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What’s the Difference Between Ethical and Sustainable?

It sometimes feels like the fashion industry is saturated with ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ brands. Companies love to use both of these words, but what do they really mean? Although they are often seen used interchangeably, they really mean two different things, so it’s important to understand the difference.


Ethical = People, Sustainable = Planet


A general rule of thumb is that ethical refers to people, and sustainable refers to the planet. The ethicality of a brand is determined by how they treat their workers and the people involved in their production process. If a brand claims to be ‘ethical’, this hopefully means they treat their workers as valuable employees and follow the practice of basic moral principles. This includes providing their workers with safe working conditions and supplying them with fair wages.


On the other hand, the sustainability of a brand is based on their impact on the environment. To be ‘sustainable’ means to maintain things as you found them. In this context, it means to avoid making a negative impact on the environment. Sustainable brands are often conscious of their carbon footprint, the sources and quality of their materials and the longevity of their products. Some of the most sustainable brands not only aim to minimize their negative impact on the planet, but actually work to produce a net positive outcome as a result of their production. An example of a sustainable practice is sourcing textiles from organic cotton farms free of pesticides or using recycled materials, turning waste into a usable product.



Which is more important?


Just because a brand is sustainable doesn’t mean that they are also ethical, and the same is true for the other way around. Obviously, what you prioritize is a personal decision, but we encourage you to support brands that advocate for ethical and sustainable production and practices. The best way to shop consciously is to support justice for both people and the planet. Remember also, that the health of our planet directly effects the health of people today.


What is the Consequence of Conscious Shopping?


Because ethical and sustainable brands do not stand for many of the practices that allow for cheaper and quicker production, the most quantifiable consequence of ethical and sustainable practice is an increase in the cost of production. This is reflected in the increase in price of a product. When shopping, it can be tempting to opt for the cheaper product, but each dollar spent on a sustainable and ethical brand instead of another cheaper option encourages these positive practices and contributes to large-scale change. Since conscious brands tend to be smaller than large companies, it’s important to continue to support their growth. The good news is, you do get what you pay for. Investing in a smaller brand often results in a better, higher quality, and more unique product for you! You product most likely will last longer as well, saving you money in the long run.


Always Double Check


Unfortunately, not every brand tells the truth when it comes to their practices. Companies recognize that sustainable and ethical shopping is becoming more popular so using these words in their advertisements can be a marketing tactic and isn’t always accurate. This is called "greenwashing." Therefore, it’s important to double check the reliability of brands that claim to be one thing or another. Before you buy, do some research on the brands you are shopping from. Some companies do a better job than others on verifying their claims, but we recommend you do some investigation. You can do things like check out the ‘about’ tabs on a brand’s website and try to find evidence of a company’s claims like legitimate material sources or photos of factories. Yes, this may take some time and digging, but slowing down your buying process is a positive practice anyway which can discourage impulse buys and unnecessary purchases.


If you’re searching for some reliable brands which have already been verified as trusted ethical and sustainable producers, we’ve done the hard work for you and compiled a list on the World Changer Co Directory. If you can’t find a brand you love on the directory, or want to practice investigating a brand on your own, use this scavenger hunt as a guide to help verify their conscious claims.

Other Buzzwords to Look For


‘Ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are not the only buzzwords used in the fashion industry. Here’s a list of a few more to look out for and what they mean:


B Corporation- (or B Corp) A company certified by B Lab as meeting a high standard of social and environmental practice. The evaluation of a company under the B Corp standards considers a company’s governance, workers, community impact, environmental impact and customer impact.


Circular- When the lifetime of a clothing piece is mapped and planned to extend a product’s life, reduce waste, reuse materials. In circular fashion, the life-cycle of a piece even past its use is anticipated and accounted for.


Deadstock- Anything (fabric or clothing) that is excess inventory and can no longer be sold. It is the leftover, overstock, or surplus from production. Most of the time, deadstock fabric and clothing has no quality issue and is just product overflow, but on occasion, something that is defective, or expired can also be labeled as deadstock.


Eco-Friendly- Not harmful to the environment. Eco-friendly products are often referred to as “green”. Textiles can be eco-friendly if they are organically sourced and fibers are naturally treated or dyed. Packaging can be considered eco-friendly if it is biodegradable or reusable. Ultimately anything that does not harm or exploit the natural environment and planet is eco-friendly.


Fairtrade- A certified arrangement between companies which guarantees the fair payment of workers in international production. Companies must meet the standards set forth by the Fairtrade committee to qualify for recognition which requires honest wages and hours.


Living Wage- the bare minimum salary required to sustain a functioning livelihood.


Slow- The opposite of “fast” fashion. Fast fashion is mass-produced, trendy and cheap products that are neither ethically or sustainably made.


Slow fashion refers to mindful products that are consciously crafted. The process is slower than fast fashion because manufacturers take more time to ensure their product is sourced well and is high quality. More attention is given to the actual manufacturing process and craftsmanship of an item.


Upcycle- Similar to recycling, but upcycling not only is the re-use of a product, it is the modification or reworking of a product into something new and improved. Upcycling is a fun way to give a new life to something old.


Vegan- Not derived from any animal products. This still does not qualify a product as ethical or sustainable.


Zero-Waste- All products are reused and no bi-products result from the production process. Sometimes a product is labeled zero-waste, but this is only if it is reused or recycled properly.