Ethical Fashion Musings

Not Another Ethical Fashion Brand, Please

Not Another Ethical Fashion Brand, Please
Megan O'Malley
Written by Megan O'Malley

You’ve just watched The True Cost, discovered the terrible, awful, mind-blowing evils of the fashion industry and you want to do something to help. You’ve always loved fashion and fancied yourself a bit of a creative so why not start your very own ethical fashion label to help fight the good fight? Makes sense. You are going to be the change you want to see in the world.

This is my plea to you:

Please don’t start another ethical fashion brand. Please.

In recent years I’ve seen more and more of these types of sustainable fashion brands pop up and then disappear than I care to count. Each one has started out with exceptionally good intentions but it’s time to get real because good intentions alone won’t pay the bills.

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Starting an ethical fashion brand is not as glamorous as it appears on Instagram. Sure there are the fashion shows, photo shoots, trips to visit suppliers and the stories of positive impact but what most of these brands don’t promote on their Instagram is how much they struggle. And they struggle hard. I have spoken to a lot of business owners in this space and nearly every single one of them is stressed, overworked and underpaid. Some even say that if they had the chance to do it all over again, they aren’t confident they would. No one talks about the day-to-day struggle to find money and pay their staff. Nobody mentions that working in developing countries can present so many challenges that it makes it almost impossible to operate there. No one is transparent about the day-to-day logistical problems that need to be addressed before you can even think about spending time on anything vaguely creative.

So much of starting one of these businesses can be wrapped up in ego and this idea of the kind of person we want to be, rather than smart business sense and an understanding of what the world really needs. Most of us have grown up with this concept that we can do anything our hearts desire as long as we work hard, and so we pursue whatever that is with voracious enthusiasm. But maybe it’s not about us. Too many people have decided they want to do their own thing to change the world, instead of looking around and taking the time to find out what is actually needed. We don’t need another organic cotton t-shirt brand. In fact, when I google “organic cotton t-shirt” nearly 3.5 million results show up.

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Not Another Ethical Fashion Brand

What we need is for people to take a step back and to strategically work out where they will be the most useful. Where can you make the most change? Here are some suggestions:

  • Identify your skills, research a brand you like and offer up your time for free. Instead of quitting your day job and pouring all your resources into creating something new, work with something that already exists to help make it better.
  • Become a brand champion. Find a label you love and shout it from the rooftops. Many of these ethical businesses have minimal marketing budgets so every little bit of promotion helps.
  • If you are in a position to do so, do some research and offer to invest in a fashion brand you love. Investment can really boost a business to the next level.
  • Host a movie night at your house, watch The True Cost and then talk to your friends about why it’s important to shop ethical fashion. Give them a few recommendations of brands you really love. The more people buying from these brands, the bigger the impact.

But, if after all this you are still keen to do the ethical fashion label thing, here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Have I done a full economic assessment of the market and identified a gap?
  • Why does anyone need my products? Am I adding to the noise or do I have something truly unique to say? Will people buy what I’m selling?
  • Do I have a nuanced understanding of the different fabrics, certifications, supply chain operations, manufacturing countries, etc.?
  • Do I have a strong business plan and will I make money?
  • Do I have the time to really do this well? (I promise you this business will consume your life)
  • Do I understand the needs of the communities I am working with or am I making assumptions about what those needs are?
  • Am I really making a measurable impact?

If you can answer all of these questions then maybe starting an ethical fashion brand is the best way you can make a difference and you should definitely ignore my pleas. Send me an email when you launch!

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About the author

Megan O'Malley

Megan O'Malley

Megan O’Malley is one half of the dynamic dorky duo, Walk Sew Good. Along with her friend Gab, she is walking 3500km across Southeast Asia in search of positive fashion stories to share with the world. Previously Head of Research for Project JUST, Megan is a passionate advocate for sustainable fashion.


  • Wow, this is so spot on. Thank you for writing this. I feel the same about so many ill-conceived ethical brands from women (it’s 98% of the time women) who have never worked in fashion before. I can’t even answer their emails, because there are too many of them! Your advice for things to do instead is great. I will share this around!

    • Thanks Alden! Really appreciate it. Everyone wants to save the world right? I just wish we’d all work together a little more closely to channel those good intentions into real and lasting impact instead of all doing our own thing.

  • Wow!! I wasn’t sure what to expect from the title, but the article is so spot on!! Thanks for such great insight!! As a small ethical business owner, and solopreneur, the help/shoutouts etc would be invaluable!!!

    • I think it goes beyond just ethical brands to a wider culture of only showing the good things that are happening in our lives. I would love to see more brands opening up about the reality too!

