My “Rule of 3” for Ethical Fashion: A New Rubric

rule of 3 for ethical fashion
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Thinking Differently About Ethical Fashion

If you read my 1,500 word post on Destroying the False Idol of Ethical fashion, in which I conclude:

So I’m just going to be over here trying to radically reconsider what ethical fashion could mean moving forward, sitting in the silence for a second in order to hear what the spirit is saying. Then, I’ll begin rebuilding.

…then you’re likely wondering what I mean by rebuilding, and what it may look like to remove the rigid barriers of ethical fashion without tumbling back down the hill into fast fashion land.

It’s a fair question, and one I’ve been stewing over. As I mentioned in that post and a previous one, navigating the ethics of the fashion industry is, first and foremost, about justice, equity, and abundance for all people. It’s hard to do that work through a narrow lens of lifestyle or consumer ethics, because we lack the expertise and the point of view to understand the intricacies of the system when we explore what ethical fashion means primarily through brand loyalty and shopping.

There are A LOT of ethical fashion advocates who no longer think of their activism as primarily about shopping. But I don’t think there’s been a real rhetorical shift in the movement yet, and that’s part of what’s frustrating to me. We’ve changed the expectations of the work without really telling anyone how they can do that, too.

I have come to the conclusion, at least for now, that fashion activism should be *primarily* focused on systemic work.

Fashion Activism Means:

All of the items listed above can be done without making a single purchase. One not need purchase “ethical” goods to push for change, ever.

That being said, I am not interested in totally giving up on the idea of more ethical or more sustainable fashion. I do believe that this can be a thoughtful lifestyle shift that reinforces other types of moral work in the world. But I think part of being honest about the difficulty of creating a product that is accessible, equitable, and ethical for everyone is creating a rubric that provides some space for an individual’s social location.

Below, I’ll list my ethical criteria and then discuss my concept of the Rule of 3, which is how I’m working out a new way forward for my role in the ethical fashion movement:

Ethics & Sustainability Criteria

  1. Fair Wages | Do they offer a living wage, higher-than-average wages, or transparent and improving wages? Are they fair trade certified?
  2. Sustainability | Do they offer products made with biodegradable, eco-friendly, non-polluting, and/or organic fibers and dye processes? Do they minimize pollution and factory waste? Are they committed to circularity (recycling & reusing products)?
  3. Commitment to Improvement | Have they shown a commitment to continue to improve their supply chain and business practices?
  4. Transparency | Are they willing to talk about their process and reveal the imperfect parts of their business? Have they released a list of their factories?
  5. Aesthetic & Quality | Are their pieces attractive and appropriate for my wardrobe? Do they offer textiles that are long lasting and made with natural fibers? Will the item still look nice after several washes?
  6. Size Inclusion | Do they offer items that fit a range of body types and sizes? Are they committed to expanding their range? Do items from this brand fit my body type well?
  7. Representation | Has the company made an effort to represent BIPOC, different body types, and LGBTQIA+ people? Have they publicly stated their stance on human rights issues? Are the above list of people represented among employees? (As a white, straight-passing person, I don’t think I should define what constitutes adequate concern for representation and equity, so I will only use this metric if it is a major component of the brand mission or if the company is owned by a person/people who are underrepresented.)
  8. Secondhand | Is it thrifted, swapped, or handed down? Is it upcycled from deadstock fabric or old inventory?
rule of 3 for ethical fashion

My Rule of 3 For Ethical Fashion

The way this works is straightforward. Any company I choose to purchase from must meet, at a minimum, three of the above criteria, noting that the questions I pose within each category are ways of achieving those goals, not hard-and-fast expectations. It doesn’t matter which three, but there must be three. Of course, there are valid personal reasons to prioritize some of these over others, or to make certain criteria mandatory across brands. If you want to use this approach, feel free to adapt it!

How It Works

So, for example, a fair trade company like Ten Thousand Villages would meet 1, 4, and 5 at a minimum, while size accessible company, Universal Standard, would meet 5, 6, and 7. Everlane, a hot-button example at this moment, would meet 2, maybe 4, and 5 (evidence that what is stated and what seems to be true of company culture may not agree, and that we may need to constantly readjust).

