Sustainability is a marketing tool now, and unfortunately not every company lives up to the claims it makes. Since we’re bombarded with so much advertising, it can be hard to tell whether a company is being genuine, or stretching the truth. I wanted to put this guide together to outline the 7 steps you can take to evaluate fashion brands, and whether they’re sustainable or greenwashing.
If you’re a more visual or auditory learner, here’s a YouTube video version of this post!
What is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion?
Before we jump in, let me first define what it means for a company to be ethical and sustainable, or to greenwash.
Ethical: This means paying your workers fairly and treating them well throughout the supply chain. Companies should also avoid mistreatment of animals (and generally avoid animal products) in their production process.
Sustainable: This means minimizing environmental impact, through production and sourcing of materials. Sustainable fashion companies should:
- Use resources efficiently (like water and textiles) and avoid hazardous chemicals
- Source high-quality and environmentally-friendly materials that can break down naturally (or are recyled)
- Encourage consumers to only buy what they need
The last point is severely underrated in my opinion, as a company’s marketing and our consumption habits are an important part of sustainability. It’s not sustainable to promote or buy tons of clothes that you don’t really need, even if they were made ethically and sustainably. This is a common misconception about sustainable fashion.
When it comes to fashion, “ethical” and “sustainable” are generally umbrella terms to mean that the company treats their workers well and minimizes environmental impact throughout the production process. These two terms are used pretty interchangeably, though they technically mean different things. I think it’s actually good that they’re interchangeable terms, as I don’t think a company can truly be ethical without considering the environmental impact, and likewise, a company can’t be sustainable without considering the human impact.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when companies market themselves as eco-friendly, but don’t live up to those claims.
Some greenwashing red flags are:
- They say nothing about sustainability: that means that there probably isn’t anything good to report, so the company is to be avoided. If they did have any meaningful measures, they would likely use it in their marketing. (Technically, a company has to claim to be sustainable to greenwash, but I wanted to identify this red flag of unsustainable companies).
- They talk about sustainability, but in very vague terms: it’s not uncommon to see claims like “we’re eco-friendly,” but no specific measures to back that up.
- They only have a couple items or a specific line that is made sustainably: many companies will try to get a “green halo” effect by promoting select items that are made from sustainable materials. An example of this is H&M’s Conscious collection, which might be a nice initiative, but that doesn’t change their overarching detrimental business model.
It can sometimes be hard to tell when a company is greenwashing, especially if their marketing is really savvy. So, here’s how you can research companies and figure out whether they’re really sustainable, or if they’re not.
How to Research a Company’s Sustainability & Ethics, and Spot Greenwashing
This post contains a couple affiliate links to sustainable brands. If you make a purchase through those links, I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you. This is a great way to support my blog if you’re planning to shop anyways, but please only buy if you actually need something! Also consider shopping local and secondhand 🙂
1. Look them up on Good On You.
One of the first things I like to do is to see if the company has been evaluated by the site goodonyou.eco. They’re a directory of popular clothing brands, and they rate each brand based on 3 categories: People, Planet, and Animals. They’ve basically done research for you, and they summarize their findings in very digestible articles and pages. They also have an app, which makes it more convenient to look brands up.
Some brands aren’t on the site though, and their ratings don’t always make the most sense when you compare brands. For instance, both Zara and H&M are rated better than Everlane. I’m actually not a fan of Everlane, and based on my research, I would say Everlane is greenwashing. But that being said, it doesn’t make sense for major fast fashion retailers to have better ratings than a brand that has some interesting sustainability measures, and produces timeless pieces. The entire business model of fast fashion brands is based on the latest trends and encouraging consumption, which is inherently unsustainable.
So, while I appreciate Good On You and find it to be a great resource, I’d still encourage you to do more digging beyond it.
2. Check the company’s website.
What would you find on the website of a company that’s actually sustainable?
Eco-friendly materials: The product descriptions should list materials that are natural, organic, or recycled. Some popular sustainable fabrics are recycled/organic cotton, hemp, linen, tencel, lyocell, and econyl. When in doubt, Google it. If materials are made from recycled plastic water bottles, it’s helpful if the company attests that the bottles were used. Unfortunately, some recycling companies try to con the system by recycling unused plastic bottles (it’s easier than collecting & sorting used bottles), then selling the material to companies at a higher price. That’s totally not the point!
