Conscious consumption is having its moment. Our purchases have always translated into statements about who we are, but they’re increasingly also indicating how much we care about the world as it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that pollution and poor working conditions are a feature of most supply chains. In response to this pulling back-the-curtain on the harmful social and environmental effects of mass-production, brands have started to compete on purpose as well as product. Press releases for new product lines now highlight causes supported by sales of the styles launched; full-page ads in The New York Times are used to promote progressive brand values; and instagram influencers call-out eco-friendly product features in their #sponsored posts.
While it’s no doubt a positive thing to see more sustainability and social impact messaging in the wild, it can be difficult to cut through the noise and separate the good business from the good marketing.
This is intended to be a overview of the many factors to consider when purchase with impact in mind. (It should go without saying that no purchase is probably the best purchase when it comes to sustainability — this guide is for when you’ve exhausted repair and reuse options and need to buy something new). It’s a little lengthy, but that’s the point. My goal is provide in one place all the information you need to make purchases that not only work for you, but work for the world too.
NOT A CASE OF GOOD OR NOT
The first, and most important, thing to wrap your head around is that there are very few, if any, truly sustainable or ethical brands. The journey from raw materials to product-ready-for-consumption is often too complex for a brand to account for all steps in the process, let alone ensure minimal impact on people and the planet at every stage. What we’re looking for are brands that (1) understand the various impacts of their business, (2) take thoughtful steps to address those impacts, and (3) are transparent about their shortcomings, even as they work towards progress. Patagonia is a good example of a brand taking this approach. Though regularly held up as the gold-standard when it comes to responsible business, their website states:
“We can’t pose Patagonia as the model of a responsible company. We don’t do everything a responsible company can do, nor does anyone else we know. But we can tell you how we came to realize our environmental and social responsibilities, and then began to act on them.”
The second thing to keep in mind is that there is very rarely a choice that will benefit the producer, consumer, and environment equally. Instead, there are often trade-offs between different kinds of positive impact. For example, vegan products ensure animal welfare but the synthetic materials used to make them can be worse for the environment, and purchasing locally-sourced products can mean fewer carbon emissions but also a missed opportunity to support producers in the Global South. The key here is to understand various competing priorities, decide which kinds of impact are most important to you, and apply that lens to your consumption accordingly.
Once you’ve accepted that being a conscious consumer isn’t as simple as identifying a few brands doing everything right and slapping down your dough to support them, the next step is understanding how to evaluate the progress that brands are making against the values you’ve determined most important for yourself. Here I’ve provided a brief summary of key considerations when it comes to fashion, but similar principles can be applied to thinking about the potential impacts of the food you buy or what businesses you choose to support when you’re traveling.
Most of the environmental impact of fashion happens at the raw materials stage, as the production of various fibers can involve significant resources (water, land, or energy), or toxic chemical processing, if not both. Fiber selection can also affect how long the garment you choose lasts and whether or not it can be recycled (100% of the same material is generally easier to recycle as recycling technology is not yet advanced enough to separate fibers).
There are three main types of fiber. Each one affects the environment slightly differently, and there are varying levels of environmental impact within each category:
(1) Natural fibers (e.g. cotton, linen, wool, alpaca, hemp, silk, leather, cashmere) come from plants or animals and so are renewable. Cotton is the second-most common material used in our clothes but (unless it is certified-organic) is incredibly environmentally-intensive as it requires a lot of water and pesticides to grow. Silk, linen, and hemp are all much less resource-intensive. When it comes to natural materials sourced from animals (such as cashmere or wool), animal-welfare may be an additional consideration.
(2) Synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, acrylic) are made by transforming petroleum through an industrial manufacturing process. These fibers are essentially plastic in a different form and will never biodegrade. In addition, all synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester release microfibers (teeny, tiny, pieces of plastic that end up in the ocean!) when you wash them. Most high-performance fabrics (used in things like activewear and swimsuits) need to be made of synthetic materials so they are hard to avoid. The good news is that synthetic fibers made from recovered plastics are becoming more readily available, so you can opt for recycled polyester or nylon instead of virgin.
(3) Semi-synthetic fibers (rayon/viscose, Tencel/lyocell, acetate) are made by putting wood through chemical processing to end up with soft fibers. The amount of wood needed can contribute to deforestation, and the processing can be incredibly toxic — with chemical exposure and effluents affecting both workers and local environments. When it comes to semi-synthetics, the most environmentally-friendly choice are fabrics manufactured by Austrian company Lenzing and branded as TENCEL™. TENCEL™ fabrics are made from fast-growing wood (like eucalyptus or beechwood) sourced from sustainably-managed forests and have a closed loop production process, meaning over 99% of the non-toxic solvent is recycled and pushed back into the system instead of being flushed out as wastewater.
