Wednesday 16 December 2020

How to Check a Fashion Brand’s Ethics and Sustainability

 Being able to tell if a brand’s practices are ethical and sustainable is difficult. We have greenwashing, lack of transparency and a whole load of flashy marketing to push passed to help us make purchasing decisions we’re happy with and to help us know where to direct our activism. This post outlines my process when researching into a brand and some tips I’ve picked up along the way. Sometimes, the answers are confusing, and although it may seem incredibly cynical, I find that going into research assuming the worst of brands tends to be the best (and often most accurate) approach. They must prove that their supply chains and practices are ethical and sustainable to you as a citizen and potential purchaser – think of it like a defense in court but just with fashion brands.


First, go to their website

This should be the first thing you do every time you want to find out more about a brand. What does their homepage look like? Have they got green, natural imagery everywhere that’s a bit overwhelming? Do they have ‘sustainable collection’ plastered everywhere? This is likely to be greenwashing if they don’t clearly state their ethics and sustainability policies elsewhere on their site.  Now, most brands will have a page related to these issues. They may be called something like ‘Sustainability and Ethics’ or ‘Supplier Code of Conduct’, but we’re looking for more than them just having that page. If they go into specifics on their site they’re more likely to actually be ethical. These include include details such as naming factories and countries, stating their materials clearly, highlighting whether or not their workers get a living wage. If they’re being vague and simply stating their ‘commitments’ to ethical working conditions and sustainability, you need more information. The important thing here is what they’re doing to make changes and ensure these commitments are a reality. What are they doing to follow up on these claims?


You can also keep your eyes peeled for any accreditations which may pop up on these pages. These may be from Fairtrade, Fair Wear, Ethical Trade Initiative and more. If a brand includes any certification logos on their page, look up those certifications and see what they actually mean. 


As it is now compulsory in the UK for brands to publish their Gender Pay Gap, you can also find that out relatively easily. Some will have this on their websites, but the Government website should also have them. However, these stats don’t account for their supply chains or other companies they own. Boohoo, for example has a 0% median gender pay gap, whereas their subsidiary companies Pretty Little Thing and Karen Millen have gaps of 29% and 49% respectively. The UK average is 17%.


Google their brand name along with words like ‘sustainability’ ‘ethics’ and look through the results

This is good for getting the initial picture. You may see some major red flags straight away or it may be a bit more complicated. When you search ‘Boohoo ethics’ for example, you get loads of information about Leicester and their generally terrible supply chains. Other brands may be less specific. Most brands aren’t great, but it’s generally about determining the horrendous ones from the bearable ones. This will take time just having a flick though articles and headlines, but it will provide you with a broader picture of the brand. 


Use tools like Good On You and Clean Clothes Campaign’s Fashion Checker to find out background more information


There are loads of great tools out there to help breakdown the ethics of different brands and when deciding if you want to buy from a brand or not. Many of these tools show different elements of ethical production and go into different levels of detail. 


Good On You are a great resource. You can use their app and their website to find information about brands’ records in regards to workers’ rights, environmental impact and animal welfare (if they use materials such as fur, leather etc.). They don’t go into a huge amount of detail but I find Good On You to be incredibly useful to get the general gis of how good a brand is. The one thing I find frustrating about Good On You is that that tend to only have information on bigger brands, so you often have more work if you want to find out about smaller brands. 


Other useful tools include Clean Clothes Campaign’s Fashion Checker. This website will tell you whether or not the garment workers making clothes for a brand are being paid a living wage or not. They also have more information on what minimum vs living wage means and how it affects garment workers, the gendered aspects of the garment industry and a whole host of other great resources to learn more about the industry from podcasts and reports to Netflix shows. Fashion Checker provides a bit more information, highlighting the brand’s revenue, other brands they might own, their top 3 production countries and any commitments they may have made to improving their supply chains. 


Find detailed information on Remake's Transparency Report

Remake have recently released their incredible new Transparency Report, and it is incredible.  Remake rank their brands in a slightly different way than just saying ‘they’re good’ or ‘they’re bad’. They have 4 main categories: Rockstars, Up & Comers, Wannabees and Offenders. Each brand gets a different number of points based on five different categories: Traceability & Transparency, Maker Wellbeing, Environmental Sustainability, Sustainable Raw Materials and Leadership, Diversity & Inclusion. While some brands did much better than others, every single brand surveyed lost points on the last category, which measures racial diversity at board levels and throughout their headquarters. 

Currently, they have the information about 40 different brands on their website, however they are aiming to expand to 400 soon and you can request to find out more about a specific brand if they haven't got their information up already. This report includes all public information about the brands, so you have one place to go to for everything! I love it. 

They also further divide brands depending on their price and what type of clothing they make. To me, this is a temptation for endless clicking. I find that kind of research a bit addictive, but maybe that’s me being nerdy for ethics. I'm so excited to see how this grows!


You can also check Remake’s Pay Up Fashion campaign website to keep track of which brands have paid their suppliers since the start of the pandemic and who hasn’t (spoiler: many still haven’t). 


Check Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index

Brands who do well on this Transparency Index aren’t guaranteed to be ethical or sustainable by any means (H&M took the number one spot in the first report and they are certainly not ethical), however, it is a good means of knowing what information is out there. We can’t know if a brand is ethical or sustainable in its practices if they’re not telling us any information about its supply chain. Transparency is the first step for any brand to move toward a more ethical framework and it is vital when communicating with the people who buy their clothes. 


Contact the brand!

If you can’t find much elsewhere, ask the brand directly. Send them a message on social media or tag them in a post/tweet asking them for more information. You can also find a contact email for most brands quite easily, so send them an email asking to know more about their supply chains and their policies in terms of ethical and sustainable production. You may get no reply (as has often been the case), or you may get something that may as well have not been a reply, or you may get something pretty decent and detailed – it all depends on the brands themselves but analyse their responses carefully. 


Just remember that the people behind the social media accounts and emails aren’t the ones who are exploiting garment workers and the environment and ultimately don’t have the power to make change quickly, so make sure that you’re being nice to them! They may be able to pass on concerns their customers have to people higher up and what they’re allowed to tell you is certainly indicative of the brand’s ethical policies. 


Keep researching and keep updated

Brands are always changing. New scandals emerge and we have to remember that brands can change and do actually do better sometimes. We have to keep holding brands to account, even if they’re ones who are open about trying to do be better. Follow fashion activists on social media, keep an eye on how and when brands are being covered in the news, and let them know what you think of their actions. And remember that it’s okay not to be a perfectly ethical consumer, because frankly no one is – we just have to try and hold those in power to account and to demand they make meaningful change. 


If you have any questions about figuring out how ethical and sustainable a brand is, just comment on this post and I’d be perfectly happy to help you! 

If you liked this post you might like: Quitting Fast Fashion: Where to Start

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