Book Review: Fashion and Ethics



Ethics is not visual.

Friend, are you tired of your acquaintances’ self-congratulatory explanation of how they only buy jeans made of organic cotton? Are you confused by the limited ethical practices of do-good companies like Toms, and why your co-worker feels good about buying ten pairs?

Have we got the resource for you! Efrat Tseëlon has edited this special edition of the journal Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty. This journal takes its name seriously, and from Tseëlon’s introduction the writing does not spare the consumer’s feelings or pander to corporate interests and the general public’s assent. Tseëlon identifies responsibility in both parties, and while she may acknowledge difficulties in attaining a truly ethical fashion system, these are not excuses.

Ethical fashion is distinct from ethical fashion, a construction that Tseëlon defines as a “set of concepts” (13) such as ‘green’ or ‘produced locally.’ “Ethical fashion” is “an ethical style of doing things which serves as a smoke screen against having to engage with the issues that the twin concepts ‘ethics’ and ‘fashion’ entail. … ‘ethical fashion’ has come to designate what is safeguarded as the core of the ethical agenda in fashion, and what is left safely outside its bounds.” (3) In Tseëlon’s view, companies choose from a number of different strategies, such as a special ethical line of clothing or beauty products that give the company “cred” while allowing them to continue less ethical practices in their other offerings, and that the consumer is willing to participate in that structure. Have you shopped H&M’s new recycled fashion line? Did you buy a $10 bikini while you were there?

Tseëlon admits that it’s not so simple: if consumers purchased fewer, nicer things, the volume of sales would drop; if the corporations take their vows to improve worker’s rights and production values, the prices would go up: sounds mutually unattractive. But is this falsified middle road more insidious? Is the appearance of transparency actually creating great opacity?

Displacing its ethical concerns onto exotic and remote people, places and practices, and maintaining a mode of engagement which is philanthropic rather than political, the industry has been able to simultaneously genuinely enjoy the fruits of this exploitation while genuinely making some contributions to cleaning up their supply chain. (italics in original; 17)

The articles in this volume offer more specific debates and/or answers. Even the keywords are aggressive and niched, as identified for the first article, “Fashionable dilemmas” by Austin Williams:


questionable morality, ethical euphemism, ethical dogma, ethics of ‘development,’ conscience cleaning (69)

From "Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty," Volume 2. Edited by Efrat Tseëlon, 2014.

From “Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty,” Volume 2. Edited by Efrat Tseëlon, 2014.

Williams’ article continues the attack on “pick’n’mix” ethics laid out in the introduction and calls out ironies of ethical fashion: real or imagined, created or accidental. Which is the more important issue to address: animal cruelty, production waste, human rights? Why can’t we choose all of these? The Israeli fashion label Comme il faut was chosen by Tseëlon as an especially ethical business; while the label cannot reach the level of a platonic ideal, the holistic approach to an ethical mission impressed the editor. CEO Sybil Goldfiner contributed a long case study of her own company, which adds a commercial viewpoint to this volume.

Marie-Cécile Cervellon and Lindsey Carey have taken on a sociological marketing topic: what are consumers’ perceptions of ‘green’? These first-hand accounts are engaging and balance the previous article’s business-side focus; the subjects’ general skepticism and lack of knowledge support the volume’s theme neatly, but there is a generous bibliography for further reading, as with all the articles.

The ethical treatment of animals has been largely ignored by fashion theorists, writes John Sorenson in his article, “Ethical fashion and the exploitation of nonhuman animals.” While fur is a hot-button issue, the fashion industry exploits animals in a variety of ways that are overshadowed by the most obvious or egregious wrongs, like crocodile-skin bags. Sorenson argues that nonhuman animal rights are essential to an ethical fashion practice, not just an easy protest symbol. Rafi Grosglik takes a new tack, focusing on the cultural appropriation of hummus as inherently Israeli in the past few decades, making the now-popular connection between luxury/organic trends in food fashion and how those consumer choices translate to clothing fashion–or how they fail to.

The final two articles address body image and fashion modeling. The first, by Patrícia Soley-Beltran, offers models’ testimony on their experience in the business, just as in the consumer article, and equally engaging. This is the first point at which I thought, ‘Haven’t we read so much on this subject before?’ But the author’s inclusion of “the forms of symbolic violence that shape the experience of being a model” in the realm of ethical fashion broadens the definition of this topic and maintains Tseëlon’s challenge to the rote system of “ethical fashion” as it exists today. The final article adds a psychological angle to the previous topic, offering a professional opinion to the academic.

Each provides an excellent bibliography for further reading in its specific field, along with the email address of the author–a bold, inclusive choice. The book and exhibition reviews that close the volume are also on-theme: coverage of the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition, “From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” has consistently remarked on his interest in “diverse” models and non-traditional aesthetics, and the books reviewed have explicitly ethical subjects.

Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty offers an unflinching critical look at the greening of fashion consumption, an unbeatable source from which to gather poignant and critical quotes for a term paper or article. I’ve never put together a curriculum, but this volume provides a clear chorus of voices in a muddy subject and speaks to so many different issues that it seems a natural choice for students. Despite its presentation as a journal, this volume reads more like a book; a lot of the sources and examples are from at least four years ago, and at 250+ square pages, it’s a lot of reading. It may be evident from the tone of this review that I am sympathetic to the authors’ viewpoints, and glad to finally read something more decided and critical; I would look forward to opposing reviews from those who have read the book (write about it or link to your review in our comments section below!). The emphatic and passionate nature of Tseëlon’s arguments, as well as those voiced by other contributors, may raise some hackles; the editor’s comparison of animal cruelty to the Holocaust, for example (see: Goodwin’s Law). But that’s just the point: which sources of modern fashion criticism make you talk back to a book, get you posting on social media, or inspire you to discuss academic journals with everyone from your coworkers to your grandma?

I wonder if this journal will catch some good media attention, if Tseëlon or her contributors will be on NPR and peppered throughout the NYTimes as much as Elizabeth Cline was for her book, Overpriced: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Penguin, 2013). Which is the most effective medium for writing about ethical fashion/fashion and ethics, and which for reaching the target audience?


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Lead Image: Cover of Fashion and Ethics: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, Volume 2. Edited by Efrat Tseëlon, 2014. University of Chicago Press & Intellect.


Further Reading:

Barnett, Clive et al. Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Baumann, Zygmunt. Postmodern Ethics. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993.

Black, Sandy. Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2008.

Cline, Elizabeth. Overpriced: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. New York: Penguin, 2013.

Devinney, Timothy et al. The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Ribero, Aileen. Dress and Morality. London: Batsford, 1986.

Rivoli, Pietra. The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. New York: Wiley, 2009.

Stigliz, Joseph. Globalization and Its Discontents. London: Penguin, 2003.

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