Get us in your inbox


Can fast fashion ever be ethical?

Emma Joyce
Written by
Emma Joyce

Professional ethicist Dr Sascha Callaghan unpacks the issues behind our everyday wardrobe choices and explains why we need to stop using ‘ethical’ as a buzzword

Dr Sascha Callaghan is a lecturer in bioethics and health law at the University of Sydney. She’s not a fashion expert, but her academic background in ethics makes her the perfect fit for a panel talk at Vivid Sydney called Killer Clothes: How to Stand Up to Fast Fashion. She’ll be joined by designer Celeste Tesoriero, Patagonia Australia’s Dane O'Shanassy and Cue brand manager Kate Bielenberg, who’ll put their heads together to discuss solutions to the fashion industry’s sins. Ahead of the talk, which is presented by Well Made Clothes, Callaghan gives us her advice on how to live more ethically.

Sascha, what are we talking about when we talk about ethics? 
Ethics means different things to different people. In the classical sense, from the Ancient Greeks, it goes back to Socrates’ original question to his students, which was ‘how should we live?’ Put another way, ‘what should we do?’ Every time we act in a certain way, make choices in our lives, we should really reflect on what is the right thing to do. So ethics is about a process of reflection, more than any single prescription as to how we should behave. 

How does that relate to the fashion industry? 
If you were to Google ‘ethics in fashion’, there would be lots of issues that would come up: the rights and wrongs of supporting certain types of production processes... but also the effects of the fashion industry on women. Women’s fashion is a much bigger market than men’s fashion, for example, there are lots of consequences from the fashion industry, positive and negative, on the way women feel about themselves. There are all kinds of issues that arise when we’re thinking about participating in fashion, either as someone who designs fashion, markets it, produces it or just buys it. 

Do you consider yourself to be an ethical shopper?
I’ve always reflected on things: is it okay to buy leather? What about fur? So, from that perspective, I’ve always thought about those really obvious things that have lots of media attention around them. More recently, I’ve started thinking about industrial practices in developing countries and what it means to buy clothes with those sorts of practices taking place – and I don’t think there is an obvious answer to any of those questions either. I think we all act ethically by giving some thought to making decisions about the basis upon [which] we’re happy to buy that dress, wear that jacket or buy that fur coat. 

Dr Sascha Callaghan

Where do you buy your clothes?
I buy lots of clothes second hand. One issue when you’re buying fashion is how much stuff you need. Should we really be buying more stuff that we don’t need? I’ve tried to change my practises in that respect and only buy things that I really, really love or really, really need.

What should we be thinking about when we’re buying clothes? 
I think the issues in the world can overwhelm all of us and we can’t perfect the world by one simple strategy of living. Or, if we can, it’s yet to be agreed. I would say, because I’m not interested in pushing one political line, that people should decide and think about what’s important to them and do some research, work out how their consumer habits impact that particular thing. Personally, I think it’s important to help young women be healthy and happy. I mean, thousands of young women become very ill due to anorexia nervosa and a contributor to that is marketing that kind of image. I’m attracted to brands and fashion that celebrates individuality rather than push one kind of cookie-cutter approach.

Is there a connection between the way that women may have been made to feel by the fashion industry and our desire to want more things? 
Look, you’d have to say that there’s some sort of connection – it is a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries. At the same time, we live in a global economy where there are billions of people in the world that need to work and need to be financially supported. The way you drive that is by getting people to buy stuff – this is the complexity of buying goods that are sourced from low-cost manufacturing areas in the world, because they employ poor people and employ children. That’s a practice that we have fought hard to be rid of since the Industrial Revolution. The fact that consumers care about it puts a lot of pressure on organisations to think about what they’re doing. 

Have you been impressed by any companies that making positive steps towards being more ethical? 
Nike has a really interesting development initiative called the Nike Foundation that looks at investing in ways to help educate girls to run businesses in the developing world, and that’s part of giving back to the areas in which they manufacture. If you take advantage of poverty in an area and that allows you to yield low-cost production then making up for that is not by withdrawing capital, because you end up depriving people of jobs, but by investing in those areas in a positive way. The fact that children need jobs shows the economy is in crisis. 

What about clearing out your wardrobe, is there an ethical way to do that, or is that part of the problem? 
Learning to live with less is an interesting challenge. William Morris, from the arts and crafts movement in the mid-19th century, famously said back then that we really shouldn’t have anything that we don’t believe is either beautiful or useful. But, it’s one thing to get rid of a lot of stuff, but it’s not useful if you immediately fill it back up again. The real benefit is in the reflection and your practices. Having said that, I’m quite bad at letting go of things because I think of my wardrobe as a collection that goes back a long time, things are precious and remind me of different parts of my life. 

What bugs you the most about way ‘ethical’ is used as a buzzword? 
‘Ethical’ does not mean ‘this is the way to be ethical’ in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about reflection and consideration and having reasons for doing what you do. And of course, you’re reflecting for the purpose of finding what you think and feel is the ‘right’ thing to do. It’s up to each person to reflect and come up with what and where they think the balance lies.

Hear more from Dr Sascha Callaghan at Killer Clothes: How to Stand Up to Fast Fashion on Jun 4

Find Time Out's guide to ethical shopping and Sydney's best vintage shops

Latest news