Ethical Fashion Guide: What You Need to Know About Ethically Made Clothing

Hello! Erika here from Botanical Clothing. What comes to your mind when you hear the term "ethically made" in regards to clothing? This is something I've thought a lot about over the decade+ I've been working in this field. There's just so much to consider. I would think I'd figured it out, just to learn something new and have to reframe it all over again. Here are some of my considerations I've gathered over the years:

When you see the term "ethically made" on a piece of clothing or a brands website, what does that actually mean? Is it referring to the way the garment was cut and sewn? Does it mean the fabrics used are not harmful to the environment? Does ethically made mean that the dyes used were non toxic? Or is it referring to the packaging used to wrap and ship the item? Ideally it’s all of these things and more. 

True ethically made clothing is focused on the way a garment was designed, produced, and distributed out into the world. It takes into consideration the entire supply chain, from how the fabric was made, how the fibers were processed, how they were dyed, how they were transported, who made the item of clothing and where was it made, what kinds of resources were used in the process (water, power, fuel) and how it will impact the planet at the end of its life. Yes, this is a lot to consider and it can feel overwhelming, but as with anything, baby steps! Read on for a detailed breakdown of what should be considered for fashion to truly be “ethically made.”

Fabric: What is your clothing made from? Is it a natural or synthetic fabric?

Natural fabrics are plant based cellulose fibers grown in nature, such a cotton (ideally organic), flax linen, and hemp. Rayon, tencel, modal, and lyocell are also considered natural fibers as they come from wood pulp. Rayon is a natural fabric to avoid, as it requires highly toxic chemicals to make via the viscose process, and has been linked to deforestation of old growth forests. Natural fabrics are great because they have the ability to break down at the end of their lifespan. In contrast, synthetic fabrics do not come from nature, they are human made. Synthetic fabrics are ones such as nylon, polyester, acrylic, elastine, spandex, capiline and polypropylene. These are petroleum based fabrics that are dependent on the fossil fuel industry to exist. They do not break down, they require high amounts of energy and resources to make, and they create long term pollution problems in our soils, oceans, and waterways.

Dyes: How did your clothing get to be that color?

Dyes are another important thing to consider when looking into an ethically made garment. Most naturally grown fibers are an off-white color before they are dyed. Dyes can be broken down into three types: synthetic-high impact, synthetic-low impact, and natural dyes. Synthetic dyes are human made and derived from petroleum (yep, there’s that oil again) while natural dyes are made in nature. Synthetic-high impact dyes are the worst dyes for the environment. They have high levels of toxic chemicals, are often azo based, require bleach, use excessive amounts of water, and are notorious for polluting water systems all over the world. Synthetic-low impact dyes are still petroleum derived, but they use less water, less chemicals, and are considered to be the best option when looking for color fast dyes that have less of an environmental impact. Look for certifications such as BlueSign or GOTS when seeking out the best low impact dye options.Natural dyes come from nature in the form of plants, insects, and minerals and can only be used to dye natural fabrics (synthetic fabrics will not absorb natural dye). While there are less commercial dye houses specializing in natural dyes, more options are becoming available if you are looking for a company that offers this service. 

People: Who made my clothes?

This is one of the biggest topics of conversation when it comes to ethically made clothing. One can easily visualize a human sitting at a sewing machine making the clothing we wear. Where were they? Were they based in the same country as you are now, or were they somewhere far away? Did they enjoy the work they were doing? Did they feel safe in their work environment? How much were they paid?

Human rights are at the intersection of fashion and manufacturing for good reason. There is a long history of abuse and slave labor working conditions around the world (even in the USA) when we ask the question, who made my clothes? My rule of thumb is this: if I wouldn’t be okay with my friend or family member being treated this way, I’m not okay with it for anyone else. Everyone deserves to feel safe and be paid a living wage for the work they do. Look for companies that are transparent about where their product is made and who is making it. 

Also to note- there is nothing wrong with buying clothing made in a foreign country. Assuming something was unethically made simply because it was “made in China” is an inaccurate assumption. But you have to ask yourself if you trust the company you are buying from. If you can’t directly connect with the company you are supporting by reaching out to them or reading legitimate reviews about how they do business, try looking for certifications such as Fair Trade Certified or GOTS.

Resources: How many resources were used to make this?

There are so many resources required along the supply chain to make an item of clothing. Water to grow the fibers and dye the fabric. Fuel to transport the fiber to the fabric mill, then the fabric to the manufacturer, then the finished product to the business, then the business to the purchaser. Power to run the fabric mill, the dye house, and the sewing machines. What did these steps look like? Was the water used to dye the fabric treated and purified before it was poured down the drain back into public waterways? How much fuel was needed to move through each step of the manufacturing process? Was everything local, or did it require multiple moves across the globe? The further an item has to travel, the more resources it requires. What kind of power was used in the making of the garment? Is coal the main source of energy where it was made, or are they powered by solar? How much packaging was used? As humans we all consume resources, it’s a matter of how many and what kind we consume that really matters.

The End: What happens when this item of clothing can no longer be used?

At some point, an item of clothing will reach the end of its lifespan. Hopefully it’s a really long time after it was created and it was enjoyed, worn, and cherished. So this is the final question to ponder: what is going to happen to this now that it’s no longer in use? Will it break down and biodegrade? It can if it’s made from natural fibers. Or will it just sit there….forever….I hate to tell you this but, plastic is forever. It might get so small we feel like it’s gone, but it’s still there, floating around in the ocean, soaking into the soil, and even getting inside of our bodies. What we wear and what we support matters. And as with anything, do what feels realistic for you. This is a one step at a time process that can’t be tackled over night. When I feel overwhelmed I sometimes think, what’s the point? But then I remember my favorite quote: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

Thanks for reading,

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Botanical Clothing is working towards creating the mostly ethically made and earth friendly clothing possible. Right now we make organic hemp shirts, pants, and dresses, with more coming in the future!
Shop organic hemp clothing here. 

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1 comment

What an excellent overview of the full supply chain. Thanks for sharing!


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