Perhaps you remember the horror of the 2013 Bangladesh garment factory collapse, or maybe you watched a documentary that confronted you with the global consequences of cheap clothing. Either way, you’ve caught on to the fact that clothes shopping isn’t an amoral activity.
But that still leaves an important question: how do you tell if a brand deserves your business, in the first place? Here are a few steps to help you get started.
Familiarize Yourself with the Issues
In order to make informed decisions about whether or not a particular brand is “ethical,” you need to learn about the potential moral issues involved in making and selling clothing.
A good place to start would be by considering laborer rights, environmental impact, transparency and social impact. A few issues connected to laborer rights include safe factory conditions, fair overtime payment and the right to unionize. Regarding environmental impact, considerations include the sourcing of raw materials, carbon footprint and overall sustainability.
It’s also important to consider a brand’s transparency, as this is what keeps companies accountable by making outside monitoring of their environmental and human rights impact possible. Lastly, look at a brand’s social impact, examining what their advertising communicates or whether they’re known for treating their retail employees in fair, non-discriminatory ways.
This list by no means exhausts the issues involved in making clothing, but starting with these four broader topics—laborer rights, environmental impact, transparency and social impact—is a good first step toward understanding what ethical concerns you’ll want to consider when making a purchase.
Check Independent Brand-Ranking Organizations
Entities like rankabrand.org, free2work.org, GoodGuide and Ethical Consumer are all useful resources that conduct independent research on major brands. Most of them also break down their ranking process, so you can see how a brand scored on different issues.
This is especially helpful as you try to shop in tune with your own conscience—if you’re not committed to veganism but you are committed to workers’ safety, scores on individual facets of a brand’s practices will help you shop according to what’s important to you. Keep in mind that sometimes these organizations will rank the same brand very differently, so it’s wise to cross-reference whenever possible.
Read Company Policy
The material a company publishes about itself should always be read with more than a grain of salt, as plenty of manufacturing ethics violations have come from companies with terrific policies and poor enforcement. However, it can still be worthwhile to read about a company’s CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives in their own words, especially if they’re a younger company that has yet to be ranked by one of the organizations listed above.
One question to ask as you’re reading about a brand is whether or not ethical practices seem to be baked into the brand’s DNA, or whether they’re an afterthought. As consumers become increasingly aware of ethical concerns in the production of clothing, many companies have responded by trying to “greenwash” their business—meaning they invest more in trying to seem environmentally responsible through marketing than they do in actually changing their policies. Retailers that brag about one green line but are based on an unsustainable model—for example, making cheap clothing that falls apart and subsequently ends up in a landfill a few months after purchase—are an example of this.
If they don’t talk about their brand ethics at all, be wary. Most companies who are going out of their way to do things ethically are proud of it, so proceed with caution if that information isn’t available.
Dig Around to Learn About Company History
Do some searches to learn about the brand’s track record. Even if the blogs and news articles that mention a company’s wrongdoings are outdated, they should still give you pause. While some brands who messed up before genuinely clean up their act in the long run, poor enforcement of policy in the past is often a sign that ethical concerns aren’t paramount for the company—and may forecast similar infringements in the future.
In contrast, companies who have been doing things ethically for years are less likely to start cutting corners now, especially as conscientious consumers continue to grow in number and make up a larger percentage of potential customers.
Now that you know what you do about the brand in question, prepare to adjust your habits in response. This may mean expressing your concerns to the brand directly via their social media channels, telling others about what you’ve found out, redirecting your shopping dollars toward a more sustainable brand, making second-hand purchases a regular part of your life, shopping less frequently in general, or all of the above.
Whatever you do, remember that your purchases have power—and it’s up to you to use that power for good.
Whitney Bauck is a New York-based artist and writer trying to engage fashion in a way that doesn't embarrass God or thinking people. She writes about the intersection of fashion and faith for publications like the Washington Post and Christianity Today in addition to blogging at Unwrinkling.com. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat as @unwrinkling.