In a time where 'sustainable fashion' is being used as a marketing term to sell more clothes rather than an agent for positive change, actually weeding out the 'sustainable' from the mass of 'fashion' can get tricky.
Here's how to tell if a fashion brand is ethical and sustainable:
1. Read the label
It’s important to know what it’s made from. We’ve dedicated an entire blog post to understanding what clothes are made from, so take a read if you’d like a refresher.
The label should also tell you where your clothes were made. Be cautious of anything made far away. We stock clothes made ethically and sustainably in far flung places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh (yep, there are ethical clothing factories in Bangladesh now!) and Vietnam, but be aware that an item’s country of origin can often give you a good glimpse of the conditions of how it was made. The Richest came up with a list of the 7 worst countries for horrific sweatshop conditions in 2014. These include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia.
2. What is it rated?
There’s a growing number of organisations that can show you how ethical and sustainable a brand is depending on the rating system used. Note that a lot of smaller labels are not included in these reports.
Rank a Brand looks at the sustainability and ethics of major brands, Baptist World Aid releases a yearly report that assesses the ethics of companies, with a focus on human rights. Fashion Revolution is my favourite organisation to turn to for it’s focus on brand transparency, releasing a yearly index report that assesses the social and environmental information shared by fashion labels.
3. Check the company's Corporate Social Responibility policies
If it’s a small label, it probably won’t have a CSR policy, but any label committed to sustainable fashion will want to let you know about it. The label’s ‘about page’ is a good place to start. If the company doesn’t tell you straight up, chances are they don’t have much to say, which is a red flag.
If you’ve got the time, reach out with a quick email asking them about their dedication to ethical business and sustainability. I’ve done this before and have been met with a stock standard “we aim to become an ethical company in the future” and have also been completely ignored, but you might have more luck and find out that this company is actually a lot more ethical than they let on.
4. Beware of cause marketing
Perhaps I’m just showing my cynicism, but sometimes a company will donate to a charity or get behind a cause in an attempt to appear caring. This is cause marketing at it’s core. Helping not-for-profits is excellent, but its not ‘proof’ that the brand is ethical or sustainable. I can think of a certain label that is a cruelty free advocate, yet when it comes to human rights, has done little to no work on improving anything for it’s factory workers or addressing it’s environmental responsibility. If a fashion label donates to a not for profit but it’s products are being made by sweatshop labour, then maybe their charity work is done for good publicity and tax benefits than actually giving a damn? Or am I just being cynical again?
Not every company that donates to charity is hiding something or trying to make up for its other unethical faults and there are many ethical companies that also support not-for-profits, but charity work is not evidence enough that the company is wholly good.
I'm glad that we live in a time where caring is cool. What isn't cool is when fashion labels pretend to care to gain credibility rather than actually doing the work, further propagating a system of repression for their garment workers and a strain on the environment for, well, everyone. I know it can take a lot more effort to discover the brands doing the right thing, but it's worth it to support companies that reflect your values, taking the power away from companies that exploit and giving it back to those that enrich.