Sustainability has become a buzzword in recent years as consumers are increasingly looking for businesses that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
However, with the rise in consumer demand, many companies now claim to be sustainable when they're actually not. This has become so commonplace that there is now a term for it: greenwashing.
Despite "green" becoming a marketing tactic, there are plenty of ethical brands out there. Sustainable brands are those that are committed to being good corporate citizens. They are aware of the impact they have on society and the environment. In addition, they strive to create positive social change through their actions. When looking for sustainable brands to shop from, look for these five things: ethical business practices, transparency, sustainable product information, personal matching aesthetics, and company engagement in social issues.
The apparel industry has a poor record of decent working conditions. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) reports that most major companies have a global supplier network, making it hard to regulate individual factories. In addition, FLA research shows that many major brands rely on child labor or forced labor in their supply chain. While most major brands now publish information about their suppliers, including details about wages and working hours, this often only applies to factories producing goods sold directly by the company itself. This makes it challenging for workers to receive fair compensation and benefits, as well as access health care and safety training.
In some countries, such as China, there are no laws or regulations protecting employees against forced overtime, child labor, or discrimination based on gender, race, social status, or religion. Many apparel companies do not disclose where their products come from, making it impossible to know what happens behind closed doors. Go to the clothing aisle (or any aisle, for that matter) of a major big-box store and you will find that the vast majority of clothing labels read "Made in China."
Businesses that actually implement sustainable and ethical business practices have often instilled these values into their company from the beginning. Great practices make a great product, and a great product is key to a successful business. By making sustainability a core part of their business model, ethical businesses can thrive, and consumers can better choose the right choice for themselves, others, and the Earth.
Large fast fashion companies have a track record of not being transparent about their environmental impacts or labor conditions. They often hide information about their supply chain and supply chain practices. They also don't disclose if they're paying fair wages to workers making their clothes. This means consumers can't know if the clothes they're buying were made by child laborers or exploited workers. After all, if consumers knew about the problems associated with making a certain product, would they still choose to buy it?
Transparency is a sign of trust and enhances all relationships, including business and consumer relationships. One way brands have been becoming more transparent about their business practices is through ESG and sustainability reporting. In these annual reports, companies outline the measures they're taking towards environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and worker welfare. Aspects they include in these reports include donations and employee volunteer time, whether they have any employees who suffer from unpaid wages, how much water or electricity they use, and how many people were employed during the year. A few companies are taking it further by disclosing the sources of their materials, the ways they run their businesses, their financial viability, and their entire supply chain. It has become increasingly clear that companies are beginning to see environmental, social and governance issues as being just as important as financial performance.
What kind of fabrics went into making the clothing that you're wearing right now? More likely than not, like the majority of clothing, it's made of polyester. While inexpensive and easy to produce, polyester also takes about 200 years for polyester to biodegrade, making it a major contributor to landfill waste.
In addition to materials, you must consider the process used to dye the fabric. Some methods use harmful solvents, which can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation. Others involve toxic heavy metals, such as chromium. Still others release dangerous gasses into the air.
While polyester is still the dominant fabric used in apparel, there are many alternatives out there. Organic cotton, for example, is grown without pesticides and uses less energy and water than conventional cotton production. Hemp is another alternative; while it doesn't provide the same strength as traditional fabrics, it does offer a breathable option. However, both these options still come from natural sources that need to be grown, farmed, processed, transported, and manufactured.
An innovative solution comes from the regenerated yarn Econyl®. It is made with 100% recycled polyester fibers that are spun together at high temperatures. This makes them strong enough to be woven into durable fabrics without losing their shape or strength. Econyl® also has a low carbon footprint because it is produced by recycling plastic bottles rather than mining new raw materials like petroleum. Use of this material helps contribute to the circular economy, and it takes less resources to make than hemp or cotton as well.
However, the type of fabric and dye are not the only fabric and material issues that needs to be considered. The quality and construction of the fabric should be highly considered, as well. High-quality items will be more durable outdoors and survive more washes. To try and identify low-quality materials, check the construction of the garment. If you flip the garment inside out and spot loose threads or uneven, loose, puffy stitching, poor sewing, or shedding, it's a sign that the garment is poorly made.
If a company is creating sustainable, timeless pieces, they should be proud of the product they make and be transparent in their product communication and marketing. If a company has videos showing how their product looks and demonstrating durability, fit, and quality, it's a good sign that they take pride in their work.
What does the garment look like? Does it fit properly? Can it withstand years of wear? Will it go with everything else in your closet? Is it a timeless design that will transcend trends and still look beautiful years from now?While these questions may not be as important as environmental, ethical, and social inquiries, they still answer a very important question that you should ask yourself before every clothing purchase: will you wear it?
Because of the care many sustainable fashion companies put into their clothes, a lot of slow fashion companies cannot compete with the product prices of cheap labor and poor craftsmanship. Durable, well-made, timeless clothing comes at a cost. And why pay a premium for a piece if you won't wear it and it will not become a wardrobe essential? It's important to make sure the aesthetic and designs of the brand match your own personal style.
Nowadays, there are plenty of ethical brands to choose from. There is no need to buy something just because it's ethical or sustainable; simply do some research on all the small, sustainable brands out there and find the pieces that match with the rest of your wardrobe. Once you find them, become a customer and show your support of the brand.
ENGAGEMENT IN SOCIAL ISSUES
Sustainability encompasses much more than environmental issues. For example, social responsibility means taking care of employees, customers, and communities. It also involves ethical practices such as avoiding animal testing and using conflict-free materials.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental Social Governance (ESG) are two growing movements in the private sector towards sustainable practices. Looking at a company's CSR and ESG initiatives through their website and reporting is one way to learn more about a company's engagement in social issues.
However, you shouldn't have to dig through a report or website to find out about a company's sustainability and engagement. If they make a point to try and make a difference through their influence as a brand and company, their positive impacts should be very clear. Even if they use recycled fabrics, do they employ local and diverse labor at fair wages? Do they give back to their community or to an organization that champions environmental protection?
Companies like Patagonia and Koraru have made great impact and have created a space for mindful consumption by making sustainable practices part of their business model. They've created products that are not only better for the people who wear them, but products that are also better for our planet.
Written by Neesha Basnyat - Sustainability Writer for Koraru
Neesha Basnyat is a an experienced sustainability writer and researcher specialising in biology, sustainability, CSR, and ESG analysis and reporting. With an educational background in Biology and Environmental Science and over 6 years of experience in the sustainability field, Neesha loves everything green, from shovelling compost to calculating emissions or researching the best new standards in the sustainability space.