Third-party certifications to look for:
- GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) — GOTS-certified textile products contain a minimum of 70% organic fibers with all chemical inputs used meeting certain environmental and toxicological criteria.
- OEKO-TEX® — an independent product label for all types of textiles tested for harmful substances. It checks for carcinogens, azo dyes and other chemical limits in accordance to the European REACH standards.
- bluesign® — Bluesign certified facilities only use safe input chemicals, monitor their air and water emissions and ensure worker safety so that fabrics is safe for the end user, workers and the environment.
After considering what your clothes are made of, the next question is to consider who made them and how much they were paid to do so. This is much easier said than done. Unlike fiber content and care instructions which brands are legally required to include on a clothing label, information about manufacturers and working conditions is more limited. Many brands, however, are working towards increased supply chain transparency.
Most important here is to make sure that you’re assessing a brand on what they’ve actually committed to and are actively communicating, and not on assumptions you’ve extrapolated from nuggets of information provided. For example, it’s a common assumption that items made locally (Made in the USA) mean workers are treated well. But sweatshops exist here too, so it’s important to look for details about wages and standards consistently, not just when clothes are manufactured abroad. On the other hand, just because a brand markets its products as artisan-made or handmade does not automatically mean that workers are paid consummate with their craft’s value in the West. Unless the brand clearly explains how they source, work with, and compensate artisans it’s equally likely that the value of the markup stays in the States. Similarly, while it’s highly unlikely that producers of cheap clothing were well-paid, the inverse doesn’t hold true as more expensive designer clothing can often be manufactured in the same factories used by so-called “fast-fashion” brands. If there is a markup, make sure you know if it’s there to support producers before conflating price with consciousness.
Dig around to see if a brand publishes a list of its actual suppliers or the standards it holds its suppliers to on its website — the more specific information is about wages or factory conditions, the better. Look for indications that claims are verified or evidenced by a third-party too. External-audits are a good starting point, but brands truly interested in moving the needle will likely go beyond minimum standards to enabling workers’ rights to collective bargaining and actively supporting trade unions.
Third-party certifications to look for:
- ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) — An initiative that unites brands and trade unions to achieve living wages for workers in the garment, textile and footwear industry through collective bargaining at industry level
- SA8000 — A social accountability standard and certificate developed by Social Accountability International (SAI) provides a set of standards for factories that protect the integrity of workers’ conditions and wages.
- Fair Trade — Certified products mean the business selling it pays a premium that goes directly back to community of origin where the community decides together how to spend the funds to improve their lives and meet their unique social, economic, and environmental needs.
The processes involved in turning materials into clothes (or other products) and then transporting them to warehouses (potentially on the other side of the world) where they are stored until ready to be sent to retail stores or direct to consumers who have bought online can be wildly complicated, and so offer plenty of opportunities to do things in a way that is slightly more environmentally or socially conscious.
Brands that think holistically about their impact will be working to identify potential efficiencies in the way that they do business — many of which might have longer-term cost savings as well. Look for details about how production processes have been reconsidered to reduce or reuse waste, how shipping has been optimised to reduce carbon emissions, or how packaging has been designed to be recycled and/or recyclable.
One common starting point for brands looking for opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of their production and operations is to offset their carbon footprint. This involves calculating the GHG emissions that occur as a result of their business activities and then investing in carbon-reducing projects that would remove roughly the equivalent amount of emissions created. Brands may offset all or part of its carbon footprint and will usually use the calculation to identify areas where it might be able to reduce its footprint.
Circular economy initiatives (that aim to keep materials and products in use) are also becoming a common focus for brands that are beginning to be held responsible for the consequences of their product’s end-of-life processes as well. Check to see if there repair programs available for the product you purchase or guidelines for how it can be disposed of in the most environmentally-friendly way possible.
Third-party certifications to look for:
- Cradle to Cradle — Certified products were designed with continual improvement for five quality categories (material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness) in mind
- CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) — Member companies have disclosed data on their environmental performance
- UN Global Compact — Signatories have committed to incorporating ten principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption into their strategies, policies, and procedures.
Finally, consider who you are buying from and whether their claimed values align with your own. Brands are starting to realise that they are not just accountable for what they make, but also how they promote and sell what they make. You might reward them for raising awareness or donating to causes that matter to you, for developing products and marketing campaigns that are inclusive and representative, or for addressing issues related to hiring, promotion, and compensation that result in more equal and fair workplaces and societies.
Business ownership is increasingly being used as a lens for conscious consumption as well. Perhaps you want to support businesses started by those from underrepresented groups (women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community), or look beyond the founders of a brand to its investors’ values too. Purchasing from a family-owned small business where profits might be put back into the local economy has different effects than purchasing from a multinational that supports thousands of jobs would; it’s down to you to determine which type of impact you will prioritise.
