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"What's That Even Mean?": The Difference Between Eco, Ethical, Sustainable, and Slow Fashion.

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

By now, I’m sure we’ve all heard the terms eco, ethical, sustainable, and slow fashion being thrown around willy-nilly. They’re often even used interchangeably, causing lots of confusion when it comes to what brands are really promising about their products and production. Does a product need to be all four? Is one good enough? Which one encompasses the issues I care about most? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!

We’re still figuring out the nuances of how each of these things intersect in our business, but we’ve at least got the terms down, and we're here to help you understand them each a bit more deeply so that you can shop a little more discerningly!

Let’s start with the term “sustainable fashion.” One of the reasons that these seemingly black and white terms have muddled into gray areas is because many brands slap the term “sustainable” in their description without explaining what that really means. I think most of the time, brands treat this term like a buzzword, knowing that it’ll entice more sustainably-minded people to buy their stuff. Even though it’s simply a surface level marketing strategy, they can get away with it because “sustainable fashion” is the umbrella term for all the rest and doesn’t point to one specific action. When people hear it, they assume the definition is the same as their own, and they move on.

By definition, sustainable means “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” When applying this to the fashion industry, the hope is that one day our consumption of goods will no longer outweigh our resources. But what resources are we talking about exactly? Water, carbon, energy, humans, money? To answer that question, we must now look to the other terms and their goals.

As you can see, “sustainable fashion” is simply the catch-all term for fashion that doesn’t ruin the earth and the people in it. The terms eco, ethical, and slow fashion get into the knitty-gritty of who and what is really affected.

“Eco fashion” is the term that describes fashion that strives to reduce the impact that the industry has on the environment specifically. This includes issues such as water consumption, carbon emissions, waste, pollution, pesticides, and many other issues that most people do not realize are directly tied to the fashion industry. For instance, brands who are striving for “eco fashion” make the shift toward more natural materials that can be easily recycled or biodegrade more quickly. They might take note of how much water is used in the production of a garment, and how much air and water pollution is caused by the factories they employ. There are many other factors that might earn a brand the badge of “eco fashion,” but they all have something to do with the environment.

“Ethical fashion” on the other hand, concerns the workers, communities, and economies that are affected by the fashion industry. Again, there are many concerns in this area that ethical fashion brands strive to address and reform: ethical treatment, pay, health standards, and equality for workers are among them, just to name a few. Because many of these injustices take place in other countries, it has become all too easy for some of us to turn a blind eye toward how our shopping habits affect real human beings on the other side of the globe. There are many ways that brands are starting to mitigate these concerns such as providing a fair wage to their employees, making sure their supply chains do not include sweatshops, and sourcing locally as much as possible.

Finally, “slow fashion” is the direct antithesis to fast fashion, meaning that it aims to slow down the production and consumption of fashion in general. Fast fashion has revolutionized the fashion industry in damaging ways, always pumping out new trends faster than people can keep up, causing a consumerist thirst that cannot be quenched. “Slow fashion” is moving toward the goal of buying fewer, higher quality items and treating them well so that they stand the test of time. Recycled, up-cycled, and made to measure clothing all fit into this category because they aim to either extend the life of a garment or craft a garment that’s intended to have a longer shelf life. Creating a capsule wardrobe or challenging yourself to not buy new clothing at all is another way to participate in “slow fashion” without having to produce anything new at all.

Now that you know what these terms mean, hopefully you will be less likely to be duped by a brand that throws these words around in an effort to convince you to buy their product, without providing any real evidence for their claims. Likewise, we hope it’ll help you define what is most important to you when it comes to how and where you shop and that you feel empowered to make informed decisions that match your convictions!

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