The term ‘ethical fashion’ was (in the not-too-distant past) considered an audacious oxymoron. What wording could be considered more inappropriate in describing the industry that has, for decades, exploited vulnerable people and the environment on its incessant quest for profit?

But over the past few years, a shift in the fashion landscape has taken place as a result of consumer demand and advocacy work, resulting in incremental change towards more sustainable and ethical practices.  But despite the huge progress that has been made in the fight against modern slavery and environmental exploitation in supply chains, there’s still a long way to go before we reach a world where ‘fashion’ is synonymous with ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’.

So, what will it take to make a future where ‘ethical fashion’ is, simply… fashion?

In light of the coronavirus pandemic and its devasting impact echoing across the world, the global fashion industry has been hit. Hard. As consumers have heeded social distancing measures, retail fronts have been forced to close, head office staff suspended indefinitely, factory orders cancelled, and supply chains that span the globe – made up of millions of vulnerable garment workers – have been left in turmoil. This $2.5 trillion industry has, essentially, shut down.

For far too long, fashion has been a broken system; granted permission to float along at its own directive, driven by profit, and reliant on rampant, excessive consumerism. During this extraordinary time of coronavirus, fashion has been forced to pause and reflect on itself. The question now faced is, “Will this be the turning point which sees the progress of many years reversed, or will it be the catalyst needed to innovate and future-proof this industry like never before?”

Historically, moments of crisis have often birthed innovation. In fact, evidence shows that innovation is indeed fostered though periods of extreme adversity. The global fashion industry has some of the most creative minds employed at its disposal. What they must ensure is that this creative advantage is used for the benefit of global betterment – for the environment, and for the most vulnerable workers. According to the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, “Creativity and innovation play an important role in Australia’s resilience to global economic challenges, helping Australia to register 22 years of uninterrupted economic growth.” (2020).

So, creativity and innovation will prove more essential than ever before if the industry is to emerge from this historic, disruptive event.

As workplaces and industries rush to return to normal, they must also pause to evaluate what parts of ‘normal’ are worth returning to. And they must consider what an improved version of ‘normal’ might look like.

At Baptist World Aid, we envision a fashion industry that places people and the planet ahead of profits. We envision a fashion industry where the Ethical Fashion Report is no longer needed, because ethics and sustainability are founding cornerstones of fashion business, rather than surface level add-ons.

This is the global fashion industry we want to see emerge on the other side of this global catastrophe:

An industry that empowers, rather than exploits.

It amplifies the voices of its most vulnerable workers. It exists as a platform for change and development, lifting people out of poverty through payment of a living wage, and assisting communities to become self-sufficient. It claims the workers in the most hidden branches of its supply chain as their own and treats them with dignity and respect.

An industry that preserves, rather than destroys.

It protects our environment for future generations. It recognises the link between social and environmental issues (as we will explore later this week). It is built on a system of circularity, through which waste becomes a valuable resource. It addresses the impacts of the full garment lifecycle, from cradle to grave.

An industry driven by the value of purpose, rather than consumerism.

It is reliant upon consumers who place value on their clothing. These consumers reject the concept of ‘disposable’ or ‘throw-away’ fashion because they understand the resources that have gone into making them. They understand the impact of their actions. These consumers are not driven by an insatiable appetite for more, new, now. But, instead, purchase with a conscience with a desire to protect and repair.

This coronavirus crisis is truly fashion’s adapt or die moment: it is a threat to the future existence of many fashion houses… but is also an opportunity for revolution. Whilst we continue to engage with and guide companies through this time of turmoil, we hope to encourage a change towards a stronger, more resilient, more sustainable, and more ethical global fashion industry than ever before.

The future depends upon what we do in the present.

Let’s get to it.


This article is from a five-part series on ethical fashion and the global fashion industry. Sign up to start this journey from the beginning… and receive these articles directly to your inbox here.