Third-party certifications to look for:
- B Corporation — Certified B Corps are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
SLOW AND STEADY TO SAVE THE WORLD
If you’ve made it this far, you’ll have some sense about the wide range of factors to consider when evaluating the potential impact of a product. My hope is that you find this more inspiring than overwhelming, as it’s indicative of the breadth of approaches brands take when working towards reducing the “bad” and increasing the “good” in the ways that they do business. While it would certainly be easier if you could create a list to check off before making a purchase that would result in you feeling confident you’ve made an ethical or sustainable choice, the messier reality highlights the true responsibility we have as consumers.
By taking the time to inform ourselves and weigh up the various impacts of any product or purchase, we’re putting ourselves in a position to push brands towards even more conscious practices. It’s time we start asking questions and demanding transparency in specific areas that will lead them to pay more attention to their practices.
At the same time, now that we understand that the goal isn’t necessarily perfection, I hope we can focus on rewarding those brands that show that they are committed to doing better by working towards consistent progress. While pressing and calling out shortcomings can drive change, this can also make companies feel like if they aren’t able to get everything right, it’s not worth trying to do any good at all. That is something that we need to avoid. As a self-proclaimed pragmatic idealist, I’m a firm believer that by advocating for immediate actionable change and supporting steps in the right direction, we can shift industries towards better business. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen over time, and being an educated, conscious consumer and encouraging others to be more conscious in their purchasing habits too is a great place to start.
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
My personal practice of conscious consumerism prioritises high-quality products made with 100% natural materials by brands that take extra measures to empower and support their producers. If I have to make a purchase that requires a synthetic materials for some stretch or other performance-qualities, I’ll buy from a brand that uses recycled materials consistently, vs for a one-off line in limited quantities. Here are a few examples of brands I find to be thoughtful in their approach to impact that I have been glad to support in the last year.
- 7115 by Szeki — Design studio in NYC creating high-quality garments designed to last. While they make no specific claims to ethics or sustainability in their marketing, clothes are made of natural materials like linen, ramie, and (often organic) cotton in small batches at an in-house production studio. The first time I popped by in person, Szeki herself was staffing the store — I enjoy supporting a brand where the owner/founder is personally invested and involved with every detail from designing pieces to sourcing materials to selling them on the sales floor.
- LXMI — Skincare brand that uses organic ingredients sourced via non-profit collectives in East Africa. They guarantee that producers earn at least 3x the local average wage, and are preserving biodiversity in the region by creating a market for premium Nilotica and showing local women that they can earn more by sustainably harvesting ingredients than by clearing land for cash crops.
- KOTN — Certified B-Corp making clothing from Egyptian cotton. They source directly from family-owned farms that they are working with to set up the systems required for certified-organic cotton. Finally, they support education initiatives in the communities they source from.
- Indego Africa — Brand that produces beautiful home goods in partnership with groups of artisan women in Rwanda & Ghana. Products are made using natural fibers indigenous to the countries where they work (e.g. sweetgrass, palm leaf, and handspun organic yarn) and producers earn 40% of the wholesale price of our items, vs. 5–10% in traditional retail. Finally, since Indego Africa is a registered nonprofit, 100% of profits are reinvested into education programs for the artisan communities with which they work.
- Lonely Lingerie — New Zealand-based design house for women “who wear lingerie as a love letter to themselves”. With a focus on body positivity, Lonely eschews conventional marketing, and instead brings its collections to life by showing them on women around the world and from all walks of life. They also say they have a close relationship with their suppliers and are accredited by Child Labour Free, an organisation that works to detect risks of child labour and other labour infringements in various layers of the supply chain.
- Rothy’s — Flats made of 100% post-consumer water bottles and recycled foam in a factory owned and operated by the brand. The shoes are knit instead of cut-and-sewn which reduces waste, all their packaging is recycled and and they offset their shipping footprint.
- Girlfriend Collective — Athleisure brand making leggings and sports bras out of recycled polyester (recycled PET water bottles) and recycled nylon (recycled fishing nets) that are dyed in an eco-friendly process. They also have a close working relationship with their SA8000-certified suppliers and pay all their producers 125% of the local minimum wage as well as covering health insurance and providing regular health checkups. Finally, their product offering is inclusive and their marketing is representative of the many colours, shapes, and sizes we women come in.
MORE GOOD GUIDANCE
- The True Cost — Documentary providing an overview of the major social and environmental consequences of low-cost fashion manufacturing.
- LOVED CLOTHES LAST — Fanzine exploring issue of waste and circularity in the fashion industry put together by Fashion Revolution.
- The Fashion Transparency Index 2018 — Ranks on 150 global fashion and apparel brands and retailers according to how much information they disclose about their suppliers, supply chain policies and practices, and social and environmental impact.
- Good On You — App that provides “ethical ratings” for over 2000 brands based on how they treat people, the planet, and animals according to an aggregation of public information available from certification schemes, NGO investigations and brands’ own statements.