  • I think this article is also spot on. And so true! I started with learning about the issues through other media like the true cost movie. I wanted to be the change, so I set out to start my own sustainable brand. Coming from a finance background, clothing design didn’t come naturally to me. It also wasn’t something I was passionate about that part of the process. But I was passionate about the stories, and other brands with great design and sustainable practices. I thought, oh man do I want to be them, or do I just admire them? There are some great brands out there, and If I do what they do then I’m just using up more resources to do the same thing. Right?! So I pivoted my business idea and now I recently launched a site that sells sustainment clothing from all these great brands. Telling their stories and making these clothes accessible to customers is the area I found to be the most rewarding. And of course I’m scratching my own itch as an entrepreneur because the biggest issue I found was that sustainable clothing was not readily available. I know the frustration of looking through social media, endless google searches, and reading “our story” on each brands site just to find out what I was looking for.

  • Very insightful, confronting, and realistic article Megan. We are a kids sustainable slow fashion brand and like so many others have minimal dollars for marketing, and having people who truly believe in what we’re doing, and spreading the word is so helpful. We are transparent about our struggles, but we also draw a line, because people can be turned off pretty quickly hearing about every single struggle. Really enjoyed reading this, thank you. Jodi.

  • Hi Megan,
    Thank you for writing such an honest insight into the world of running an ethical fashion label.
    Everyone thinks it’s glamorous & fantastic but does anyone want to shop from a brand that struggles? Nope! This is why we don’t share this honest truth. No one wants to be part of a negative story but I really wish people could see more of the rawness so thank you! I will definitely be sharing this article.
    One of my biggest frustrations of late is the every band jumping not only on the eco band wagon but also copying the designs of smaller ethical brands.
    There was a moment when things were looking good but now it seems to be getting difficult again because bigger brands are not only greenwashing but they are copying design aesthetics of ethical brands too!
    There has been a huge move toward more simplified raw natural looking fashion which is lead by the social movement of the new generation wanting to be more sustainable. Fashion trends are often lead by social movements & the way the general population is feeling & what they are responding to so now that every label is showing a similar look I am feeling quite confused about wether I want to continue as I don’t feel I have the unique offering I used to. Yes I have my core customers that found my label when I was unique & what I was creating wasn’t available to purchase from every label of every size ethical or not ethical.
    I’m super passionate about what I do & the garments I create as well as my process & customers but it’s certainly a very frustrating industry.
    Thanks again for shining a light on some very real issues!
    Eva Xx

  • This article resonates with my motivations when I was designing our dress. I was wondering if you’d be interested in reviewing it, aone-size fits all dress, specially design to support people out of situations of hardship. We are a registered charity and would like some brand exposure, please get in touch if you would like to help. Kind regards, Maria

  • Megan, what a fantastic article! I think you really hit the mark with this one. People often think that being ethical or sustainable is a marketing gold mine, when in fact, from my experience, it’s more of a hindrance. As much as society thinks they’re on board with sustainability, when it comes down to tapping that debit card, people still like shiny new things and are most often driven by price. I know I’m generalising as there are many incredible people out there that are conscious in their consumerism, but they are still a minority. I absolutely loved the tips you gave for being more useful beyond starting your own venture and really hope people take on your advice. Thank-you

  • Hi Megan
    What a great piece …and exactly how I feel everytime I get an email or phone call from someone wanting my help to start up a new ethical underwear, footwear, sports, fashion brand (I get them at least fortnightly).

  • Megan – you’re awesome!! The other thing is… do we need more clothes? You can get a ‘haul’ of ethical fashion every week now, and that is the antithesis of mindful consumption, which is a major factor in this revolution. Competition and choice are all good, but consider that so many ethical/sustainable fashion lovers value minimal consumption and love their clothes for a long time. So the demand model changes too..
    I think ethical marketplaces are befalling the same fate…

  • A brave statement to make but really true. It would be great if there was a shift towards a circular fashion economy where existing garments and fabrics are used to make the latest trends rather than using the earth’s resources, no matter how much more sustainable or organic they are.

    I have spent the last few years developing an ethical and eco friendly brand selling greetings cards and gifts which has been a struggle and has never brought in enough money to cover the bills! And sometimes you have to question whether people really need this ‘stuff’ you’re making and using resources to create, no matter the ethical and eco credentials of the products.

    However, I suppose the conflicting argument to all of this is ensuring people all over the world have jobs to provide food and safety for their families which of course the fashion industry does at the moment.

    Not really a conclusive contribution – just my own ramblings and thoughts.

    Keep up the great work all you eco warriors.


  • This plays in so much to the Western (especially American) arrogance that we should get to do something just because we want to. Great suggestions for how people more efficiently effect change.

  • Spot on. We manufacture natural & organic body care products in a developing country (Viet Nam & Malaysia) and we face many of the same challenges. Greenwashing is rampant. Across our industry and Ethical Fashion brands, there is a need for greater transparency. I believe this is in the hands of consumers. We need to educate consumers on what to look for and require in brand transparency. We practice transparency with our own brand, and it drives our competitors crazy. They simple cannot display the same level of transparency.

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