on both sustainable and ethical production.

If your priority is around social ethics, meaning the people making your clothes are treated fairly, then be prepared to spend more money per item. “Brands using an end-to-end supply chain are more likely to pay their workers a fair wage,” Artemis says. “While high street prices can be indicative that a brand exploits people and/or the planet in their production methods.”

So which option is better?

The short answer is there is no clear-cut ‘best’ option to prioritise when it comes to ethical and sustainable fashion. It’s also worth noting that there are many areas in which ethical and sustainable practises do not meet. For example, an item that is ethically made with good labour conditions, good quality materials, and a good price point may not be sustainable if it is designed for single- or minimal use. Similarly, a sustainably made item that’s designed for repeated use and is recyclable may not have been developed using ethical practices.

However, the up-side of brands that prioritise ethical practises is that they’re more likely to consider sustainability as well. This means that they will use organic materials where the farmers were paid and treated fairly, and not mass-produce their garments. “Patagonia are the pioneers of this kind of thinking in the clothing industry,” Artemis says. “And they continue to prioritise and transparently communicate their ethical and sustainable production practises.”

Another benefit of ethical shopping, even if you are on a lower budget, is that spending more money on fewer items is typically also a more sustainable way to shop. Focus on cost-per-wear, and developing a year-round wardrobe of key pieces that you’ll keep returning to. It’s unquestionably better for both people and the planet than buying cheaper, seasonal pieces that you’ll only wear a few times, whether they’re brand new or pre-loved.

Did you know we have a filter than enables you to easily shop our sustainble assortment? Simple head to 'Shop' > 'Filter' > 'Sustainability' to give it a try. 


Words: Ella White
Illustration: Ryan Gillett