Loft would almost make it with 5 and 6, and could maybe slip by if I only purchase natural fiber garments from them. Old Navy would maybe meet 6, though they seem to be reducing their plus size offerings, at least for men. Many fast fashion brands could meet 6, but other items would be on a case by case basis, ruling them out as a dependable option. On the other hand, a company like Madewell would meet 5, 6, and possibly 1 and 2, depending on the line.

Meanwhile, a company like ABLE or Nisolo would, depending on your interpretation of some of these standards, meet nearly all criteria.

You’ll notice I included Secondhand as its own item. In this case, you could get away with meeting fewer criteria, but I still think it’s important to consider things like sustainability, aesthetic, and quality in the case of secondhand items, so it’s worth thinking of it as one metric rather than as an outlier. So a secondhand item should, at a minimum, meet 2 and 5.

Why the Rule of 3 Works for Me

I believe that this system addresses major accessibility and representation barriers by allowing for flexibility and nuance, especially across sizing and price points. It’s a way to think about what I’m consuming without becoming fixated to an unhealthy degree.

It also allows for purchases that I wouldn’t have previously considered “ethical” based on standards of quality and aesthetic, which, honestly, MUST be a component of how we shop or else dissatisfaction will keep us from being able to slow down our consumption.

More importantly, it works well with the idea of slow fashion. The Rule of 3 for Ethical Fashion works so long as I keep in mind that slowing down my total purchases and being discerning about what I “need,” what I’ll wear, and what works for my lifestyle is the ultimate goal. So, while it matters where I shop, it also matters how much I shop. Without that second piece, ethical and sustainable fashion is not meeting its goals.

What This Means for Content

To the extent possible, I will continue to strive to share *the most* ethical brands in shopping guides and roundups. This will be based on the theme of each post, but not a lot will change there. The main difference is that now I have a robust set of values I can apply to each brand. I also have a post (this one) to direct readers to if they’re curious about my metrics.

In personal style posts, I will be honest and share what I’m actually wearing and why, even if those things meet three criteria that some readers find less important than others.

When considering sponsorships, I will prioritize high ethical marks, but also try to see what is underrepresented and highlight that.

Perhaps most significantly, I will continue to expand my think pieces, theology essays, and personal stories. This is where my heart is right now, how I’m spending my time in seminary and internships, and where I’m headed career-wise. I don’t believe I’m called to do what everyone else is doing. If there’s anything chaplaincy taught me, it’s that bringing my unique person to the table is transformative, and thus necessary (that goes for you, too).

At the end of the day, I recognize that no rigid choice works for everyone. No moderating choice works for everyone either. This post represents a compromise, but it also represents something more honest.

I’d appreciate your feedback! What do you think?

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P.S. Thank you SO MUCH for your contributions on my last post. It makes a big difference to have monetary support on these longer-form posts.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. Thank-you for the thoughtful post! I am continuously so impressed by your writing. I love your list of action items for more ethical fashion. They all require more than just the pleasure of buying, but how did we fool ourselves for so long that it would be that easy? By “we” I guess I mean I, though I think this is the unspoken subtext to a lot of ethical fashion blogging. I’ll take that list as a challenge!

  2. My list would also look a bit different from yours, because I got into the exploration of ethical fashion from the background of slow fashion. It doesn’t seem to be a good thing to have an ethical garment that is so “of the minute” that it will look foolish next year. Although having a trendy item made of good fabric means that it’s more likely than not to be able to be remodeled once that trend has passed.

    1. Agreed! Have you read A Life Less Throwaway? That book was really helpful for me, because it made me realize how important it was to understand what *I* like and what works for my body and lifestyle rather than succumbing to the whims of trends. It’s not easy for me, but it has helped a lot. I came to ethical fashion through fair trade, which in some ways is the exact opposite of the discerning slow fashion approach – I’ve had a LOT to learn.

  3. I like this system! I think my list would be slightly different but it’s helpful to picture a list of options vs. a dogmatic rulebook.

    1. I kept thinking of other things I could add after I made (and remade) the graphic. I’m glad you can picture some version of this system working for you. I think it’s a great way to create some simple structure.

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