Op-Ed: Why Your Sustainability Plan Must Include Ethics

Writer, personal stylist and consultant Aja Barber on why sustainability without social responsibility is not sustainability at all.

For so long within the fashion industry the two terms, “ethical” and “sustainable” have been divided from one another when they should always ALWAYS be married together.  

The first thing I found when my platform slowly began to grow, was that the average consumer would confuse and conflate the two terms.  I receive many messages on my Instagram from people mixing up the terms. And often sustainability seemed to be what they were looking for without realising that ethics is a completely separate thing.

The way I’ve always explained it to my readership is that sustainability refers to the earth and the effects your garment is having on the planet - from creation of the garment and the materials it’s made from to the end of its life cycle, and ethics refers to the treatment of people.  I also believe it’s worth mentioning that all of our movements aren’t as ethical as we believe them to be if they’re not inclusive. We want diverse companies and clothing that fits a multitude of bodies.  

Consumers are becoming way more savvy about these things.  Because no matter how sustainable your fabrics might be, if you’re not treating your workers with care and consideration, you should really ask yourself, what are you actually trying to sustain?  What sort of system are you uplifting with a sustainability plan that leaves out worker treatment? But more important, in the words of my good friend Celine Semaan, who is one half of the research lab, The Slow Factory:

“Good for the earth, good for the people.”

I take this to mean if it is good for the earth, it must be good for the people.  And I believe that that should of course translate to our clothes.

There is absolutely no point to talking about sustainability if our practices are still harming garment workers. 

A few weekends ago I gave a talk with my friend Lora Nikolaeva of the brand Lora Gene.  Lora is a slow, sustainable and ethical fashion designer (who I’ve collaborated with to create a small capsule collection which comes in any size) and we were asked by an audience member why everyone talks about sustainable fashion but leaves out the workers.   

Five years ago no one in the audience would have asked this question because we still weren’t that invested yet in the conversation.  Five years ago I might not even have had an audience for this conversation. But five years ago I would have completely agreed with this statement.  Somewhere in the back of our minds, we turned our backs on the idea that people who were making our clothing were being mistreated. It was only when talks of climate change popped up again that we began to realise all these systems were in desperate need of an overhaul.  

Today I do believe that the average consumer is becoming a lot more savvy to the idea that the conversation surrounding sustainability rings empty if you attempt to have one without the other.  

And consumers want both when they make a purchase.  One without the other is like telling half the story, when the truth is, consumers don’t want to feel like they’re aiding in anyone’s oppression when they purchase a garment.  

Despite the fact that many brands of all sizes claim publicly to have ethical compliance managers and to engage in audits, we see again and again that these systems are failing every time workers take to the streets and disasters happen with annual regularity. 

On a similar topic I had posted about on Instagram, there was a comment in which a reader expressed that they “can’t stand when they see brands sharing all the good they are doing for the environment but have absolutely no transparency about their factory conditions”.  

And if a brand does share information, it’s often in vague esoteric terms that are hard for the average consumer to deconstruct.  

If folks on the other side of the planet are being harmed because of our shopping habits, then ultimately that’s not good for the planet, no matter how sustainable our measures may be. People can be harmed in a number of ways. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean factories collapsing and fires. It can mean big brands refusing to pay for their orders due to store closures, thus leaving the factory and the workers in dire straits. 

We can’t do things better if we’re not being inclusive and listening to the marginalized voices that have traditionally been silenced in our conversations. 

People can be harmed by one group’s “sustainable” practice. If a brand is making millions of garments monthly from the most sustainable fabrics on Earth.

If a brand is not selling those millions of garments and therefore burning that unsold stock, that’s such an extraordinary waste of our planet’s resources, which ultimately harms people.

If child labor and abusive practices towards workers is still an issue in the future when everyone uses both sustainable and biodegradable fabrics, then we are still harming the earth and all its inhabitants.  

There is absolutely no point to talking about sustainability if our practices are still harming garment workers.  As we all know the majority of our clothing is currently produced in the Global South. It’s coincidentally where many of our resources come from in regards to clothing manufacturing.  

What we also know is that the Global South will be hit by climate change first. Some of which we are already witnessing before our very eyes.  It seems counter productive to include sustainability into our business practices to save ourselves if we aren’t centering and focusing the needs of those who will be hit the hardest first.  It feels like the collective ‘we’ in the Global North are both saying we care while looking the other way.

Additionally within the sustainable and ethical fashion world, we pride ourselves on doing things differently and doing things better.  But we can’t do things better if we’re not lifting up the voices of those at the bottom of the pyramid who are doing the heaviest lifting.  We can’t do things better if we’re not being inclusive and listening to the marginalized voices that have traditionally been silenced in our conversations.  

It actually shouldn’t be a tall order that if our clothing doesn’t hurt the earth then it definitely shouldn’t hurt the people who make our garments. This should be the baseline for how we operate as a society. So why isn’t it and what are we doing to make sure that this is the standard for the future? In the future I want clothing that I can buy and know that the brand is both ethical and sustainable in their practices. I don’t want the two separated. I want this to be the baseline for sustainability … ethics included.

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Aja Barber

Stylist/Writer/Consultant at Aja Barber