Sustainable and Ethical Fashion: What does it mean?

This past weekend I was lucky enough to be able to take part in The Collective speaker series organized by LAB MPLS which occurs annually here in Minneapolis. I spoke about the benefits and drawbacks of current sustainable and ethical fashion options and why we do not have any 100% sustainable choices in the garment industry. I wanted to share all that information and be able to elaborate on a few of the topics as well as offer suggestions on how we can move forward with the knowledge and resources available.

Photo taken by Anna Lee

Photo taken by Anna Lee

What is it?

What is sustainable fashion vs. ethical fashion? How are they different?

Sustainable fashion refers to the fabric, processes and quality (among so many other things) that contribute to less of an environmental impact. Ethical fashion, also known as social fashion is most often about the producers and their fair and safe working environments, living wages and more that contribute to enhancing quality of life. Ethical fashion can also refer to a company’s overall focus and mission in relation to how they give back to the world and community they operate in. Our dedication to discovering and supporting the businesses that strive for either of these operatives are what we call “Conscious Consumerism”.

Within Sustainable and Ethical fashion, there are many ways that clothing can be labeled Sustainable or Ethical. Examples include: Organic, GOT certified, reused, recycled (either fiber or garment form), deadstock, natural fabrics, long lasting design, quality, transparent production, etc. Then there are things that don’t necessarily fall into either the sustainable or ethical category but we still associate with positive purchasing and conscious consumerism. These are things like made in the USA, shop small, shop local and independent design.

But what do all of these subcategories mean? What are natural fabrics and what are their benefits and drawbacks? Bellow are several of the most common sustainable and ethical garment categories along with a brief explanation of their contribution and shortcomings to our closed loop initiatives.


What is it?: Natural fabrics are textiles who’s fibers are made from organic (living) material. Examples of this are cottons, linens, silks, wools, bamboo, and more.

Pros: These are naturally replenishing materials that break down easily once discarded. Depending on the fiber they can be durable, soft, breathable, moisture wicking and overall very comfortable.

Cons: Many natural fabrics require a massive amount of water to sustain crops. Cotton, for example, requires 2,400 liters in order to produce a single t-shirt. Additionally, there is often the use of pesticides and chemicals in growing and production.

Other Facts: Bamboo specifically is one of the most economical and sustainable crops, it is one of the fastest growing plants on earth, requiring very small amounts of water and releases 35% more oxygen into the air than hardwoods. But bamboo actually requires an unbelievable amount of energy and chemicals to process into wearable fibers. The process of turning the plant into the fabric is actually the exact same process as creating rayon, which uses petroleum, a non-renewable, toxic substance.


What is it?: These are natural fabrics made without the use of chemicals, pesticides or harmful dyes.

Pros: Not using toxic and harmful chemicals in production can not only be good for the environment, but good for all workers involved in the manufacturing process.

Cons: Requires far more water and land to produce the same yields as conventional fibers. Arguably, organic cotton uses more resources and can be overall more harmful to the environment than conventional cotton.


What is it? This is any fabric made from breaking down existing product or materials and may be one of the most promising paths forward for sustainable textiles. The most popular example of this is fabric made from used water bottles. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be synthetic. There are also recycled natural fabrics such as cotton and wool.

Pros: Fabrics uses existing material are a solution for items that would otherwise be waste or pollution. If this process were perfect, it could theoretically create a closed loop process of turning waste back into usable products.

Cons: The technology for recycled fabrics is still quite poor. Fibers such as cotton and wools are broken and damaged in the aggressive recycling process which creates a lower quality finished product, both in appearance and durability. Think about a typical cotton fiber. It is 2.5” is length and then twisted together to make a yarn. which is then woven and knitted to create a fabric. When this fiber is recycled, the fabric is broken down, breaking most of those cotton fibers, which are then twisted back together to make a new yarn. But the shorter fibers don’t hold together as easily, and are often a lot more rough in hand feel. Many companies, are working toward incorporating recycled fabrics into their designs. However, they are fairly limited because these fabrics do not past durability testing. As an example recycled cotton fibers must be mixed with 80% non-recycled fibers in order to pass some industry standard quality tests.

Other Info: Even with these downsides, this is one of the more promising paths to sustainable fabric as this technology improves. Some companies are even pursuing ownership of the fibers in garments even after the product has been purchased by the consumer. The reason being, once the garment has reached the end of it’s lifecycle, it must be returned to the same company, taken apart and made into something entirely new.


