Is Trendy Fashion Ethical?

This post is an expansion on some thoughts I had while gathering links for last month’s roundup. In particular, my thoughts were brought on by this pair of pants:

High-waisted black overalls from Accompany

I came across them while perusing the website of new high-fashion, ethical retailer Accompany. High-waisted, skinny-leg black overalls. It takes a moment for the mind to fully grasp. Did I mention they’re dry clean only?

My initial question about these pants was whether such a trendy, bizarre, expensive, impractical article of clothing could be truly billed as ethical. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had bigger underlying questions about the relationship between fashion, trends and ethics.

I have a knee-jerk dislike for overtly trendy items because to me they say “fast fashion.” Whether the item was made by a sweatshop or a fair trade co-op, it’s still destined to be worn only a few times before being discarded into the waste stream as tastes change. Best case scenario, the item ends up being thrifted and loved by several different owners. On the other hand, it could be part of a shipment of donated castoffs sent to a developing nation, undermining local garment production. Or it could go straight to a landfill while the original purchaser orders this season’s latest style, beginning the cycle again.

I realize that this reaction is not necessarily warranted. As an art school grad, I appreciate the artistic aspect of fashion, in the same way that I appreciate the artistry of an expensive meal. And if designers are going to be producing off-the-wall pieces as a matter of creative expression, I’d obviously rather them be made by workers in good conditions than in sweatshops.

Collection of trendy ethical clothing including a fringed t-shirt, reptile shoes, sheer top and blue jumpsuit

A few examples of trendy items found on ethical shopping websites

I think the root of my disdain for these items and the trendy collections they represent is that I see the ethical shopping movement leaning disproportionately toward fashion-forward, high-end designs targeted to young, affluent, educated women. This makes total sense from a business perspective, because that’s the market that is aware of ethical shopping issues, has disposable income, and generally enjoys fashion. I can’t fault these companies for knowing their audience. What I can fault them for is playing into the fast-fashion mentality that this audience has learned from the system ethical companies are supposedly trying to alter.

The truth is that very few people can wear items like these, for a variety of reasons. I’d like to see ethical options be available to everyone, from young to old, fashionable to frumpy, skinny to plus-sized, high-income to low-income.

That being said, I have to remind myself that the ethical shopping movement is young and that every new market served is a victory. We’ve come a long way from every fair trade dress having dragonflies batiked on it. I have faith that eventually there will be options for everyone. We’re just not there yet.

What are your thoughts on ethics and trends? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most fashionable person, so I’d love to hear the opposing viewpoint from someone who actually enjoys fashion.


  1. Bracha

    I really like the positive spin you put on this. Here’s to ethical clothing for all people! Including preople like me, who just want pretty, fashionable but not super trendy clothes, the kind that I would find in H&M and Anne Taylor

  2. I just finished writing a somewhat crazed essay on my blog about the tricky ethics of consumerism, so I was glad to hop over here and see this.

    I agree with this post – all of it. Of course we want to encourage innovation and support ethical production of new products, but it’s not ultimately sustainable. I can’t figure out how to continue to encourage style creativity and sustainability simultaneously.

    When I started my blog, I was really interested in proving that ethical style could be fashion forward. And I guess I still am, but I realize that obsessive consumerism is a growing problem and simply finding a way to make our consumerism nominally more ethical doesn’t fix anything in the long term. I’ve gone back to buying exclusively secondhand clothing for the time being.

    • I should also note that a lot of “trendy” items can work in the long term if you’re willing to make it work. I buy a lot of vintage clothing and it’s the kooky details that tend to attract me to them, so a trend from the 80s still works if you want it to.

      • Julia

        That’s a good point. I originally had a lot more trendy items in mind for this post, but when I went back and looked at them I realized they would actually be versatile if you went about it creatively.

        I’m totally with you on the struggle between creativity and sustainability. Art in its various expressions adds beauty, variety and joy to life, so I don’t for a moment think it’s 100% wasteful. Maybe the answer lies in balancing creativity with other concerns, rather than putting creativity on a pedestal and refusing to compromise it even if it’s harming others.

  3. Mary

    It seems that the store is providing a living in an ethical trade for people who are artisans but maybe wouldn’t otherwise make a good living, so in that sense it’s the type of industry that is so much better than other clothing stores that mass-produce cheap clothes in sweatshops. And the expense and art work should reflect this higher ethic, which ideally would equate to higher pay for the actual artists and artisans. But we know this is not how it works. The real income from profit in this and other similar fashion industries ends up with the company VIPs–even though their artisans might fare better than sweatshop workers.

    Any sort of consumerism, especially trendy fashion (which is only affordable by relatively few people world-wide) is a sign of superficiality and greed. While many are starving, some are spending money on clothes for show they do not need. It is a problem in our society, and we are all guilty in some way or another of following this greedy lifestyle, myself included.

