How to Tell If A Clothing Brand is Ethical and Sustainable
Navigating the world of ethical and sustainable fashion can be tricky. Not only are there a million factors to consider when deciding whether a brand fits within your specific set of values, but the increased presence of greenwashing and influx of “sustainable” brands have made it more and more difficult to identify authentic companies.
Ultimately, we should buy less to make the biggest environmental impact,. The first step in sustainable fashion is to reduce consumption and wear what you own. Secondly, explore secondhand shopping or swapping alternatives so that your money isn’t going towards the production of new clothes.
Of course, there are instances where shopping second-hand isn’t ideal. For example, I’m personally not comfortable with buying previously owned undergarments, swimwear, or shoes. There are plenty of people who choose to make those purchases, and it’s definitely possible to do hygienically; I’m just not at that point in my sustainable fashion journey yet.
If secondhand shopping or swapping aren’t viable alternatives for what you’re looking for, the best option is to buy from sustainable and ethical brands.
But how do you know which brands are truly sustainable and ethical in practice?
Keep reading for the ultimate guide to figuring out whether or not a company actually practices what they preach.
What Does Their About Page Say?
You’re on the website anyway. Take an extra five minutes to scour their about page for details on sustainability and ethical practices. Websites are set up so that consumers automatically go into shopping mode, but before you even start to look at their clothes, swing by the about section and take a quick scan of what’s there. You’d be surprised by the amount of information (or lack of information) a company provides.
What to look for:
An ethical and sustainable business will have their production details listed. They’re proud to inform their consumers of how their clothes are made and by whom. Search for impact reports and information about the factories they use.
Fair Trade International & B-Corp Certifications take a company’s environmental, social, and economic impact into consideration and can be a good indicator that the company legitimately follows through on what they say they do. For a B-Corp certified business, you can even search the B-Corp directory and look into the specifics on how that company compares in relation to its competitors.
Corporate Social Responsibility Policies
Most large fashion companies will practice some type of corporate social responsibility. These policies tell you which guidelines they follow and what their goals are on achieving more environmentally-friendly or ethical production practices.
Note: Many companies tend to emphasize the good and skim over the bad. Review these policies closely and keep your eye out for signs of a marketing ploy. Careful reading can give you a better understanding of the things they’re doing well, as well as areas that these corporations can improve on, so that you can further discern whether or not their brand matches your values.
What If There’s No Information?
I hate to break it to you, but if that information isn’t there, it’s likely because the brand is greenwashed. If you’re seriously in love with their products, take the time to shoot them an email. Fashion Revolution has an excellent pre-drafted template that you can use for your questions.
What materials are they using and where are they sourced?
There’s no doubt that different fabrics affect the environment differently. Even if a company is ethical in production and abides by sustainable guidelines, the raw materials that they choose to use (and you choose to wear) can have an impact on the carbon footprint of that garment.
What to Look For:
Fabric Source/Fabric Description
After you’ve reviewed the company’s ethical guidelines, double check on where the fabric was sourced or knitted. Make sure that the production process is ethical and sustainable from the very beginning of the process (the growing and picking of the crop), to the very end (when the design is put together and shipped to the consumer). Make sure that the company is completely transparent throughout the entire process to ensure that your product is as ethical and sustainable as it can get.
Natural vs Synthetic
There are a lot of nuances in the different fibers that we can make our clothes with.
Natural fabrics like linen, hemp, silk, or even bamboo typically take less energy to produce (though the processing of bamboo actually uses a lot of energy), and can be more easily reused in a cyclical fashion. These fabrics feel better on the skin and are great for everyday garments like t-shirts, undergarments, socks, etc.
Synthetic fabrics, alternatively, are designed for longer wear but take centuries to break down (or do not disintegrate at all). If you’re purchasing a garment that might be subject to lots of physical trauma (workout gear, for example), the man-made fibers might actually help your garment last longer and in turn produce less waste.
