Google Trends' graph takes a few seconds to load above this text. It suggests that the term was invented about 2005 - about the time of public exhibitions of goods called "ethical fashion", and the peaks co-incide with events like London Fashion Week. It's such a vague term that it begs the related searches you often see: "Ethical Fashion Definition", or "What is Ethical Fashion?", with the answer: "Anything our team of consultants want to tell you". Their idea was to rule-out products made in a democratic welfare state with free healthcare, and pretend that these products don't exist or are suspect in a list of ways they put on their web site.
If you do your own searches on Google Trends you find that the pattern is clear among shopping search terms, and that the world's searches are mainly in London or perhaps England. There were small early peaks for an Ethical Fashion Show in Paris and an Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin. The trend for "Ethical Fashion" follows a much longer-term trend for "Fair Trade Fashion", an older and clearer term that is used in more countries.
"Ethical Fashion" was used as an alternative phrase in the early 2000s to mean goods made in womens co-ops in places like Kenya with backing by a UN association. That's the definition you see in Wikipedia, which was picked-up by the UK Department for Internatinal development with a subsidised trade association for large companies, called the "Ethical Trading Initiative" and a series of favours and small subsidies for a another trade association for small companies, setup by an ad agency that got a great deal of government work. Subsidies included Development Awareness Grants and payments from a Bangladeshi trade asssociation which was in turn subsidised by the Department for International Development. Favours might have been more important among a group of journalists, political advisers and ministers who all seemed to live in the same bubble and believe the same things. If you read some UK newspapers and textbooks, you would think that Juste and Pants to Poverty were the only apparel companies with anything to say in the UK. One of the newspapers helped run an "ethical fashion award" and invited a judge from Pants to Poverty. There was even an Ethical Fashion group in the House of Lords and a Nike-sponsored office at London College of Fashion, an organisation that politicians are strangely keen to quote by name at any opportunity in a phrase like "London's famous fashion colleges".
Consultants are paid to tell you is that a welfare state isn't important; schools hospitals and government aren't important, paying tax isn't important. What's important is a careful corporate social responsibility statement from some global brand that has the money to write one. They go-on to say that you shouldn't buy goods made in the UK for ethical reasons - that's on an ethical fashion forum page called "the issues". If there were consultants and PR agencies paid by UK manufacturers, they would say the opposite. Unfortunately UK manufacturing doesn't have the margins to pay for things like PR or advertising; it has to pay taxes for a welfare state.
I believe the phrase was pushed by a PR agency called Futerra, who also set-up Ethical Fashion Forum with some members - often fictional - to represent a fictional industry. They picked-up a meaningless phrase that had been used by a Kenyan project, with a name translated from Italian, and funded by a UN trade asscociation before the phrase was used again for the Ethical Fashion Initiative, funded by government ministers.. Futerra adopted the term and promoted it through their own exclusive trade association for small firms which always promoted their views and their chosen "founder members". Much as the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency invented "the Ploughman's Lunch" and official-looking advertisements from "The Cheese Bureau" to advertise the health benefits of eating a lot of cheese.
It's easy to imagine a government minister signing a cheque for something like this phrase in Pants' own bond prospectus: "£25,000 Funds to cover 3 new posts for 6 months seed funding (they will be self-financing after this period).". The Department for International Development has run a series of grants called "Development Awareness Grants" of which one of two went to Ethical Fashion Forum, as did favours from the Delphe eduction project managed by the British Council for the Department, just as there were favours from the British Council itself, the British Fashion Council, the BBC and the V&A museum to promote the new concept - even the fictional new fashion companies like Juste.
A good minister would have built-in safeguards to so that promoting fairtrade was not at the expense of goods made in a welfare state like the UK.
A bad minister would just let it run under the control of consultants and their funders at international companies who produce in cheap countries and can afford lobbying.
This was the generation of politicians who wanted to cut pensions and subsidise steelworks in China. They also called-in favours from a new subsidised landlord called Rich Mix Cultural Foundation which had such strange priorities that it's best not to try to describe them because it would sound untrue. For example they spent a lot of their subsidy on a wall-size mural of a black man raping a white woman. Tower Hamlets Council, which also funded the building, has just reached agreement on debt repayments this autumn 2016, at the same time that groups like Ethical Fashion Forum and Pants to Poverty's cheap leases ended. The Forum has left the building and now works from a PO box.
There was a chance to ask Futerra who in the public sector did so much to promote brands like Juste and Terra Plana in so many public sector exhibitions about that time.
"I don't know", said the boss. "We did a lot of work with those brands with things like the RE:Fashion awards, but I don't know who helped in the public sector".
A search of "ethical fashion" pages from winter 2005 on Google reveals Sarah Ratty's page about a new web shop called Ciel, which she ran part-time round teaching jobs at St Martins College. And being picked by UK ministries to show something called "fashion" which seems to be an abstract concept known only to The British Council, The V&A, London Fashion Week, The Barbican Centre, and a small range of expensive department stores. They shared a bubble together, which I suppose is why searches for "ethical fashion" and shopping were overwhelmingly from London.
The trend for "Pants to Poverty" is a bit more spikey than "Ethical Fashion", at first, and Ben Ramsden often explains how it came about. It was a slogan of a protest organised by some institutions and the government to protest at some institutions and the government during the G8 summit of 2005. It's a lot vaguer than Vegan, Made in UK, Organic, or Fairtrade which were all popular search terms before the muddle. Pants' web site describes the phrase as borne in this Government-backed anti-Government protest, reported to the public as a kind of shared togetheryness rather than anything specific. That's what that generation of politicians were like. Nelson Mandela was persuaded out of retirement to make a quick speech in Trafalgar Square, where he called for write-off of debt to third world countries, more and better aid, and trade justice. All fair enough for a retired South African statesman to say, but if you look for a definition of trade justice you find that nobody has ever agreed one - not even the groups that came together in the Coalition for Trade Justice at the time, because of the contradictions between what makes sense on a welfare state and what people call-for from places like Africa or Bangladesh or Nike PR department.