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I think all of us probably have a nagging awareness that fast fashion prices are often too good to be true. But a conversation about ethical fashion can quickly leave you feeling even more confused than when you started! If you’ve ever found yourself wondering:

  • Ethical, sustainable, organic, recycled… What exactly am I looking for?
  • How do I know if a brand’s claims are true? Could they just be greenwashing?
  • If it was that bad, surely these companies would be shut down?

Then don’t worry, these are completely valid questions that I’ve struggled with, too! But rather than burying our heads in the sand and blindly marching on with another SHEIN haul, I’d like to help demystify the process so that you can feel fully informed and confident when you’re next shopping for clothes.

So how do you know if a fashion brand is ethical? Let’s take a look.

What Is an Ethical Fashion Brand?

First things first – to identify an ethical fashion brand, we first need to define what it means to be one.

Simply put, an ethical fashion brand prioritises social and environmental responsibility throughout its supply chain, production processes and business operations – rather than simply profit.

Whilst it should be a given that brands care about paying fair wages, minimising their environmental impact, and the ethical treatment of animals, sadly this is far from the norm in a consumerist, money-driven culture. When labour is outsourced, brands can wash their hands of responsibility in an industry which has very little regulation. In short, fast fashion is a major problem.

Here’s a brief overview of the 3 main pillars of an ethical fashion brand.

People

Since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 which killed thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh, the question of transparency and ethical labour has been a huge issue for the fashion industry to address.

When the manufacture of clothing is typically outsourced to some of the poorest countries, standards, audits and checks must be in place to ensure that:

  • Workers are paid a living wage
  • Working conditions are safe
  • Basic workplace rights are adhered to (holiday pay, sick leave, reasonable working hours, etc)
  • Workers have the right to join a union
  • There is no child or forced labour

Planet

Next up is the ‘sustainable’ pillar of ethical fashion. As well as protecting people and animals, an ethical fashion brand will be conscious of its environmental impact at every step of the way – from the initial design process to a garment’s end of life. This includes considerations such as:

  • How the raw materials for fabrics are sourced, e.g. virgin or recycled, chemically treated or organic, fossil fuel-derived or natural, etc
  • Reducing water pollution from toxic dyes and heavy chemical processes
  • Minimising energy usage and carbon emissions
  • Promoting circular fashion through longevity and recycling initiatives
  • Using minimal and eco-friendly packaging

Animals

Animals aren’t given much air time when it comes to the world of fashion. In fact, the disappearance of animals into items of clothing has become completely normalised and even celebrated (think of the positive narratives surrounding ‘real leather’, ‘natural wool’, etc).

However, when animals are treated like things – a means to an end to satisfy our lust for clothes – there is a huge amount of hidden suffering and slaughter. Check out the documentary film SLAY for a sobering education on the subject.

On the flip side, an ethical fashion brand will ideally be fully vegan, but at the very least:

  • Never use the fur or skin of endangered wild animals, including fur and angora
  • Be actively working to eliminate animal products in its supply chain
  • Whilst this happens, have clear animal welfare policies and implementation strategies in place

The Issue of Greenwashing

Greenwashing in the fashion industry

These three pillars are great in theory, but it’s easy to run into all sorts of problems when trying to establish whether a brand is walking the walk (not just talking the talk!). This is because greenwashing is rife in the fashion industry.

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing strategy in which brands exaggerate their commitment to social and environmental responsibility. This puts peoples’ minds at ease and appeals to conscious consumers. In doing so, brands create a compelling illusion of genuine effort but fail to back these claims up with meaningful action.

With consumers rightly starting to demand more from the fashion industry, ethics and sustainability are quickly becoming the new buzzwords for big brands. They understand that if they tap into this growing awareness, it creates a whole new marketing opportunity for them – and they’ll bend the truth in any way they can to make a sale.

Greenwashing can take the form of vague statements like ‘eco’ or ‘green’, but it can also be trickier to spot. For example, H&M have a whole section on Sustainability on their website. It looks pretty admirable on the surface, but they have been taken to court multiple times for greenwashing. In truth, much of its supply chain isn’t certified by labour standards, and it continues to pump out short-lived, fast fashion products.

Taking steps in the right direction is arguably better than ultra-fast fashion brands that don’t make any effort at all, but at least the latter aren’t pretending to be anything they’re not.

