What's the difference between ethical, Fair Trade, & sustainable

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Safia Minney perfectly summed of the differences between Fair Trade, sustainable, and ethical fashion; terms that are often interchanged when they shouldn't be. The following is from a People Tree blog post: 

Fair Trade Fashion

Fair Trade Fashion is a product – clothing or accessory that is made by a Fair Trade certified group that works to the World Fair Trade Organisations 10 Fair Trade principals – see them here. Primarily Fair Trade fashion is fashion created with a goal of empowering marginalised people while paying them a fair wage and ensuring fair working conditions.

Fair Trade Fashion is sometimes covered by a wider term ‘Ethical Fashion’. Fair Trade Fashion may also incorporate sustainable practice, including the use of organic cotton, achieving Soil Association organic certification, safe dyes and carbon neutral production methods.

Sustainable Fashion

Sustainable Fashion is a product that is often made to environmentally-friendly standards including eco fibres like certified organic cotton, upcycled and recycled fabrics, reclaimed and fabric off cuts. Some new fibres like bamboo, hemp and linen are also included, but depending on the methods of processing bamboo and hemp, these fabrics are not always considered environmentally-friendly. Some people will group Fair Trade Fashion under sustainable fashion as the production is considered ‘sustainable’ to communities of farmers and artisans in providing livelihoods and investing in eco-projects.

Ethical Fashion

Ethical Fashion is a broader term that can encompass Fair Trade and sustainable fashion but is not always explicit. Ethical fashion has no distinct set of rules, practices or governing body. Ethical Fashion emerged out of the broad school of ethical, responsible consumption in the early 90’s, and is based on a ‘do no harm’ principle.

It includes Fair Trade concerns, but also encompasses organic and recycling issues, as well as paying attention to animal husbandry practices and the overall activities of a company. Ethical fashion includes pioneering brands working on everything from upcycling (reclaiming fabrics from second-hand or end of roll) to Fair Trade hand-knitted hats and a range of 100% organic t-shirts. For example sustainable fabrics sourced abroad but cut sewn and trimmed in the UK would be considered ethical. Or for example clothing produced in larger factory units which have been issued with social compliance certificates such as Fairwear certification, FLO-CERT, GOTS certification, SA8000 and other solid audit controls in place could be considered ethical as labour standards are being upheld in these factories.

Fair Trade Fashion is always/ by default ethical fashion, ethical fashion, is not by default Fair Trade or adhering to the Fair Trade principles.

There is too little investment in Fair Trade and ethical fashion for there yet to be definitive studies of their environmental and social impact, but these would be very valuable for consumers to help them shop. What is clear is that, if you’re buying new clothing, you will be making a positive difference in buying a product that checks the box in as many best practices as possible. Consumer values are different too – a vegetarian may decide that buying leather shoes is less bad than plastic that doesn’t degrade in 500 years, for example.  Ethical consideration and choices are therefore not always straightforward. They are about the values that consumer holds most important to them.