An Open Letter to the Ethical Fashion Movement

An Open Letter to the Ethical Fashion Movement

To all those involved in the ethical fashion movement,

We need to talk.

The current narrative that dominates our ethical fashion space, and many others with an ethical or sustainability focus, is that if we buy better we can save the world. “Vote with your wallet and be the change,” we say. Encouraging us to do just that, well-meaning fashion influencers and brands bombard us on social media with images of expertly styled products with sustainability credentials and accompanying discount codes. Listicles abound to help guide us towards the perfect sustainable basics/underwear/knitwear/denim brand. We avoid malls and pat each other on the back when we buy something fair trade or zero waste. But here comes the reality check.

Climate change is fast progressing towards a point of no return, with millions of people already dealing with the catastrophic impacts across the world. Meanwhile, our current economic, political and societal systems prioritise efficiency and growth and allow for the continued and consistent exploitation of people and natural resources in many industries, including fashion. Seems a bit silly to focus all our energies on individual purchasing power when you zoom right out, doesn’t it? Do we really believe in our heart of hearts that consumerism, ethical or not, is enough to save us?

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The impacts of the fashion industry, while complex and difficult to measure, are vast and terrifying. This isn’t news to you. You’ll already know that there is no easy solution to the ills of fashion. Yet, in the ethical fashion space we continue to fool ourselves into thinking that our power to change the world lies primarily in what we do or do not purchase. I, myself readily admit that I have been, and reluctantly continue to be, a willing participant in this charade. We distract ourselves from the overwhelming challenges of our reality with images of beautiful people in beautiful places wearing recycled polyester bikinis or vegan sneakers. Like well-trained capitalist consumers we try to buy the change we wish to see in the world.

The ethical fashion movement is still caught up in the message of consumption, even if it is more ‘conscious’. Credit: Shutterstock

While I acknowledge that adjusting our individual consumption patterns and supporting ethical and sustainable businesses is one part of the solution, if you look closely you’ll find that it is disproportionately the prevailing call to action of the ethical fashion movement. You’d be forgiven for thinking it is the only call to action. Scroll through your Instagram feed or search #sustainablefashion and I am almost certain you will see what I mean. Is this really the best we can do? Have we forgotten how to create impact without consuming more stuff?  

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I understand why brands, influencers and the like tend to design their messaging around individual consumption. It’s the easiest way to bring people into the ethical fashion fold and make them feel a part of something, however that isn’t where the conversation should end. People and planet continue to be used and abused for a fast fashion thrill regardless of how many fairtrade organic cotton t-shirts we buy.

How have we let the ethical fashion movement get so off course? It’s time to broaden our focus and start acting collectively for change beyond the individual consumer. We must release the fashionable activist within who is yearning for a more fair and equitable world. We must insist that brands and governments take action now and make it known that business as usual is not acceptable. We must connect with and support organisations who are already fighting for social and environmental justice in the fashion industry and have been doing this difficult work for years, before it was considered on trend. The system needs to change and that starts when the ethical fashion movement demands more from those within and without.

Timo Rissanen, Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design, was quoted recently by WWD stating, “As long as fashion is primarily discussed as something to buy, something to shop, the possibilities will remain very constrained. We’ll still only be in the realm of something less damaging, less bad, rather than creating a completely new system founded on sustainment.” Preach. Think of the possibilities for impact when we free ourselves from the grips of consumption. That’s a movement I want to be a part of.

“As long as fashion is primarily discussed as something to buy, something to shop, the possibilities will remain very constrained. We’ll still only be in the realm of something less damaging, less bad, rather than creating a… Click To Tweet
STRASBOURG, FRANCE – SEP 12, 2018: Crowd in front of Louis Vuitton fashion store during a French Nationwide day of protest against labor reform. Credit: Shutterstock

So what does participation in ethical fashion look like beyond consumption? Below are a few ideas to get you started. This is list is by no means exhaustive and I implore you to get creative with how you fuel your activist fire. Please let us know in the comments section what action you plan on taking and whether you have any ideas to add to this list. In the words of Helen Keller, alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.


  • Sign Oxfam’s What She Makes Pledge and let the big brands know you stand in solidarity with the women who make your clothes and you demand that they start paying them a living wage.
  • Join Oxfam Australia’s Activist Group on Facebook. Oxfam holds actions throughout the year to further the What She Makes campaign.
  • If you’re a teacher or work with young people take a look at the resources Oxfam Australia has developed that are linked to the What She Makes Campaign.
  • Don’t shop! Choosing not to consume is an act of defiance in itself. Here is a list of 50 other things you could do. Post about it on social media and use the hashtag #ididntgoshoppingtoday.
  • Send a message to brands through social media or email asking them to change their ways. It doesn’t have to be a long winded essay, just a quick:


Can you please start paying the people who make your clothes a living wage?

Thank you.

  • Schedule a reminder in your phone to send out a message to a different brand each week.
  • Write to your government representative and tell them why you think it is important they start regulating the social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Most politicians are on social media these days so it is really easy to get in touch. I recently let Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, know that I wanted children off Nauru just a few short weeks ago through his Instagram account. He didn’t write back but that’s really not the point of this exercise. The more people bringing these issues to the attention of our politicians, the more likely they are to stand up and take notice.
  • Share articles (like this one!) on social media
  • Follow the Fashion Revolution Movement and learn how you can be a part of it.
  • Follow the Clean Clothes Campaign and learn how you can be a part of it.
  • Follow Labour Behind the Label and learn how you can help.
  • Search for craftivism groups in your area or start your own project.
  • Attend rallies and events and support projects concerning other issues you care about. The fashion industry is not an island, change needs to happen more broadly.
  • Share this with friends and tackle some of the actions together.
Credit: Pexels



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