10 Ways to Research if a Clothing Company Is Ethical

To align your purchasing decisions with your values, it’s important to understand whether a clothing brand is ethical. But I get it – you don’t want to spend hours researching! I’ve created this quick checklist to help you make more informed and responsible wardrobe choices moving forward.

1. Supply chain transparency

When first assessing how ethical a brand is, a big indicator is to simply take a look at their website and social media channels. If a brand doesn’t mention anything about ethics or sustainability (you’d be surprised how many brands this applies to), then consider this to be a big red flag.

Ask yourself:

  • Is there any information or imagery showing where their garments are made?
  • Are locations or factory names disclosed?
  • How does the brand ensure ethical labour standards are upheld?
  • Is this information easily accessible?

If you’re at all unsure about the information (or lack thereof) provided by the brand, feel free to drop them a message and ask for further clarification.

2. Fair pricing

Woman sewing

I’ve written more on the subject of why ethical fashion necessarily costs more than its fast fashion counterpart, but suffice it to say that if the prices seem too cheap… they probably are!

Whilst it’s true that there can be a huge mark-up on designer labels, it’s always wise to pay attention to the other end of the spectrum – bargain basement prices. When it comes to the likes of Primark or online ultra-fast fashion brands like Boohoo or Missguided, there’s no way these items could have been made ethically for the price tag.

Low prices may be appealing in the short term, but they typically have an unseen cost when it comes to underpaid garment workers, environmentally destructive processes, and low-quality garments that aren’t made to last.

Fair pricing will take into account the true worth of the garment, accounting for the fair treatment of its supply chain. If possible, it’s always worth checking whether a brand pays a living wage (a fundamental human right), which covers basic human needs like food, water, housing, health care, etc.

3. Sustainable materials

Incredibly, about 60% of material made into clothing is plastic-based, including polyester, acrylic and nylon. These fabrics are generally cheap to produce but harm the environment.

Instead, you can make a big difference simply by looking for brands that prioritise conscious fabrics like linen, hemp, jute and cork. There are also innovative fruit leathers now becoming widely available, such as Piñatex or AppleSkin.

Another question to ask is whether a brand uses organic materials. For instance, conventional cotton is one of the world’s dirtiest crops. But when you invest in organic cotton, you can rest assured that no toxic or carcinogenic pesticides have been used.

To avoid the cruelty and suffering inherent in animal products (including leather, wool, down and silk), look for brands that prioritise plant-based materials.

Oh, and polyester and nylon don’t always need to be 100% avoided. Recycled and deadstock fabrics are a great way for brands to repurpose materials already in existence rather than creating resource-intensive virgin fabrics.

4. Volume & turnover of new styles

Fast fashion discounts and sales

Another telltale brand sign is to look at how often new products land. Is it every day, week, month or season?

An ethical fashion brand will produce fewer products that have been thoughtfully designed and manufactured with longevity in mind. So if you find yourself scrolling through pages and pages of products (and that’s just one category), then this should be a warning signal.

As a general rule of thumb, the larger the brand, the less ethical they probably are. As Good On You point out, 85% of larger brands they assessed scored 1/5 (Avoid) or 2/5 (Not Good Enough). In fact, less than 1% were given an ethical rating of 4/5 (Good) or 5/5 (Great).

You can also spot a high turnover of styles by keeping an eye on how often a brand discounts or goes into sale. Is it every week, or once a season?

Take a brand like Will’s Vegan Store – they don’t discount or have sales because they focus on creating high-quality products that encourage a slow fashion mentality.

5. Conscious packaging

The packaging your order arrives in may seem like a fairly insignificant consideration compared to other points on this list, but a brand’s attention to detail in this area is very telling.

If orders are packaged in mountains of single-use plastic which is simply destined for landfill, it’s likely this isn’t a brand with sustainability at the forefront of its agenda.

Look for biodegradable and recyclable materials. And, if all the little details have been thought about, all the better:

  • Is the tape biodegradable?
  • Have non-toxic inks been used?
  • Are any glues animal-friendly?

An ethical brand will be working to actively minimise its impact and should be able to confidently answer these questions.

6. Third party certification

Rather than relying solely on a brand’s word, a quick way to establish their ethical and sustainable credentials is to look out for trusted third-party certification.