What is it?: Any garment that has been previously purchased or owned and then discarded, donated or sold.

Pros: This is a great option for many consumers, maybe even the most sustainable and ethical when looking at a single garment. We are purchasing garments that have already been made. The carbon footprint of any garment purchased second hand is small and limited only to that in transportation, cleaning and packaging.

Cons: In order to maintain a supply chain, quality and durable clothing will still need to produced in order to sustain a resale market. Every garment has a lifespan, and none of the garments that currently exist are going to last forever, especially if they are getting used. Also, donation practices are still very imperfect. Somewhat thanks to fast fashion and low quality garments, small percentages of garments donated make it to new homes. Many textile products donated are destroyed or shipped back overseas, wasting fuel in transportation and ultimately polluting the environments of some of the most needy. Our resale market is often skimming the good product off the top, while continuing to leave a lot of waste behind that must be dealt with.


What is it?: This is a relatively new option derived from the shared market place similar to Airbnb or Uber. It’s the idea that clothing can simply be rented instead of owned.

Pros: You don’t actually need to own many of your clothing items, or at least the type of garments you wouldn’t wear very often (ex. formal wear). This can save money and stress. Garments that may get used one time in your own closet, can be rented at a fraction of the price of purchasing and can be sent back to a company in order to be cleaned and worn again by another individual.

Cons: This too is quite imperfect. MOST of the garment rental companies own the product that is available for rent. Meaning, we haven’t necessarily solved the problem of unworn garments. These company’s’ closets end up being an inflated version of our own, where some items are in continual rotation, while others sit and wait and often never get any use. While it still saves your wallet, it hasn’t entirely solved the problem of unworn garments, it’s just hidden it.


What is it?: Small scale businesses which can be somewhat ambiguous, but often means privately and independently owned.

Pros: Your individual purchases make a more significant impact for a single business. You may have already heard or seen this saying: Every time you purchase a garment from a small business, an actual person does a happy dance. Also, It may be much easier to inquire as to business practices and sources, by talking to owners directly;

Cons: Shop small doesn’t always mean sustainable or ethical. It is still necessary to determine whether best practices are being used.


What is it? Any item that is being sold and/or has been manufactured in your community and/or the United States.

Pros: More of the money you spend stays in your own community. Sales tax contribute directly to your own streets, schools, parks and government facilities. Employees paid are likely from your own community as well, meaning you are helping support your neighbors. Also, the cost and footprint of transportation from business to your home is drastically reduced, lowering the overall carbon footprint. And, when considering USA made, it is more likely garments are being produced under the strict USA codes for health and safety, and legal minimum wages.

Cons: Similar to shop small, this doesn’t automatically mean that the businesses use ethical or sustainable practices. And, it’s hard for us to remember in a city like Minneapolis but many sustainable or ethical options are not often local for many people.


What is it?: Companies that have a specific, stated and practiced social effort.

Pros: You know that the company is supporting a cause and you know what that cause is, which helps you to have a better understanding of where your money is going.

Cons: Not necessarily sustainably focused. Many of these companies are still international, contributing to waste in packaging and transportation.

What Now?

Having the knowledge of what all of these things mean, how do we even begin to make our decisions?

As a business owner, sustainability advocate and fellow consumer, these are my personal suggestions and beliefs: Let’s do the best we can.

Let’s consider the entire system, not just the garment itself. Where did it come from? How long will it be used? How we will ultimately dispose of it? Where will it go? What will it become? Does it still have value? Ultimate sustainability will be the result of a closed loop system. We can strive to extend the lifespan of the things we own and close that gap to the best of our ability.

Let’s consider that significant and meaningful improvement and change in the fashion industry is going to be an evolution. While many of us can stand to own less, our answers are likely not as easy or simple as not buying things. We live in a society that depends on our economy and we are all connected. Instead of just throwing on the breaks, let’s consider advancement and how we can all contribute to steering that advancement in the direction of sustainability and better quality of life for all.

Let’s support the businesses doing the most good. If a company is doing the absolute best they can now, with the resources and technology available, it is likely they will keep doing the best they can as their resources expand and technology improves.

Let’s advocate for change outside of the clothing industry. Renewable energy and manufacturing regulations impact our industry and are necessary for a sustainable future. Learn, vote, advocate and educate.


If you are interested in learning more or would like to get more involved, here are helpful resources:

Fashion Revolution

The True Cost

Green America

Responsibility in Fashion

Know the Chain