What Makes a Brand Sustainable Anyways?

published April 19, 2019

by Emma Smith

Local, fair trade, carbon-neutral . . . What makes a brand ethical and sustainable anyways? While everyone has slightly different criteria, there are some universal standards these brands must uphold, and there are some that do so under relatively intense consumer scrutiny.

When analyzing a brand for its ethics, there’s one word to keep in mind: transparency. Don’t accept fluff words thrown out in a brief “About (Brand Name here)” section on their website. Look for where the product was made, whether or not they release pictures of their factories and if they report information about the wages of their workers or give examples of how they’re offsetting emissions. For example, H&M has a section of their website titled “Sustainability,” but upon closer inspection, this falls apart almost as quickly as their clothes. They say things such as “Looking 20 or 30 years ahead, we need a strategy that will help ensure that our planet has enough resources to go around, and enables us to use those resources in a sustainable way. Therefore, we have developed a sustainability strategy with the overall vision to lead the change towards circular and renewable fashion, all while being a fair and equal company.” This sounds fantastic, but they share no details about what this strategy actually is and how they are currently implementing it. They finish with: “The strategy has been developed with the help of internal and external stakeholders and experts from across our value chain, using an inclusive and science-based process. Together, we have defined our focus areas as 100% circular & renewable, 100% fair & equal and 100% leading the change.” Sign me up! . . . But what is “an inclusive and science-based process”? And are they really “100% leading the change” when they were recently slapped with allegations of worker abuse? Approximately 1% and 25% of facilities traced across H&M’s supply chain pay their workers living wages. And while they talk a lot about their sustainable cotton, the majority of the materials they use are not good for the environment. As for their popular recycling program and other brands’ programs, it’s been found that less than one percent of clothing is recycled to make new clothing. Recycling programs are popular because they make for great press while requiring zero change to their actual production model.

Don’t fall for buzzwords like “eco-friendly,” “all natural,” “environmentally conscious,” “workers treated fairly,” and even “organic” unless they are vetted by a third party organization and have proof of what that actually looks like for them. All of these words actually mean nothing and have no definitive legal definition. These statements were crafted by lawyers and PR experts who know how to say something without saying anything.

Reformation is a brand leading the sustainable fashion movement. You can find clear, thorough definitions of their fiber standards and their methodology for developing these standards. They also report the environmental impact of their products and — this is the best part — admit that they’re not perfect, but working on it. Yet even Reformation falls into vague greenwashing at times. Look for as much transparency as possible and ask questions. No brand is going to be perfect but there are brands that do better. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Good On You is a wonderful resource that analyzes and rates brands, as well as compiles lists and other bundles of information. Bloggers like Eco Warrior Princess also provide information about brands and sustainable shopping. When looking to shop ethically and sustainably, I follow this process.

01/ Do I REALLY need it? Will this be something I will keep and use for years?
(If yes)

02/ Wait a few days or weeks.

03/ Do I still really need it?
(If yes)

04/ Try and find it secondhand.
(Can’t find it?)

05/ Go to a compiled list of reliable brands and see if they have what I’m looking for. I look for brands that are transparent, pay a living wage to workers with good conditions and do their best to minimize their carbon footprint.
(Can’t find it?)

06/ Look for a new brand more specifically (for example, search “ethical sports bra”) and review brands with a shrewd eye.
(Can’t find it?)

07/ Do I still really need it?
(If yes)

08/ Buy it from a brand that isn’t exceptionally ethical or sustainable but still makes clothes of good physical quality and care for the item well so that it lasts as long as possible.

Here are some brands that are on the right track. None of them are perfect but they are better than most.
- Hara
- For All Kind
- Pact
- Reformation
- Patagonia
- Wills Vegan Shoes
- Alternative Apparel
- Kotn
- Matter Prints
- Girlfriend Collective
- Kowtow
- People Tree
- Thought
- Adidas
- Everlane (disclaimer: this brand is more ethical than sustainable)
- Whimsy and Row

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