Some excellent trust signals to look out for in the world of ethical fashion include:

  • B Corp: Ensures businesses meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance to balance profit and purpose
  • Fair Trade: Protects the rights of farmers and workers, ensuring fair treatment, price stability, and improved environmental practices in communities around the world
  • WRAP: Accredits factories in the apparel sector, promoting safe, lawful, humane and ethical manufacturing processes
  • GOTS: The Global Organic Textile Standard sets requirements for textiles made from organic fibres
  • BCI: The Better Cotton Initiative (or BCI Cotton) is a non-profit promoting better standards and practices in cotton farming
  • Global Recycle Standard: Ensures that products contain recycled content, e.g. polyester or rPET
  • PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is committed to certifying vegan products

Remember that certifications can be costly for smaller brands to attain, so you don’t always need to boycott brands if they aren’t certified. Judge on a case-by-case basis and reach out to brands if you’re at all unsure.

7. Circularity

Most fashion brands tend to follow a linear model – from manufacture to landfill. An ethical fashion brand, on the other hand, will embrace a circular model that aims to close the loop of production, consumption and disposal.

This means working to extend the life span of a product at every stage of the design and manufacturing process. An ethical brand will have given serious consideration to questions like:

  • Is the garment designed with quality and longevity in mind?
  • Is priority given to renewable and durable materials?
  • Has the garment’s end of life been considered?

This might mean encouraging customers to recycle or upcycle their clothes (e.g. through partnerships like Sojo or Re-Fashion) or implementing take-back programs.

8. Giving back

Giving to those less fortunate

An ethical brand will embrace social responsibility by donating a proportion of their profits to charitable initiatives, whether that’s contributing to social projects or community development. By being transparent about their efforts, a clothing company shows genuine commitment to making a positive impact beyond a purely profit-based model.

For instance, take a look at the wonderful Mayamiko Trust, or consider that vegan clothing brand Ninety Percent takes its name from the fact it distributes an incredible 90% of its profits.

On the environmental side, you’ll often see brands pledging to offset their carbon emissions via tree-planting partnerships with the likes of Ecologi or World Land Trust.

A quick word of caution: whilst social and environmental schemes are an excellent trust signal, make sure that a brand isn’t over-compensating in this area. Giving back to underprivileged communities doesn’t make up for a brand that exploits garment workers in its supply chain. And a brand shouldn’t rely solely on offsetting emissions for its green credentials – it should also be looking into sustainable materials and non-polluting manufacturing processes.

9. Published impact reports

An ethical fashion brand won’t just make empty promises. It will have systems and processes in place to ensure accountability towards its goals. And, most importantly, it will share these findings with its consumers.

An impact report provides a transparent overview of a brand’s social and environmental footprint. For example, details of its carbon emissions, water usage, and social initiatives.

Whilst you don’t need to scrutinise every single word, a clear and accessible impact report shows dedication to accountability and openness, clearly outlining a brand’s areas for progress and improvement.

10. Brand checkers

Magnifying glasses

Finally, if you’re not confident wading through impact reports, a quick and easy way to judge a fashion brand’s credibility is to use the brand checker Good On You. They evaluate up to 1,000 data points across more than 100 key issues and indicators before rating each brand.

What I love is that pretty much every fashion brand you could ever think of has been assessed, and they present the information in an easy-to-understand and accessible way. Each brand is scored out of five on People, Planet and Animals, as well as given an overall rating. This has helped me to discover smaller brands I hadn’t heard of that are paving the way for change.

If you’re interested in ethical, affordable and vegan brands, I’ve also got plenty of suggestions for you to get started with in my dedicated buying guides:

10 steps to research ethical fashion brands - infographic

Take the Time To Purchase Consciously From Ethical Fashion Brands

I hope that this post has given you some practical tips to overcome the complexities and grey areas surrounding the question of ethical fashion. When you have a better understanding of what to look out for, you can fairly quickly ascertain whether a brand shares your own values and if you’d like to support them.

By being more careful about which brands you choose to spend your money with, you vote with your wallet for the kind of world you want to live in and become an active, engaged citizen. The more we take accountability for our actions as individuals, the more pressure there is on the fashion industry to listen and change.

For more info on embracing a conscious, minimalist lifestyle, check out my posts on how to stop buying stuff and the benefits of creating a capsule wardrobe.

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