The Ultimate Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Glossary

Solene Rauturier
Apr 3 · 6 min read

When you discover sustainable fashion, a whole new world of possibilities opens up before your very eyes. In the process, you also encounter a whole new lot of terminology you didn’t know before. It can be a bit confusing. Eco-fashion, green fashion, sustainable, ethical? What do they all mean? Are they the same? What are the differences?

If you’re interested in living more sustainably, I’ve listed 20 essential terms that are used in the sustainable and ethical fashion world:

Sustainable Fashion

Let’s start with the basics: in 1987, the UN defined sustainability as:

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In light of this definition, sustainable fashion refers to a more environmentally-friendly approach to designing, manufacturing and consuming clothes, making sure we cause little to no harm to our planet and don’t use up all its natural resources. Sustainable fashion also focuses on extending the life of clothes, using recycled materials and recycling in general.

Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion is a tiny bit different from sustainable fashion, in the sense that it focuses more on the social impact of the fashion industry: ethical literally means “morally right”. We started talking about “ethical fashion” a lot after the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013, as we started realising the extreme conditions in which clothes are manufactured.

Ethical fashion covers a wide range of issues such as living wages, working conditions, health and safety, forced labour, child labour. It means going beyond simply following local labour laws. Ethical fashion can also include the fair treatment of animals, vegan and cruelty-free fashion.

Fast Fashion

That’s another word we’ve been hearing a lot since 2013. Fast Fashion, is derived from “Fast Food” and is used to describe clothes are that produced quickly and inexpensively to fit the latest trends, usually copied directly from the runway. Fast Fashion brands are incredibly cheap and have been associated with overproduction, waste, deplorable working conditions and terrible environmental impact. In short, they’re not exactly ethical and sustainable. Fast Fashion pioneers include H&M, Zara and TopShop, although SUPER Fast Fashion (so even worse than their elders) brands have been emerging, such as Fashion Nova, Zaful, Missguided and Boohoo.

Slow Fashion

Slow Fashion is the opposite of Fast Fashion. It refers to buying less, to reducing our consumption of clothes and focusing on things that will last longer (instead of that cheap polyester top that shrunk the first time you put in the washing machine, WHY). Slow Fashion also focuses on “style” rather than “fashion”; this means developing a personal sense of taste instead of frantically following trends.

Conscious/Mindful Fashion

Conscious fashion is a bit similar to slow fashion. It’s when you decide to consume consciously, taking the time to reflect on the impact of your garments and trying to reduce it. Conscious fashion is all about positively rethinking our decision and buying process to move away from mindless consumerism. Speaking of which, I wrote about my 9 tips to shopping more mindfully!


Minimalism has become popular recently thanks to Marie Kondo (and her recent Netflix series, that I have yet to watch) and The Minimalists’ Netflix Documentary. Minimalism is about reducing the amount of stuff (in our case, clothes) that you own. It’s not about having nothing; it’s about having less. It’s about focusing on what matters by decluttering and removing what’s burdening us, getting rid of the excess. It can mean having a minimal amount of clothes in your wardrobe if that’s what feels right to you, but it doesn’t have to. Minimalism can also be applied to style: having straightforward, essential, often monochromatic pieces, so your style is as streamlined as possible.


Greenwashing is when a company gives a false impression that its products are more ethical and sustainable than they really are. Greenwashing is an increasing concern nowadays as companies are trying to benefit from the growing demand for eco-friendly and ethical clothes. Companies usually market supposedly “environmentally-friendly” initiatives, like using recycled packaging, becoming a paperless office or “conscious” collections, while not addressing critical environmental and labour issues.

Circular Fashion

Circular fashion refers to clothes that are designed, produced and sold to design out waste and pollution, keep the product and the materials that constitute it in use (while maintaining their quality), and to dispose of it in a way that regenerates the natural systems. Circular fashion moves away from the traditional take-make-dispose business model. It’s based partly on William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design philosophy (they wrote a book about it, which I highly recommend). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been advocating for a global circular economy, so if you’re interested, I recommend having a look at their website.


Recycling is the action of converting waste into something reusable. For example, some brands have turned plastic bottles into yarn to make fleece sweaters or coats.


Again based on the Cradle to Cradle approach, upcycling also turns waste into reusable material, but of better quality. It’s not a new concept, although we’ve been hearing about it more and more. All our grandmas were upcyclers, re-using and re-purposing old items to make something new. Upcycling is excellent because it removes waste from the system; it requires less energy than recycling, and so has a better environmental impact. Plus it encourages creativity and innovation!


Transparency is the practice of openly sharing information about how, where and by whom a product was made. Being transparent means publishing all information about every actor involved in the production process, from start to finish, from the fields to the store shelves.


Traceability is crucial for transparency. It means being able to trace back each component of an item throughout the supply chain, from the raw material to the zipper and everything in between.


Organic is a term we see a lot in the food industry, but which also applies to fashion. It refers to raw materials that are not genetically modified (GM) and have been grown without any chemical pesticides and insecticides. These chemicals can be harmful to the planet, the people that produce the plants and the consumer who wears the final product. As a result, organic materials, and especially organic cotton, are becoming popular. Several organisations, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) are helping consumers find certified organic items.


Vegan fashion refers to items that have been designed with zero animal products and by-products. Wool, silk, cashmere, angora are not vegan for example, as all these fibres come from animals.


Second-hand refers to clothes that have been pre-loved, that have had a previous owner and that were donated or resold. Second-hand is one of the most sustainable fashion options out there, as you’re reducing your impact by not buying “new”. Plus it keeps clothes out of landfills.


We talk about cruelty-free fashion when referring to a product (usually cosmetics) that has not been tested on animals. Lush is an excellent example of a cruelty-free company.


Biodegradable means an item can naturally break down in the environment without causing harm. All materials break down eventually, but some of them can take thousands of years and can release chemicals and harmful substances in the process.

Fair Trade/Fairtrade

Fairtrade is also a term we see quite a lot in our supermarkets. Fair trade refers to a general movement that seeks greater equity in international trade and promotes sustainable development. When an organisation is ‘Fairtrade’, it means that Fairtrade International has specifically certified it.

Living Wage

A living wage is the minimum wage income necessary for workers to meet their basic needs and live a decent life. It’s different from the legal minimum wage which is usually way below the living wage. You can learn more about this topic in this comprehensive article by Good On You.

Fashion Revolution

Fashion Revolution is a global movement that believes in a fashion industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit in equal measure. It was born on 24th April 2013, when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed, killing 1138 people and injuring many more. Fashion Revolution launched its Fashion Revolution Week, which happens every April and promotes their #whomademyclothes campaign. During this week, consumers ask brands #whomademyclothes, to promote transparency in the fashion supply chain.

There you have it: the ultimate sustainable and ethical fashion glossary? Did you find it helpful? Am I missing some words? Let me know in the comments below!

Solene Rauturier

Written by

Content + Social Media Marketer, specialised in sustainable fashion.

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