As mentioned in the What Makes a Brand Ethical, it is hard to define what makes a brand ethical. Truth is, no fashion purchase is without sin. The only way to truly ensure you are minimizing your impact is to consume less.
It’s unrealistic to think you’ll never buy clothing again, even if you cut down on your purchases. The important thing to always remember is to spend your money wisely! Every dollar spent towards a brand is supporting that particular brands’ ethics and philosophy.
Although this topic is complex, below are some quick, helpful tips you can use to identify a sustainable/ethical brand.
Note – eco-fashion will be used throughout this post; this will encompass both ethical, environmental and sustainable fashion brands.
Materials are the easiest identifier when it comes to eco-fashion.
Ideally the brand will include the use of vintage, up-cycled, waste fabrics or recycled material. If not, renewable materials such as linen, hemp, bamboo or silk should be utilized. Although the use of organic cotton is a better alternative to traditional cotton, it still requires a fair amount of water to produce. Therefore, the use of organic cotton shouldn’t be the sole reason to support that brand.
The use of natural dyes is optimal, as traditional textile dyes are very toxic. Not only do these dyes pollute neighbouring rivers, and eco-systems, they can also cause damage to consumer’s health by being absorbed through the skin.
When it comes to less traditional items, such as the increasingly popular use of wood for accessories, it is important to make sure the wood is from a renewable source such as bamboo or scraps from the furniture industry. Zebra wood, sandalwood, mahogany, and teak are considered endangered species and should be avoided at all costs. It is not sustainable if you are damaging a rain forest!
And as for leather – unless it’s recycled from old car seats, coats and the likes, sorry – it’s not eco-friendly. Cows require a lot of land, food and water. Once killed, the process of skinning, tanning and dyeing the skins requires even more energy and resources. Ditto on the use of fur.
The use of animal products in fashion is not ethical nor is it sustainable, although some will argue against that. Arguments have been made that leather is simply a by-product of the meat industry, or the use of discarded fish skins is an appropriate alternative to leather. When it comes to eco-fashion, stick with vegan fashion.
Although vegan fashion will always be more sustainable and ethical, some vegan alternatives contain highly polluting plastics like PVC. Always ensure that vegan alternatives have an eco-friendly source.
LOOK BEYOND THE OBVIOUS
Textiles, dyes and fairly paid workers are three main factors to consider when purchasing clothing, but there are other things to think about too. A company’s daily operations is one of those things worth considering.
Companies truly devoted to being environmentally friendly will invest in things such as solar panels or water recycling as a means to mitigate their impact on the planet. The factories used will have environmentally friendly components.
Other less thought of initiatives could include the use of BPA-free receipts or reducing the amount of packaging.
Ultimately, look at the little things the company is doing that sets them apart from other companies.
ORIGIN OF PRODUCTS
Buying local, handmade goods is great; not only are you supporting the local economy, you are also reducing the amount of CO2 emitted during transportation. But this alone doesn’t necessarily mean the product is sustainable.
Most top luxury brands make all their goods “locally” (for example, “Made in Italy”), but the materials used make them far from sustainable because it includes the use of toxic dyes or leather.
Similarly, a local merchant may appear sustainable at first glance, but further investigation reveals the materials are not sustainable.
It is important to always inquire about the source of the materials and not take the location of the final good as the sole reason to believe it is sustainable.
THE “MADE IN CHINA” DILEMMA
Originating in China doesn’t automatically make a product bad. What is bad, is when a brand moves their production to Asia in an attempt to increase their profit margins by paying workers minimal amounts.
Contrary to what many believe, slavery is still prevalent, and some of the most popular brands utilize this to increase their profits or keep clothing at a low cost. Unfortunately this tactic has become most prevalent in Asia.
The solution is not as simple as banning all products made in China. Many workers depend on their job for their income, and a ban on products will ultimately hurt the worker more than it would hurt the brand.
It is up to us as consumers to realize that a $5 t-shirt reeks of exploitation and environmental degradation, and to demand change.
Several websites have dedicated themselves to offering resources that help consumers determine which brands are sustainable. Websites such as Rank a Brand, EWG, and the Fashion Revolution are full of information and use credible criteria to determine whether or not a brand is sustainable.
Leading independent campaigning organization Greenpeace has also dedicated a campaign to exposing the dirty side of fashion. It even publicly shames the worst brands into cleaning up their act.
BEWARE OF “CAUSE MARKETERS”
Guilty companies will often support a charity in an attempt to appear “caring”. This is classified as “cause marketing” and is not a sole indication of a sustainable brand.
Helping non-profits is great but if the company behind the campaign is only looking for publicity, that isn’t okay. Companies get a significant amount of “good” PR, and tend to hike up costs of goods in order to cover their “donation” expense.
Another thing to note is that the amount of the donation that actually goes towards the cause, as opposed to the charity’s administration costs, is opaque.
Hiding behind cause marketing does not make a company ethical or eco-friendly. A good illustration of this would be Estee Lauder. The company has supported breast cancer research for numerous years, leading many women to believe Estee Lauder is a “caring company”. However, many of the brands under Estee Lauder contain chemicals that have links to causing breast cancer. Quite the contradiction.
It should be noted that there are several smaller brands who have created their whole business model around helping others. For example, Elegantees employs women rescued from the sex-trafficking industry in Nepal, and SeeMe.org employ victims of domestic abuse.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to vote with your wallet! Tell non-sustainable brands what you think of their practices! Sustainability can be the new norm – it’s up to us, the consumer to make it so.