Why most Ethical Fashion is not really Ethical

The way forward in fashion has to be the same as in food: Welcome science in, embrace innovation, prevent ecocide.

But when even self-proclaimed ethical brands cannot commit to ending the heteronomy of animals, how will me ever make progress? An opinion piece.

Antagonist Opinion Piece: Why most Ethical Fashion is not really ethical.
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February 25, 2021

Words — Eric Mirbach
Photography — James Koroni

ethical [ eth-i-kuhl ]
adjective – pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.

Here’s a theory for you: Most ethical fashion brands are not really ethical. Most ethical fashion does not deliver what it’s promising, but works because most consumers have the same blind spot that brands have been fostering. I’m getting tired of seeing this happen over and over again and that I really expect the whole ethical fashion space to do better. And that’s what this post is about.

“Do the best you can with what you have, and keep impact in mind, always.”

I kind of know what I’m talking about, too. I’ve been researching ethical fashion for close to ten years now, first for personal interest, then for a blog, then for the vegan fashion magazine I co-founded. I have been in exchange and working with various ethical fashion brands, some big, some small. I’ve visited manufacturing sites all over the place, from the Fashion District in Manhattan to a denim factory in Turkey, from the shiniest production floor in Portugal to a sheep farm in the middle of Southern Patagonia.

Last but not least, I helped build an ethical brand myself and played a key role in making said brand — outerwear label Embassy of Bricks and Logs — more ethical, more inclusive, more sustainable and the household name it’s become in the European ethical fashion sphere, with a credibility no other brand in that category holds.

My definition of what ‘ethical’ means for a fashion brand is pretty straight forward: Do the best you can with what you have, be inclusive doing it and keep impact in mind, always.

“What good is it when you’re the most sustainable, but don’t have style?”

I’m not a purist. I don’t think it’s smart to concentrate solely on making the most sustainable product if that means that the product you’re putting out might be inferior to others in the market. I’m a big fan of market awareness and of keeping your idealism in check with what’s needed to succeed.

What good is it when you tick all the boxes but go out of business after two years? What’s your impact then? What good is it when you’ve listened to all the wishes your core sustainable customer base might have but end up with a product so expensive that same core audience won’t buy it? What good is it when you’re best-in-class in matters of sustainability, but forget that the styles you put out also need, well, style?

So yes, not only am I open to compromise, I think it’s a key ingredient. We all know that the most sustainable way to buy clothing is buying second hand. And we all know that putting out ethically motivated clothing kind of is an oxymoron in itself because of that exact reason — there’s a more sustainable solution (buy what’s already been made instead of producing new garments), but in a world where branding and status play an undeniable role, how will we ever dismantle the reach and influence of big brands that are not in the business of bettering themselves? Those brands have no interest in changing their practices and will keep doing things the way they’ve always been done, unless we force them to change by spending our money elsewhere. (Or are you waiting for legislation to take care of that? Let me know how that’s working for you.) No, they will keep harming the environment, animals, farmers and garment workers in the process. And if we keep on sporting their logos — even when bought second hand — inside this cultural and societal eco-system we grew up in, nothing can change.

“What if your fashion choices would radiate the coolness of moral integrity, resisting the draw of mainstream culture?”

I say we need ethical fashion brands, we need new logos, new brand names, new brand stories and, by that, new projection screens for the personality treats we want to communicate through the way we dress. And yes, I’m aware that sounds superficial and maybe even borderline narcissistic and it kinda is, but it’s fun, and cultural heritage at that. I’d even go as far as calling it an integral piece of what being human means, and so I’m okay with that.

Fashion is supposed to be more than just clothes that keep you safe from the elements. The way we dress is culturally important, it’s a much needed means of self-expression and I’m all here for it. I’d just love it if we would do it to the best of our abilities and if we would use it to communicate different ideas. Like ethical principals, a bold stand against exploitative and cruel behavior. A commitment to all-out radical kindness, radiating the coolness of moral integrity that’s resisting the draw of mainstream culture.

This could be battle gear, brands could be vesting a revolution. Instead, they show a blatant lack of long-term, wholesome, inclusive thinking. It’s such a pitiful sight.

What I’m asking for is pretty straight forward: How can you call what you do ‘ethical’ when you compromise the well-being of your wards? It’s not ‘just’ the environment and the garment workers and cotton farmers we need to accept responsibility for. The ethical fashion sphere is blatantly ignoring the animals, and what’s worse, a lot of brands have the tendency to then pretend like that’s not true.

“If you’d only done your homework…”

Brands are opting for wool when for their customer base, cotton will do just fine. Brands are opting for silk, brands are even opting for leather still, like that’s a normal thought: “Hey, let’s use the skin of this living being we farmed to be slaughtered so we can turn it into a wallet even though we have perfectly fine alternatives”.

I understand that a lot of vegan alternatives to the materials we want for their hand-feel, for their heritage, described by loaded buzzwords like “genuine”, “natural” or “durable” (hammered into the heads of several generations of consumers with the help of millions in marketing dollars btw), are not where we would ideally want them. I understand that it’s counter-intuitive to pick a man-made leather over what we have learned to accept as “natural”. But if you’d done your homework, you would find trustworthy data showing that consciously produced vegan materials not only are durable, functional and (in lack of another word) handsome, they also have an inherently better ecological footprint than i.e. leather ever could.

“Wouldn’t an ‘ethical’ approach be morally inclusive?”

Additionally, if you want to claim the word “ethical” for your brand, wouldn’t it be more sound to be inclusive of all animals (not just human ones)? Wouldn’t an “ethical approach” include thinking about their undeniable suffering, their want for freedom and self-determination and their wish to live? How is that not our common ground?

It’s true, vegan materials are not perfect, but neither are animal-derived materials, even if you let the animal welfare aspect aside. (And why the heck would you?) The alternatives we have now are a big step in the right direction, one that is very much needed. And when even so-called ethical brands cannot commit to ending the heteronomy of animals, how will we make progress? We need to push the envelope, build consumer demand so that new and better materials are created.

The way forward in fashion has to be the same as in food: Welcome science in, embrace innovation, prevent ecocide. Let’s not cling to old dogmas just because.

Makes you look old. Or worse: Makes you look unethical.

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