What exactly is sustainable fashion?

Sustainability in the fashion industry is officially having a moment. Research by fashion search engine Lyst recently revealed that searches for sustainable fashion have increased by 66% in the last year, which shows it’s definitely something that’s piquing curiosity on a global scale.

While this is great news for the movement, the ‘s’ word when it comes to fashion can leave people feeling a tad confused. How do we actually define sustainability in the fashion industry? And is it the same as ‘ethical’ or ‘conscious’ fashion?

At the moment, brands and individuals seem to be using these definitions interchangeably and in various ways. Also, when the differences are not clearly explained, it’s easier to be more vulnerable to greenwashing.

Image of clothing rack to accompany article on sustainable fashion on ZERRIN


Sustainable fashion encompasses the view that the consumption of consumer goods should be carried out in consideration of long-term consequences and future implications for people and the environment. 

Sustainability in fashion has come to refer to the garment industry’s effect over the people and the planet. Brands that are trying to become more sustainable are looking at the fabrics they use, how they can lighten their carbon footprint or switch to a more circular design model to create less waste.


Ethical fashion is based on the concept that fashion should be socially responsible, whereas how sustainable a brand is refers to how they minimise their environmental impact.

Brands producing ethically are considering human rights: the treatment of their workers, paying a fair or above living wage, and ensuring exploitation and slave labour are not part of their supply chain (in sum, no sweat shops, fair pay and a safe working environment).

The fast fashion industry is notorious for their terrible working environments, as we've mentioned before in our previous article on the collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed over 1,100 people.

So while ethical fashion refers to ‘social’ sustainability, sustainable fashion (also referred to as ‘eco-fashion’) has come to refer to environmental responsibility. In order to produce clothes cheaply, many fast-fashion retailers use non-renewable resources like oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to dye fabric. The production of fabrics also uses a lot of water, causing widespread water pollution from the chemicals used on the fabrics. That’s not to mention the amount of waste caused by plastic and chemical-based fibres (polyester, a big culprit) that don’t biodegrade. Yikes!

So in a nutshell, the key difference between the terms ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ are ethical = people, sustainable = planet.

It’s also important to note that a brand can be producing ethically, but NOT be using sustainable materials. There are many reasons for this - financially, they may not have the budgets as a small label to improve all areas of their supply chain at once, or perhaps they haven’t found the suppliers they are happy working with just yet.

Ultimately, you’ll find brands use these terms in different ways. If in doubt, the easiest thing to do is to reach out to the brand itself to ask about their stance.

"In a nutshell, the key difference between the terms ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ are ethical = people, sustainable = planet."

Image of a store having a sale to accompany article on sustainable fashion on ZERRIN


Sustainable fashion is also a counter-movement against fast-fashion, a billion dollar industry which exploits human resources (child labour, sweatshops) and depletes natural resources (water, crops, etc).

Since 2011, the fashion industry itself has steadily grown by 4.78% every year. Arguably a lot of this growth can be attributed to the growth of the fast-fashion industry itself. Fast-fashion retailers produce clothes in mass quantities and encourage overconsumption by launching new, often trend-led designs on a weekly to monthly basis (some committing to producing for 52 seasons a year. And yes you counted right, that’s a season a week!)

The fact is, clothing production at this super fast pace comes with a hefty price - a price tag we can’t see because we’re blinded by our urge to purchase cheap products, as well as due to the lack of transparency in most companies supply chains.

Many fast-fashion retailers also use lower quality fabrics, meaning they have a shorter life span which means consumers like you or I have to buy more products to replace our old ones. The clothes are then thrown away and end up in landfill. When we order online, the environmental impact is bigger given the amount of plastic packaging used!


In addition to the terms sustainable and ethical fashion, more and more people are using the  term ‘conscious fashion’ which can be a tad confusing!

We personally interpret conscious fashion as encompassing both sustainable fashion and ethical fashion. The common goal of any ‘conscious’ fashion brand is that the production and consumption of goods are sustainable.

We believe conscious fashion also refers to our consumer behavior and how much we, as buyers and wearers of clothes, can make more educated decisions about our purchases. It also includes how companies in the fashion industry can consciously change the supply chain into something that is more kind and viable — a production process that adds something to our world rather than perpetually taking away.

There are multiple ways you can shop more consciously. From purchasing clothes made from natural fabrics and plant-based dyes, to supporting companies that prioritise ethical production. You could even choose to purchase at second-hand or thrift stores or try clothes swapping. Even though the clothes themselves may be fast-fashion pieces, you’re saving them from going to waste by giving them a second life.

Image of jeans on hangers to accompany article on sustainable fashion on ZERRIN


At ZERRIN, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from working with multiple brands that are trying to be more socially and environmentally responsible, it’s that becoming more sustainable isn't easy, and is a journey for everyone.  

At the end of the day, as this great article also points out, the whole goal of sustainable fashion shouldn’t be perfection. The fashion industry and its supply chain is hugely complex, and there are no quick fixes.

Whether you’re a brand or consumer, we can all take little steps towards being more sustainable, and it starts by being more conscious and thinking more about where things come from. Next time you feel the need for a retail therapy fix, ask yourself: What am I wearing? What am I buying? Where am I buying from?

In the same article, Laurie Stewart eloquently phrases sustainable fashion as “a vehicle for much needed mindful change in a mindless world.” In the hectic world we live in today, let’s all start by taking more than a moment to think about the fashion choices we make.

Like this article? Then you’ll like these too:

Op-Ed: Beyond sustainable fashion, let's better our relationship with our clothing.

5 easy ways to be a more mindful shopper

New Oxfam report reveals the suffering of female garment workers in Bangladesh & Vietnam

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