    The ideal solution would be to have fair trade exist in all clothing shops everywhere in the world, not just trendy and fancy boutiques, and spend more on crafters and artisans and less on American/western company profits and high-paid VIPs. It’s a much more balanced system. Unfortunately, this is not really how a society based on consumerism works.

    In the meantime, I will continue to just buy used clothes at Value Village–Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle–the best ethical and sustainable lifestyle that there is, one that each of us can do to cut down otherwise wasteful consumerism, which is not sustainable to the planet.

  4. I completely agree with this post. Currently, my partner and I are downsizing our 1500 square feet of house to a 300 square foot bus. When going through our rooms and deciding to keep/sell/donate/toss, we are absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff we own. We are writing every item down in a notebook, and in just our living room alone, there are over 100 items – and this is round four of purging in the last year. There used to be MORE stuff. And when ridding our house of all the stuff – it has to go somewhere, right?

    We are attempting to donate as much as we can to a local women’s shelter or selling items to people who will use/love their new item – but as we went to bed last night after cataloging two of the eight rooms in our house, our realization was simply this: we bought into consumerism in a major way in our ten years of living on our own/adulthood. So many of the items in our house – clothing or decorative or even practical in some way, were trendy and we’d outgrown the style in just a matter of a few short years. Perhaps we never even liked the item in the first place.

    I think what you are touching on in this post is absolutely essential. Fair shopping goes deeper than just buying a fair-trade item. We need to consider every impact of our purchases, and be far more mindful. Often now, we consider the one-in, one-out rule before making a purchase. If we love a top at the store (even from the local thrift), we consider how we’d have to go home and get rid of another top to make room for it. Then we consider where we can take that top. I’m by no means saying that people need to downsize to the extreme we are, but the time it takes to consider that one-in, one-out rule can stop us from making impulse buys of trendy new items and hold on to the perfectly good stuff we already own.

    • Julia

      I’ve thought about doing one-in, one-out, but I admit I’ve been too scared to try. I’m encouraged to hear that you’re finding it a helpful practice! I could see myself working toward that in the future.

  5. Mary

    Kate, I forgot to tell you when you and I talked separately about your plans, that in 1997 I sold most of my belonging and moved to California. I know that the family knew I had moved, but they probably didn’t realize that the only things I took with me were my daughter (she and I fit into the front seat) and any possessions we had that we thought we needed, which fit into the back seat and the trunk. The things we decided to take were: our cat, minimal clothes, books, my computer (necessary for my job, which was freelance editing at the time), and some CDs back in the days before MP3s.

    You, and this post by Julia, have inspired me to begin downsizing the things I own, including having a clothing swap with friends (always great for one in + one out, especially when things no longer fit or you lose/gain weight–or just change ideas on style–and it gives a nice chance to get together with woman friends).

    My dear dad used to remind us that everything we owned would go away someday, and it was silly to attach much meaning to things–we should attach meaning to people, experiences, and relationships.

  6. Hi there,

    I’ve really enjoyed finding this post. In August I set myself a challenge to only buy fair trade clothes for 12 months, and started a blog to keep a record of all the things I found out whilst doing it. My focus when I started was just to buy items with the normal Fair Trade Foundation certification, but as I’ve gone on I’ve realised that it’s much more complicated than just buying the things which have ‘that’ mark. As well as stumbling across other ethical labour accreditation schemes and getting swamped in reading policy statements on brand websites, it has opened my eyes to the actual ethics of buying clothes. Until a month or so ago, I never even knew that donated clothes end up on sale in developing countries and what impact this has.

    It’s quite strange, on one hand, I have become quite sure that for the garment industry to become fully ethical we, the consumer, will have to lose this expectation that we can spend so frequently on disposable fashion. As long as there is a demand to be able to buy large quantities of clothes on a regular basis, prices will have to remain low, which is only really sustainable through using cheap, unfair labour throughout the process.
    On the other hand, before I started this I didn’t really buy clothes that often and would not have described myself as fashionable at all. I used to go in Urban Outfitters and scoff at the stupid outfits people were taking off the racks. But now I’ve emerged myself in things to do with ethical fashion and been more exposed, I’ve found myself wanting to make an effort with my appearance and buy on trend clothing! So it really gives me something to think about that trend clothing, even if fair traded, could feed into that unethical cycle.

    • Julia

      I’ve found the same thing! I was definitely not interested in fashion, which was one reason I didn’t feel like it was a big sacrifice to limit my options to the ethical, often less-trendy options available when I started. But now that I’m trying to share options with others, by default I’m more immersed in style, and I’m finding myself more interested in getting fashionable clothes. :P It’s completely backwards!

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