Okay, great…but it gets more complicated. Certain crops (cotton, notoriously) can take more resources and pesticides to grow, and synthetic fabrics have the capability to continuously shed microplastics into our water. Are clothes made from recycled plastics even a good thing? There are hundreds of small considerations when you sit down to weigh the differences between textiles. Ultimately, fabric choices whittles down to where your personal values lie and it’s up to you as a consumer to figure out which textiles best serve you.
When you’re looking at the composition of your garment, consider buying from companies that use natural dyes or at least check that their factories abide by proper disposal mechanisms. Certifications like the GOTS certification or the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certification can be easy identifiers on whether or not you should purchase from a specific brand.
Another tricky topic…
When talking about ethical and sustainable fashion, animal rights are bound to get involved. What is considered ethical and for whom? Do animal rights matter just as much as human rights?
Materials like wool, leather, silk, and fur are not vegan and can be pretty unsustainable in production. At the same time, however, what about the environmental tradeoff that comes with creating vegan alternatives made from unrecyclable plastics?
Again, you get to decide on whether or not using animal-based products is something that you’re personally okay with.
Before you buy something from halfway across the world, check out your local options! There might be a company that’s ethically making sustainably-sourced clothing right in your city. Buying within a smaller geographical radius can decrease the carbon emissions associated with transport.
It’s helpful to start looking for clothing made right here in the US, but that doesn’t have to be the end-all-be-all solution. Clothing sourced and made in one location (regardless of where it is) will have a smaller carbon footprint than clothing made with components from various different regions.
While it isn’t necessarily an indicator of poor ethics, garments made in developing nations can be associated with fast fashion. Many brands will outsource labor overseas and pay their workers unlivable wages. This should be a red flag and an indicator to do further research.
Longevity and Apparel Care
I strongly believe that circularity is something that most industries (including the fashion industry) should strive for.
Ethical and sustainable brands know that to be truly effective, it’s not just about how the garment is produced, but about how it’s treated throughout the course of its lifespan, as well as how it’s handled at end-of-life.
A good sign to watch out for is whether or not a brand encourages its consumers to properly clean, maintain, and repair their garments. Some businesses will additionally collect well-worn products and partner with other companies to recycle and reuse them in future production (though this can also be a greenwashing tactic so tread carefully around this tip).
These tips and tricks will take you a long way, but sometimes we need a hand. Luckily, there are plenty of directories, tools, and shopping marketplaces that have done the heavy lifting for us. Here are my top five (in no particular order).
1. Good On You:
Good On You is probably one of the most well-known ethical and sustainable fashion apps. It first became popular in Australia and recently expanded to the US. Their rating system is independently determined and considers three components: planet, people, and animals. They believe that fashion brands have a responsibility and should be transparent about their impact. Good On You’s app is easy to use and research (from what I’ve seen) is thoroughly conducted. That being said, some brands may be difficult to find because they were created for an Australian audience.
2. Done Good:
Done Good is another sustainable fashion app. Touted the “amazon of social good,” Done Good helps you filter through brands and find ones that align with your values. It was initially developed as a Chrome extension and even operates as a marketplace for all things that relate to social goodness. Done Good streamlines the shopping process and allows you to keep all of your products in one area.
Ethica is an online marketplace that offers a selection of over 80 brands. It’s similar to Done Good and specifically streamlines the shopping experience. They sort brands into categories and allow you to filter through based on personal values.
Fashion Revolution is a not-for-profit global movement with teams in over 100 countries around the world. They’re one of the biggest educators, motivators, and inspirations in this movement and provide an abundance of resources for education.
For all of my research nerds out there, Kent State University provides an extensive list of additional resources that you can refer to. From categories ranging from textiles, to consumer resources, Kent State’s directory has a resource for the specific category you want to learn more about.
I hope these tips will help you filter through all the noise in the sustainable fashion industry. Remember that living sustainably looks different for every single person and your values may vary a lot from the values of the next person. Do your best to get educated and make your decisions from there. If you accidentally mess up and buy something fast fashion, try not to beat yourself up over it. Treat yourself with compassion, wear the garment for a long time, and move forward from there.
What are some tips that you’ve found helpful in identifying truly sustainable and ethical brands?
(last updated 9/29/19)