Is this Fashion Brand Ethical?

In recent months, more and more people have begun to question fast fashion and ask me how they can shop better. Including, how they can tell if a brand is ethical or not. As we all begin to emerge from our pandemic homes and wardrobes, it is important to ask these questions when buying something; “Who made my clothes? Where were they made? How were they made?” In this post, we will mostly be talking about identifying a fashion brand’s ethics regarding people and the planet. Coming in October there will be an entire blog post on greenwashing in the fashion industry, how to identify and avoid it.

First, there is no one way to be ethical & there is no one-size-fits-all certification to prove a fashion brand is ethical. The fashion industry is complex and complicated it uses a variety of materials from various vendors from various countries, and often produced in steps from one factory to the next. Your shirt may be sewn in the USA but where was the fiber grown? Where was the fiber dyed and turned to thread? Where was the thread turned into fabric? Each of these steps could be miles or countries apart. 

Who made my clothes?

Some brands employ vulnerable populations, some brands share the stories of their artisans and some don’t. While the work of these brands is to support economic opportunities, sometimes it can come across as exploitative to the makers. Brands like Sseko Designs focuses on employing women, both as full time employees and college bound young women in Uganda providing them with a job during a 9 month gap year. The Root Collective works with independent cooperatives and workshops that are run by local small business owners across Guatemala.

Treatment & Pay of their workers

Most countries have a set minimum wage, unfortunately, those minimums are not enough for people to survive on. Asking if a brand pays ethically means do they care about their makers and provide them with a wage that gives workers enough to buy food, send kids to school, and afford shelter. Minimum wage usually equates to poverty wages. Do these fashion factories provide a safe work environment, from up to date or safe equipment to workplaces with fire exits, or free from harassment?

Look for:
  • Transparency with the specific factories they partner with.
  • Voluntary certifications and programs to prove compliance with labor standards and rights, including SA8000, Better Work Programme, NEST, and WRAP
  • Any of these Fair Trade Certifications is wonderful, but when it comes to fashion you can have a pair of jeans made with Fair Trade cotton and assembled in a not Fair Trade Factory. So read the label carefully.

Where are my clothes made?

Checking the Made in label has become a common practice, where it is made matters but like I said where it is made is limited to the country where the final product is assembled. Not all the components are listed. Where our clothes are made matters, some countries are more notorious than others. Remember if you buy something from another country and it seems cheap remember many of these factories are contracted to produce it cheaply. Not everything from China is made poorly and not everything made in the USA is high quality. Ethical fashion brands are intentional about where they produce their products.

GOEX Apparel creates their products with a factory in Haiti. GOEX chooses to pay their workers in Kansas City and Haiti fair wages. On average, one of their workers earning a fair wage supports six family members. A better shirt starts with better standards. GOEX is proud to say they are one of the elite few who have passed the Fair Trade Federation’s (FTF) rigorous screening. GOEX is proud to be part of Orphan Prevention programming from our parent organization. We know the best way to keep families together and kids with their parents where they belong is to provide strong jobs that create opportunities.

How are my clothes made?

What kinds of materials & fibers do they use?

What kinds of fibers or fabrics are they using? Natural fibers are best environmentally as they are biodegradable and can easily return to the earth if processed and dye appropriately. But using deadstock fabrics is also an option, when a brand chooses to use fabric that was bound for the landfill they are using what was going to go to waste in a new way. This is sustainable.

Certifications to look for:
  • Bluesign Certified – approve chemicals, processes, materials, and products that are safe for the environment, workers, and customers
  • GOTS Certified – ensures fabrics labeled ‘organic’ are sourced in the most ethical and sustainable ways
  • Oeko Tex – Ensures chemicals used throughout the production process are not harmful to the end user.
  • Fair Wear Foundation – Works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers. Although cotton farmers are not included in the monitoring, as the organization says, “There aren’t yet any 100% fair supply chains in this industry. So, we’re not perfect, but we’re an excellent alternative.”
  • Eco-Age – Although it’s only awarded to a small number of brands at the moment (and they tend to be of the Gucci variety), the Eco-Age Brandmark is one to watch. Founded by Livia Firth, Eco-Age is a sustainability consultancy that has initiatives such as the Green Carpet Challenge which encourages celebrities to dress sustainably, and #30wears, which challenges consumers to wear an item at least 30 times before getting rid.

What are their production methods?

Production methods covers a wide variety of topics from if they offset their carbon emissions to what kind of packaging they use. Finding a brand that produces ethically made items and packages them in recyclable or compostable materials makes my heart sing. Even when a brand uses recycled packages I get excited! I don’t see anything “unprofessional” about reusing packaging materials!

How often do they produce new products?

When a fashion brand produces 125 new designs a week, they are PROBABLY not creating at a sustainable scale. Another thing to look at is how often do they run sales to clear their inventory. Fashion Brands tend to have a few seasons throughout the year, early & late of each of the natural seasons. Many ethically made brands offer fewer seasons or intentional seasons. Some brands even offer made to order provide an option to consumers to reduce unwanted inventory by making a custom one of kind product. Custom products do tend to run more costly but provide consumers with one of a kind pieces and more business for a brand.

Determining if a brand is ethical or not is just one step and it’s one you have to make for yourself. If a brand’s mission gets you excited and even if they aren’t perfect, let’s be honest most aren’t, but their pieces match your style then you should by all means support them. Being an ethical fashion brand is far from easy and they will likely make mistakes. See my list of ethical fashion brands, HERE

Looking to do a little more research on brands? Two of the most comprehensive and reliable resources out there are Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, for Large Fashion Brands, and Good on You, for Small Fashion Brands.

The Transparency Index is a report from Fashion Revolution a non-profit which measures how much information a large brand has shared on its efforts to be more sustainable and ethical. The Transparency Index doesn’t mean that a company is sustainable or ethical. However if a brand is highly ranked as transparent, you can feel confident that any injustices in its closet have been rooted out by activists . The Transparency Index only ranks large global companies, however, with revenue in the hundreds of millions.

The Good on You app, on the other hand, includes brands of all sizes, from tiny to multinational. It uses all the information about a brand that is publicly available to come to a fairly educated conclusion on how sustainable and ethical a brand is. Focusing on a brand’s planet impact, people impact & animal impact. Unfortunately, even with its single-minded focus, Good on You has not reviewed all brands, or even all the brands you’ve heard of.

Sources & Further Reading:

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