Specific measures for sustainability and labor ethics: It’s not enough to claim to be sustainable – you need to have actual programs that back up those claims. Some examples of specific measures are:
- Ensuring that workers are paid a living wage throughout the supply chain.
- Prohibiting child or forced labor, and keeping factories safe according to local guidelines.
- Reinvesting in the farming communities, such as funding local schools.
- Recycling water in the production process.
- Using 100% recycled or compostable packaging.
- Turning toxic byproducts into bricks for affordable homes, where the chemicals can no longer leech out.
- Using sustainable fabrics (as we discussed) and non-toxic dyes.
Factory transparency: Listing names and locations of factories, plus sharing photos of the factories, can be another assurance that the company is truly transparent and has safe working conditions. If the company is more established, they should give the actual name of the factory. Some smaller companies are unable to do this for competition reasons, so keep that in mind.
Diversity and inclusion: A company that really cares about ethics will also ensure diversity and inclusion. This means hiring executives and management who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. It also means including these people in their marketing materials, like website photos and instagram posts. Sustainability is intersectional, as minority groups are most impacted by pollution and hazardous labor conditions. If you know of any good articles or documentaries on race and sustainability, please send them my way, as I want to learn more and potentially address this topic in future content.
Beyond racial diversity though, sustainable companies should also be inclusive of all body types. Unfortunately, this is glossed over quite a bit, and many companies only offer sizes up to XL. It’s important to talk about this issue more and demand better.
One awesome brand that’s size-inclusive is Girlfriend Collective, which makes workout clothes from recycled water bottles. Their models are also diverse, in terms of race and size. Recently, Girlfriend also released their diversity stats in the #pullupforchange movement and have made a commitment to hire more Black employees.
3. Look for 3rd-party certifications.
At this point, you might be wondering how you can be sure that a company is actually doing what it claims. This is where 3rd-party certifications come in. These certifications require companies to uphold certain standards to display their label. You also usually have to pay a membership fee, and consent to random audits.
Some popular certifications include:
B Corp—This certification is company-wide, rather than product- or textile-specific. To qualify, companies must have their entire social and environmental performance evaluated; this includes their supply chain, materials, employee benefits, and impact on local communities. Companies must also meet requirements for transparency.
Fairtrade—The premise of Fairtrade is setting a Fairtrade Minimum Price for materials that were produced sustainably. This minimum price is above market levels, as sustainable production is more costly. If a buyer pays a Fairtrade Premium, which covers more than production costs, that money must be reinvested in the local community (such as building schools, expanding hospitals, etc). Producers must also follow eco-friendly agricultural practices, such as safe waste management, limited use of chemicals, and no GMOs.
1% for the Planet—Companies commit to giving 1% of gross sales back to approved environmental partners. That 1% can be broken down into: 25% employee volunteer time or product/service donations, 25% approved promotional support, and 50% monetary donations. Critics say that this model is like an environmental tax, and doesn’t do anything to address the environmental impact of member companies. Others argue that becoming a member encourages companies to behave consistently, and that exposure to these environmental initiatives also motivates action.
World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO)—The WTFO Guaranteed Fair Trade label is different from traditional Fair Trade in that it doesn’t assess products, but instead companies. WTFO members must uphold 10 main principles, including: creating opportunities for economically marginalized producers, fair payment, ensuring good working conditions, Fair Trading practices, no child or forced labor, and transparency.
SA8000—When it comes to fashion brands, you’ll see this certification most often for factories. The SA8000 Standard outlines fair and safe working conditions. There can be no child labor, forced labor, harsh disciplinary actions, or discrimination. Workers have the freedom of association and right to collective bargaining. Regular work hours and overtime are capped at 60 hours total to avoid excessive hours, and employees must get 1 day off for every 6 consecutive days worked. Employees must also be paid a living wage. You can read the full requirements on the Girlfriend Collective About page (just scroll down).
Some textile- and dye-specific certifications are:
Bluesign—The certifier works with companies throughout their supply chain to reduce their use of water, chemicals, and energy. Bluesign-certified companies must eliminate toxic chemicals and also implement safety measures to reduce workers’ exposure to chemicals in general. Note: I didn’t find the Bluesign website that helpful, so I got this info from an REI article.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)—Products with the GOTS organic label must contain at least 95% certified organic fibers, while “made with organic” products must contain 70%. There are also regulations to avoid toxic inputs and byproducts in the production process. Manufacturers must also meet guidelines for safe working conditions, including: no forced or child labor, a fair number of working hours, proper factory hygiene and infrastructure, and the payment of a living wage.
