Sustainable, Fairtrade, Slow fashion… What do they all mean?

Sustainable fashion is a trend on the rise with consumers becoming increasingly aware of the damaging practises in the fashion industry and starting to shop more responsibly.
As a customer, once you enter this world, you realise that each brand has its own take on being good to the planet, people and animals. Slow Fashion, Eco Friendly, Ethical Fashion etc – there are many terms and oftentimes they are used interchangeably. We have created a quick guide below to explain the individual terms, how they relate to each other and what their associated brands stand for.

Artisan products, are wholly or partially made by hand. Think beautiful hand embroidery, hand knitted clothing, handmade leather bags and jewellery etc. Typically, we associate the term with clothing or accessories being produced in local communities in the developing world.
While artisan is sometimes associated with Fairtrade, there is no guarantee that the workers are treated well or paid fairly. Small brands are more likely to know the artisans and be able to monitor their working conditions etc. Larger ones, however, will require a lot of people to produce the artisan items and thus it becomes difficult to monitor or control the supply chain. A fashion agent once told me how a large brand had asked him to inspect the working conditions of those producing their artisan hand-knitted jumpers. To quote him; “These jumpers are knitted by 6000 Chinese grandmothers working from home. How can I audit all of their homes? It will take me years!”

Eco friendly
Eco (Ecologically/Environmentally) friendly fashion indicates that the items have been made in a non-harmful way to the environment. The term is used when referring to organic natural fibres and regenerated fibres such as Tencel that have been developed in closed-loop systems reusing water and chemicals.
It is also used to refer to the use of natural fertilisers, re-use of chemicals, natural dyes and Oekotex certified dyes. Further it indicates that the water from the dye houses etc is cleaned before being led into nature.
The one area that eco-friendly doesn’t cover is natural resources. As an example, the production on organic cotton typically employs environmentally friendly methods for farming, dyeing & finishing. However, it requires huge amounts of water to grow – just as much as conventional cotton – and hence is a big consumer of a natural resource that is already sparse in some parts of the world.

Ethical fashion means fashion that is produced with respect for the people and animals in the supply chain. It is fashion that harms no one and follows strict codes of conduct to ensure respect for humans’ rights and good treatment of animals.
Most brands today have an ethical code of conduct to ensure good working conditions for farmers and workers. Amongst other things, this includes paying them above minimum wage, restricting the number of working hours and ensuring health and safety procedures are followed.
However, a minimum wage is different from a “living wages” which is calculated to be what a family needs to cover basic needs and have a bit of disposable income; and payment of the living wage is rarely a requirement in the ethical code of conduct. In some countries the difference between the minimum wage and the living wage is substantial. As an example, “a living wage in… Cambodia is 283 USD / month, which is 4 times the minimum wage” according to the organisation Labour Behind the Label.

Fair trade
Fair trade is a term used to indicate that farmers/manufacturers/artisans in the developing world are being paid fair prices for their products by brands in the developed world. It enables them to live above the poverty line through ensuring that brands don’t take advantage of their desperate need to sell their products in price negotiations.
The Fairtrade mark reaches further, ensuring that working conditions are good and encouraging environmentally friendly production. While we mostly see the Fairtrade mark on coffee and bananas, the Fairtrade mark can also be found on some cotton from developing countries.
Fair trade without the Fairtrade mark doesn’t necessarily mean that a brand is ethical, or that the products are organic or eco-friendly. All very confusing!

Organic fashion is clothes made of fibres that have been farmed and/or produced without the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides or other artificial chemicals. In other words, organic is good for the environment and belongs under the eco-friendly umbrella. Examples of organic fibres are organic cotton and organic linen.
Unfortunately, similar to eco-friendly, organic doesn’t always equate to sustainable since organic cotton production uses just as vast amounts of water as conventional cotton, a resource that is likely to become increasingly scarce – and already is in some parts of the world.

Recycled fashion typically means that either the garments are collected and used again as second hand/vintage, or recycled materials are used. Quite a few brands are now using recycled polyester where plastic products such as water bottles are melted and made into polyester fibres. Recycled polyamide is another example where the fibres have been broken down and new fibres created from them. It makes sense to re-use material that is already around and that will never disintegrate.
Unfortunately, recycling fabrics made from mixed fibre content is proving a challenge, which is why retailers collecting old clothes from customers currently have to send most of it to landfill.

