Sustainable, fair trade, and ethical goods are on the rise– which is wonderful and problematic all at once. Because there remains discrepancies between entities, companies, and countries as to what each of those terms means, greenwashing (and its equivalents) has plenty of room to grow. This best way to combat this? Information. Sustainable fashion definitions remain vague and dependant on the person using it, so brands and consumers must push for transparency. Brands and customers must do the work to reveal who is trustworthy in this increasingly complex industry.
Fair Trade is one of the only terms used within the fashion world which has something resembling a concrete definition. Due to third party certifications, garments or goods carrying a Fair Trade label are guaranteed to meet a set of standards. These standards usually include being able to trace the supply chain from fibre to finish and ensure that not only are individuals being treated fairly, but are also being given opportunities to improve their lives through working with certified companies. Certifications do help narrow down the plethora of brands claiming to have high standards, though there are several Fair Trade certifications out there. Ethical online shop Fair Trade Winds has done a fantastic job of breaking down what they deem the six “Aspects of Fair Trade Certifying” on their site. From identifying the type of producer making each product, to ensuring labor laws are being followed, the certification process is most certainly comprehensive. A few Fair Trade labels to become acquainted with are Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA, and Fair For Life. Brands can also, or instead, can become members of Fair Trade organisations like World Fair Trade Organization or Fair Trade Federation.
Although looking for these labels is a fantastic way to weed out products claiming to be doing good, brands boasting of a “fair trade” or “fair trade” process without a certification aren’t necessarily lying. Becoming Fair Trade certified isn’t easy and often quite costly so the resources may just not be there for a certain company or product. At the same time, it’s always imperative to do a bit of digging into a brand before making a purchase. Make sure that if no certification is present, they can back up their claims of fair labor and production systems with evidence, not just vague language.
Speaking of the World Fair Trade Organization, the membership-based organization differentiates ethical trade and fair trade clearly on its website, stating that “while a Fair Trade business must be ethical, an ethical business is not necessarily Fair Trade.” WTFO asserts that ethical trade refers to companies focused on following codes of conduct which ensure fair wages and labor rights, but that Fair Trade goes beyond that to seek “partnerships with and disadvantaged groups.” This means providing artisans with a platform for creating and distributing goods which can bring raise and sustain the standard of living for the communities involved. Ethical trade, also encompassing ethical fashion, defines a movement and way of doing business rather than a specific production or distribution system. With no universally-accepted definition for either ethical trade or ethical fashion, we’re left to believe that both terms do refer to companies aiming to do right by their employees, contractors, partners, and the planet. However, most think the difference between sustainable and ethical is whether a brand first prioritises people or the planet.
A buzzword that continues to plague the efforts towards a better fashion industry is sustainable fashion. Corporations are appropriating the term left and right to make baseless claims of responsible practices. Sustainable fashion most often refers to companies or products created with the environment in mind, from utilising organic materials to using renewable energy. This by no means indicates that a brand which participates in sustainable practices doesn’t care for the people along their supply chain, it just doesn’t guarantee it. In order for a company to truly be sustainable in any way they must be transparent. They must be honest about what their garments are made of, how they are made, and what it takes to bring that garment to customers. Green Strategy, a sustainably-minded consultancy firm, explains the elusive term as being “partly about producing clothes, shoes and accessories in environmentally and socio-economically sustainable manners, but also about more sustainable patterns of consumption and use, which necessitate shifts in individual attitudes and behaviour.”
As long as we don’t have a one-size-fits-all definition of sustainable fashion, ethical trade, or fair trade, consumers must be diligent about diving deeper than catchy slogans to ensure that what a brand is preaching, is being practiced.
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.