Ethical Clothing: What Exactly Does it Mean

In an effort to vote with your dollars, you may likely have come across terms like “ethical clothing” or “ethical fashion”, and discussions about “shopping ethically”. But what does “ethical” mean?

How can you know if what you’re buying is supporting your values? Ah, the dilemma of the “ethical shopper”.

Let us here unpack what the subjective term, “ethical”, can mean in the clothing industry and look at how to evaluate the claims against your own ideals.

“Ethical clothing” can be a great term to apply to specific products, because it can mean more than just one thing. For example, it can incorporate fair trade principles plus more. Often it is used synonymously with “fair trade”.

Sometimes it is used instead of “fair trade”, because perhaps the clothing is still made with the standards of fair trade principles, but is not accredited by an external certifying body.

And sometimes “ethical” refers to practices that are not particularly related to fair trade principles at all.


“Ethical” does not prescribe a particular set of values that are followed. In fact, ethics vary from person to person. Our ethical frameworks by which we make our decisions in life vary according to our values, beliefs and worldview.

And these are not static. You may remember a time when you thought differently to how you think now, and if you’re reading this, bought differently to how you buy now.

The fact that our ethics are based on our varying personal and collective values, beliefs and worldviews means that “ethical clothing” can mean a varied amount of things. But never fear! There’s almost always more information behind a claim.


Here are some common meanings:

  • Clothing that takes social responsibility for its creation (when respect for other people is valued).

This might be marked by a fair trade certification, or a direct, respectful and supportive relationship between designer and producer. It can refer to all aspects of the product chain or to a specific part.

To learn more about the principles of Fair Trade clothing, see here.

  • Clothing that takes environmental responsibility for its creation (when care for the environment and/or a next generation is valued).

This might be marked by an organic certification, or the use of no chemicals and pesticides.

Or perhaps alternative and eco-friendly fibres and processes are used in creating a garment, and/or comprehensive recycling measures are taken in the course of the clothing’s creation.

The claim, “ethical clothing,” may also refer to the local area and ecosystem in which the product’s fibres are produced, the garment is made, the shipping is carried out and/or how the clothing is reused or recycled or disposed.

Ethical clothing - a plain tag on a pair of ethically made jeans

Again, an environmental claim can refer to all aspects of the product chain or to a specific part.

  • Clothing that does not harm another species in its creation (when respect for animals is valued).

In the clothing industry, this tends to be more often found with shoes and accessories; the type of products that utilise animal products, such as leather.

Of course, you will probably have noticed it in the cosmetic industry also, with brands that do or do not utilise animal testing.

  • Clothing that’s profits are used to promote a particular value.

This is just one part of a products retail life, so it can be used as part of one of the above, or a more diluted form, or something entirely different.

With all of these meanings (and these are just the most common ones, in my experience), it’s no wonder a shopper can be confused or misled when something is referred to as “ethical clothing” or “ethical fashion”.

Brands bring their own values to the “ethical” claim, and shoppers meet there at the term with their own as well. So if you’re trying to vote with your dollars and shop with your values, it’s always worth reading beyond the claim.

Most brands making an effort to produce and/or sell ethical clothing will also share an explanation and/or a certification seal with their claims.

With this extra information, you can evaluate a brand or product’s ethical claim against your own ethics to see how well they fit. It’s the good old “fitting room” all over again.

You may even learn something new while shopping that shifts or expands your values and your own definition of “shopping ethically”.


Slow Fashion

Organic Fair Trade Clothing

The Problem with Conventional Cotton

Fashion Blender

Fast Fashion: A Modern Curse

Fairtees – Australian Sustainable & Ethical Clothing

Fast Fashion Crackdown – The EU Proposes Action

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