Ethical & Sustainable Style: What's The Difference Between Cosmetics and Fashion?

Living an ethical, sustainable lifestyle is becoming increasingly important - from food to clothing to skincare to basic utilities. In the UK, the ethical market grew by 3.2% in the UK in 2016 alone. However, even if we do support ethical and sustainable lifestyles and businesses, it’s fair to suggest that very few of us live this way from start to finish. Why is this?

As cynical as it sounds, I do believe cost has a large part to do with it. Most people will put a price on ethics, and even if they would prefer not to, end up abandoning their values if they can only afford the cheaper, less ethical or sustainable option.

The other potential factor is our priorities: why do we value ethical and sustainable products in one area of our lives, but less in another?

A particular area that has recently piqued my interest is cosmetics vs fashion. Some women refuse to buy cosmetics and skincare products that aren’t cruelty and chemical free, yet are happy to shop in fast fashion clothing stores known for their inhumane treatment of their workers. And there are those who are vise versa.

But from my experience, more women fall into the former category. Case in point: A year or so ago a woman fiercely attacked the price of our garments, writing on a facebook business page for hair care that shared and supported us. When I explained that we believe in sustainable fashion, and support small independent designers who have strong values and believe in fair wages, she simply replied “Yeah but I can’t afford that.” And yet, the hair care business she proudly supported and buys from is ethical and cruelty free.

So why is there such disparity between supporting ethical cosmetics, but not fashion? I am keen to know your thoughts. These are mine:

  1. Cost

Sadly we come back to the cost factor again: that there is a price on ethics. Fundamentally clothes cost more than beauty products.

For cosmetics: budget is under £5, standard is £5-20, and premium is over £20. There are some products that go into £100+, but the majority of even premium products are capped at around £50.

For fashion: budget is under £50, high street is mostly below £100, premium/contemporary is £50-350, luxury is £400-£1000+ (and of course then there’s haute couture).

So the price of premium cosmetics is largely equal to the price of budget fashion. It’s no surprise that someone may be able to afford or wish to spend £20-30 on ethical, cruelty premium cosmetics, but not premium, sustainable fashion. So they are limited to how far they can truly shop ethically, especially if they are unable to save up for fewer but more sustainable clothes - which is completely understandable. 

  1. Do we care more about the treatment of animals than humans? 

First I must iterate that I am not expressing my own views here – simply exploring a potential argument.  

Some people believe that we give more consideration to animals than people. And there are some facts that can support this line of thinking. 

  • On social media people expressed more distress and anger towards famous animals dying than people – for example Cecil the Lion’s death vs Mike Brown’s

  • In 2017 The Harrison Fund released two ads – one of a dying 8 year old child, and one of a dying dog. The advert of the dog attracted double the amount of clicks.

YouGov also recently carried out a survey to find out if and why people care more about animals or humans. I strongly recommend reading “Animal vs Human Charities: Which type of people prefer which?” for more in-depth analysis of why some people care more about animals than people. Whilst the study found 35% of people would rather give to a charity that looks after people, those who support animal causes over human causes are more likely to be female and aged between 40-54. And the top reason for donating to an animal charity was to fight animal testing.

Overall we still favour human charities, with only 7% of the money that the UK donates each year going towards animals. However, when it comes to the clothing industry, it’s a slightly different story. Typically we donate clothes to regular known charities, rather than funds to charities  focused on workers’ rights in the clothing industry. Charity ‘Labour Behind The Label’ which has researched and produced reports revealing the cruel truth behind some of the biggest high street shops, is still relatively unknown.

I wonder about the rationale is? Could it be that we consider animals more helpless, whilst humans have a ‘choice’ about where they work? Could it be that we are in closer proximity to animals, whilst we are able to compartmentalise the poor working conditions thousands of miles away?

  1. Are we more conscious of what our body absorbs?

Another reason why we might be more inclined to support ethical cosmetics over ethical fashion might be because of the way the different products work. With clothes, whilst they brush against our skin, they are removable. Whereas cosmetics directly touch our skin and are absorbed.

Society is far more conscious today about what we put into our bodies generally, so cosmetics may fall into this category too. Because of how much they directly impact our bodies and health, some might be more concerned about where those products have come from, than where and how our clothes are made.

This is all conjecture, and I would be fascinated to read your thoughts on the matter. Ultimately I believe it’s everyone’s own prerogative to have their own values, and to choose where and what to invest their attention and money in. 

For me the only frustration comes with the hypocrisy of those who claim to have high ethical and sustainable standards in their lives, but then don’t follow through in every area. Moreover, we should respect each others decisions to live our own lifestyles, and not judge or attack one another for how we might have different financial priorities and values.

However, whilst it is completely understandable if someone doesn’t have the money to be able to afford sustainable fashion, it is better to be open and honest about this, or why you value skincare (or something else) over clothing. That way we avoid glossing over the truth and failing to have important conversations, and instead are able to engage in healthy discussion about living ethically and sustainably as a whole.

So, what’s your view? 


  • Posted by Maddy on

    What is sustainable?? we live in a society that is consumer driven and must have the latest ‘must haves’….
    There is a big movement against real fur – ruthless Chinese and Russian farms on an industrial scale, but fake fur is OK … is it? Fake fur is plastic doesn’t biodegrade, its so ‘last season’ and disposable, which then breaks down into micro fibres that then filter into the land and sea ultimately end up in our bodies (ironic first worn outside now in) ; stand against both. Lets face it if you don’t like real fur why wear fake? At least real fur once disposed of rots and composts.
    Sweat shops in the sub-continent – dreadful practices, so don’t use them to manufacture your clothes/bags/shoes etc. don’t pay lip service saying they have been checked out.
    Moral dilemma …, they won’t have any work, poverty is worse, shops have less stock and we buy less…. less shops, less employment, less food on our table.
    Food, grown under vast poly tunnels which are discarded and mountains of plastic just sit rotting in Spain again will end up in the sea and the food we eat whether your a vegan, vegetarian, piscetarain or carnivore.
    Back to make-up, it was all once tested on animals hence the lessons learnt and the ‘necessity’ is no longer there.
    The moral maze continues.

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