Slow fashion
Slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion. Rather than constantly following the latest fashion trends and encouraging consumers to buy more, it is about conscious living and making more considered purchases; buying clothes that last longer and can be used for more than one season.
Slow fashion is usually also eco-friendly and ethical, although this is not a given. In itself, slowing down the fashion cycle can have a huge positive impact on the environment, but as with most positive changes, there are also downsides. One such being that many farmers and workers rely heavily on the current speed in the textile industry; and unless we pay more for the fibre and production of the pieces, or suitable alternative employment can be found for them, their living standard will inevitably drop.

“Sustainable fashion” is an umbrella name incorporating the majority of aspects from the other terms described in this article. It is also a bit of an oxymoron.
On the one hand, “fashion” is defined by changing trends, encouraging consumers to buy new clothes every season – or every time the trend changes. In other words, overconsumption.
On the other, “sustainable” seeks to ensure that future generations have at least the same amount of natural resources available as we currently enjoy. It is about maintaining a good ecological balance, and requires us to be mindful of our consumption and the impact our choices of materials and production methods have on the planet. This includes carbon offsetting, organic and eco-friendly fibres, closed loop production reusing chemicals and water and being mindful of the usage of natural resources.
Sustainable is also about treating humans and animals respectfully to maintain a good balance in the world.
VILDNIS is a sustainable fashion brand in the sense that we look after both the planet, people and animals when producing our collections. We seek to design timeless pieces that become wardrobe favourites for many seasons, and stay clear of any ‘overconsumption’ encouraging events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Upcycled fashion makes use of discarded clothes and other textiles to create new cool (and more expensive) pieces that people will buy. Quite a few brands on the market offer upcycled denim, canvas and leather products. It is also possible to find yarns containing upcycled cotton, using cotton scraps in blends with other fibres.
Upcycling is a form of recycling, although it is not to be confused with the concept of recycled fibres.

Vegan fashion uses materials that are either plant based or synthetic in order to prevent exploitation and cruelty to animals. This means materials such as silk, wool, leather and fur are excluded in vegan fashion.
While vegan food is usually perceived as clean and healthy for you, vegan fashion is not necessarily organic or eco-friendly. In fact, most of the materials used for vegan leather and fur substitutes are sadly amongst the heavy polluting fibres. Advances are being made at the moment to develop plant-based ‘leathers’ made of such exotic things as mushrooms and pineapple.

Regardless of their approach to sustainable fashion, there is no doubt that most brands using any of these terms genuinely care about the world.
That said, when a large retailer who previously had little regard towards the environment, people or animals suddenly start promoting themselves as responsible or sustainable, I find it is healthy to be a little cautious.
Small emerging Fashion-for-good brands typically have good intentions and while they may not be able to pay for expensive certifications, you can rest assured in the knowledge that they are so passionate about their cause that they will do the best they can to fulfil their promises to you, whichever they are.
If you want to learn more about VILDNIS’ commitment and promise to you, you can find it here.




@greenscenestyle, apologies for the very delayed reply – I somehow missed your comment. Thanks so much for your input. I already use the mentioned sources for my research, and will look more into the use of rain water in organic cotton farming.
Regardless how we view it though, the cotton crop is a thirsty one being primarily grown in warm sunny climates. Whilst it is definitely better that farmers use rainwater rather than groundwater, I guess rainwater is also important when it comes to drinking water in areas with sparse water resources.


Love the summary, however please note that the majority of organic cotton (approx. 80%) is rain-fed rather than irrigated, and so actually has a massive water saving compared to conventional cotton (at least 40% depending on how far along the manufacturing process you go). Textile Exhange has lots of freely accessible statistics and resources on this if you want to learn more, otherwise Made-By’s environmental benchmark is a good starting point (part of the European Clothing Action Plan) or the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Materials Sustainability Index. To help potential customers even more, it would be great to list sources like this throughout your article to give people the full picture.

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