The words ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are thrown around a lot these days. They are used to talk about clothing brands, diets, cosmetics, and pretty much anything else that can be marketed as ‘green’. But what do the two words mean? And are they interchangeable? 

Source: The Fashion Business Coach/Youtube

What Does Ethical Mean? 

Ethical‘ has a lot of different definitions, depending on whether you’re talking about science, business, food, etc. Generally, the term focuses on treating people and animals well and doing the right thing. This means no discrimination, equal and fair pay, safe working conditions, and so forth. If a company is just focused on bringing in a profit, it’s unlikely their production methods are ethical — fast fashion is a great example of this. 

Not inflicting harm on the environment is also a part of running an ethical company, although this is rather subjective. One could argue that businesses selling “ethical” beef or chicken are misleading because they are still killing the animals and animal agriculture is one of the most damaging industries on the planet. 

What Does Sustainable Mean? 

Sustainability means that an action, business model, or any other activity will be able to be carried out for prolonged periods. A simple example of this is fossil fuels. They’re inherently unsustainable because they’re nonrenewable. Meanwhile, wind electricity is sustainable since we cannot use up all of the world’s wind. 

But you can’t be sustainable (or run a sustainable company) without taking into account your employees. Something cannot be fully sustainable if it is unethical. Therefore, companies that claim to be making sustainable products but refuse to pay their workers living wages are not sustainable. They’ve just made small convenient changes to justify their trendy greenwashing marketing claims. It’s also unrealistic to believe that underpaid factory workers (mainly women) can survive on such low wages. Their salary in itself is unsustainable and highly unethical. 

You Can’t Have One Without the Other 

It’s not very ethical to run a company that’s killing the world, and it’s not very sustainable to run businesses with highly unethical practices. So, the next time you see something marketed as exclusively ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable,’ ask a few questions.

What’s the company’s subjective definition of either term? Do they have objective and transparent proof to support their claims? And are there any second-hand alternatives to the company that would ensure no new factory workers are exploited or greenhouse gases emitted?

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