Oeko-Tex (Standard 100)—Textile products with this certification have had every element, from thread to zipper, tested for harmful substances. They test not only regulated, but also unregulated substances, and their standards often go beyond legal requirements.
A company doesn’t need certifications to be sustainable, but it can be an extra reassurance, since otherwise they can claim whatever they want, and we won’t know any better. That being said, we should be understanding of smaller, local businesses, as don’t always have the money to get certified. If it’s a pretty established brand and they don’t have any company-wide certifications, I do get skeptical though.
Also keep in mind that not all certifications are created equal. Unfortunately, some certifiers can be greenwashers themselves. Take the Sustainable Apparel Coalition for instance, which sounds very nice, but if unsustainable companies like Lululemon and Nike can be part of it, it’s definitely not as good as it sounds.
4. Evaluate their social media & marketing campaigns.
From there, it can be helpful to check the company’s marketing materials, especially if they don’t have 3rd-party certifications. Go on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and maybe even sign up for their mailing list.
Some things to look for are:
- Do they promote new products or sales all the time? Basically, are they encouraging consumption?
- Are they talking about more than clothes? Do they address important issues in fashion, like environmental initiatives, diversity, and impact on the local community?
Patagonia is a good example of a sustainable marketing message, as they actually encourage people to only buy what they need, to buy local, and to repair what they already have. A coworker shared this email with me recently where they do just that.
Text: We’re excited to get back to work, but our values haven’t changed. As always, we encourage you to buy only what you need, buy local when possible and repair what you already own.
5. Check recent news related to the company.
I also like to check out news articles about the company since that can let me know about the work they’re doing in communities, or any controversies. For instance, one of the reasons I don’t love Everlane is because of its recent union busting controversy. Basically, they laid off a group of customer experience employees that was planning to unionize. Even worse, they were laid off during the pandemic when the company had reassured everyone there wouldn’t be layoffs, and they also weren’t told in advance—they just found when they weren’t able to log into their accounts one day. If there are domestic labor issues, that definitely doesn’t bode well for their overseas labor ethics.
6. Read reviews of the products.
One thing that’s important is whether or not the clothes are made to last—that’s a pretty telltale sign of whether a company really cares about sustainability. Just Google reviews of the company or specific products you’re interested in, and pay particular attention to longevity. I might try to avoid sponsored content, as people are getting paid to talk about the company, so it’ll likely be more positive. You can find more organic discussions on Reddit or in Facebook groups.
7. Contact them directly.
If you’ve followed all these steps and are still unsure, you can always go directly to the source. Contact the company via email or DM, and ask them some questions.
Here’s a sample email template:
Hi [COMPANY] Team,
I’m interested in purchasing [PRODUCT NAME] from your company, but I want to make sure I’m supporting a brand that aligns with my values. Basically, I want to give my business to an ethical and sustainable brand that values diversity. I did some research, but couldn’t find answers to the following questions. Would you mind answering them for me?
Here’s what I want to know:
- Where are your clothes made? Are factories safe and regulated?
- How do you ensure your workers paid a living wage in every step of the supply chain?
- What measures do you have in place to reduce your environmental impact? Do you have any certifications for your products, fabrics, or dyes?
- What are your diversity statistics for executives, management, and your corporate offices?
Thanks in advance, and I look forward to your reply!
Based on the response you receive, or lack thereof, you should probably have a better idea of whether the company is ethical or not. If they take the time to explain specific measures, that’s obviously a good sign, but if they send vague messaging, it’s probably to be avoided.
I want to emphasize that no company is perfect, but we should try to support those who are making a real and genuine effort, are transparent about their shortcomings, and have a plan to improve. Also remember that buying secondhand is always better than buying new, as you’re making use of clothes already in the system.
If you can’t afford sustainable clothing, don’t feel bad either! One underrated aspect of sustainable fashion is making your clothes last and only buying what you need. If you have to buy clothes from fast fashion companies, you can still participate in the sustainability movement by being mindful of your consumption, and treating your clothes well and repairing them when they break.
I realize that this can be pretty overwhelming, but I hope I broke it down in a more digestible way. Let me know if you have any questions, suggestions, or concerns about this topic. Please also share any tips of your own!