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Q & A: Is sustainable fashion the same as eco, ethical, & slow fashion?

This one is inspired by a question that someone asked in a Facebook group:

Q: Can someone explain the difference between eco fashion, slow fashion, ethical fashion, & sustainable fashion? I see all of these terms being used in the fashion industry and want to make sure I’m using them correctly.

A: There is no single “authoritative” definition of any of these terms, and they can mean different things to different people. For example, many people believe that ethical fashion only refers to decent working conditions for the people who make the clothes, and that ethical fashion isn’t necessarily environmentally-friendly. For others, you can’t be ethical if you’re not respecting the environment. Same thing for eco-fashion: while for many, eco = ecological = eco-friendly = produced with minimal harm to the environment, others use it to mean clothes that’re ecofriendly AND produced in ethical working conditions (see example here).

To most technical experts in the industry (ex. EcoCult), sustainable fashion means fashion that is produced with minimal/reduced harm to the environment, so a synonym for eco-friendly fashion. For others (myself included), the term borrows from sustainable development in the more academic sense [1], meaning that it should be all-encompassing and include protection of the planet as well as workers’ & artisans’ rights, present and future [1]. But if you’re talking to an industry expert, it’s more common to see sustainable and ethical fashion considered separately.

Finally, many people put slow fashion in a separate box because to them, it refers to fashion that’s produced slowly (giving garment workers a bit of a break, but not necessarily good pay) and consumed slowly (consumers take their time selecting a garment and wear it for a long time, but the clothes aren’t necessarily made with eco-friendly fabrics or cared for in an environmentally-friendly way). In this sense, slow fashion is meant to be the opposite of fast fashion, which involves producing & consuming clothes very quickly and for cheap. But again, for some, slowing down and being more conscious about how we produce & consume our clothes inherently means thinking about the impact on workers, communities and ecosystems [2].

Whatever the term, it’s the actions behind it that matter

So, if “sustainable”, “ethical”, “eco” and “slow” are often used interchangeably, it’s up to the consumer to look behind the marketing and look at a brand’s actions to see how sustainable/ethical/etc they are. For tips on how to go about this, check out my article on how to tell if a brand is really sustainable.

Hope that helps!




[1] The United Nations’ 1987 Brundland report defines sustainable development at paragraph 27: [development that] meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Many consider “needs of the present” and “needs of future generations” to include environmental, social, economic and cultural needs (see, for example, Ben Purvis, Yong Mao & Darren Robinson, “Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins”, Sustainability Science, 2019,  volume 14, pages 681–695, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11625-018-0627-5 and United Cities and Local Governments, Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development, http://www.agenda21culture.net/sites/default/files/files/documents/en/zz_culture4pillarsd_eng.pdf).

[2] Sustainable Fashion: A Handbook for Educators, Liz Parker & Marsha A. Dickson, p. 24.

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