Utilitarian ethical theory is the most recognized ethical theory among English speakers (and perhaps the French too…). It was first theorized by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 1780’s and continued by many including the 18th century philosopher John Stuart Mill and contemporary scholar Peter Singer.
Utilitarians provide a calculation to determine the best action to take. They claim that the best action is the one which leads to the greatest good/pleasure/happiness for the greatest number. This is called the utilitarian calculus, which is often referred to simply as “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
The single thing that makes an action good or bad is our desire to pursue happiness. Utilitarians, based on a long tradition of Western philosophers, say that this desire is inherent to humanity – every human seeks actions that lead to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is central to modern life – especially for those who live in the United States where it’s included in our Declaration of Independence. This pursuit is very focused on the individual – whatever the individual determines will make them happy is a pursuit that is, in some sense, protected by the government. However, the pursuit of happiness has reached farther than the U.S. Declaration of Independence, mainly to global capitalist business enterprise.
In the case of utilitarianism, the greatest good, the pursuit of happiness, and the accumulation and protection of property are synonymous. And it is the pursuit of property (money) that drives industries like fast fashion. For the fashion industry, utilitarianism guides the typical fast fashion philosophy where the greatest good is usually the greatest profit. But there are a number of ways fast fashion companies use a utilitarian calculus to justify their business practices. Sometimes, it literally means that these businesses try to offer the most items to the greatest number of people. Other times it can operate in reverse, where the greatest good for the greatest number is the lowest production cost for the largest output of items.
Slow Fashion advocates also use a utilitarian calculus, however they use it very differently than the above mentioned businesses. Slow fashion questions how we currently define the greatest good. They seek to open the definition of greatest good for the greatest number to include the interests of both fashion labels, consumers, as well as garment workers and farmers. They critique fast fashion companies for their narrow interest in the bottom line. Using the same utilitarian calculus, slow fashion critiques fast fashion for miscalculating. According to genuine utilitarianism, the greatest number should mean the greatest number of humans. Thus, true utilitarian ethics requires that an action must consider the effects it has on all humans, not just consumers or corporate employees. According to slow fashion utilitarian reasoning, fast fashion companies are making the wrong calculation when they think only of the interests of the consumer or the bottom line.
Using utilitarian reasoning to advocate for slow fashion has some advantages – it follows the accepted logic of capitalist oriented businesses. By using utilitarian logic, slow fashion and fast fashion might be able to speak the same language. But only for a bit… because even though the two groups are using the same ethical calculus, their definition of the greatest good or greatest number wildly diverge. So while slow fashion advocates claim that the greatest number includes all humans, the earth, animals… all life – the fashion industry defines the greatest good in very narrow terms. And the greatest good is wildly divergent in these two groups as well, it could mean the greatest profit or the greatest output or the least harmful product. These divergent definitions can lead to confusing conversations where there can be little room to move to some sort of consensus about the greatest good in the industry. However, the theory has such a stronghold over businesses and the English-speaking world that slow fashion advocates must understand it and use it to make their position heard in the modern world.