How To Vet A Fashion Brand’s Ethics & Sustainability Practices

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe.
The sustainability space can be a downright confusing place to be — buzzwords are thrown around, brands are cancelled, and things we thought were environmentally friendly aren’t as saintly as they were made out to be (RIP tote bags). 
But wanting to align your values to your shopping habits isn’t as straightforward as you’d hope it’d be. Deceitful (and very clever) marketing can cause head scratches, turning the process into a minefield of uncertainty. 
Fear not — we’ve got a rundown of seven sources that can help you suss out a brand’s values, beyond their virtue signalling.
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What is greenwashing?

First, let’s break down what greenwashing is. It’s essentially when a brand’s marketing makes them seem more environmentally friendly than they actually are. When a brand is participating in greenwashing, there’s a lack of real change that actually impacts the overall environmental output of its business practices. Say, a small collection of 20 recycled polyester garments pales in comparison to a brand’s entire collection of thousands of styles. 

What information has the brand provided?

Your first port of call should be the brand you are questioning. Through its website’s ‘about’ or ‘sustainability’ pages, you can typically deduce where its products are made, and any tactics that it’s employed to curb its environmental impact. While brands may try to boast about compostable packaging or charities it's donated to — all good things, of course — it’s worth trying to dig into the crux of its practices, such as whether workers are paid a fair or living wage, and what conditions they operate in. 
A good rule of thumb is that if a brand isn’t providing much information at all, it’s usually a sign that sustainability and transparency aren’t high on its agenda.
If materials aren’t discussed on these pages, it’s worth trawling through product pages to gain a general idea of what type of fabrics are generally used. Depending on your preference, you might want to prioritise natural fibres that decompose, like hemp and bamboo, or you may want to stick with vegan, animal-free materials. 

Seek help from third-party organisations

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Australian start-up Good On You has its finger on the pulse of fashion sustainability. This website and app is a trusted source for brand ratings, labelling established and emerging with an easy-to-understand scoring system. 
Its brand directory is home to thousands of brands, rated on the social and environmental issues of people, planet, animals, and information sources (such as certifications). Brands are then categorised in one of five tiers: great, good, it’s a start, not good enough, and we avoid.

Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide

Each year, Baptist World Aid rallies together hundreds of brands to rate how they stand, ethically and sustainably. The Australian not-for-profit Christian organisation uses an A+ to F grading system, and audits brands globally, but only companies that are estimated to have annual revenue of more than $50 million (or $30 million NZD for New Zealand companies). Smaller companies can participate if they chose to, but aren't included if they chose not to engage.
The rating scheme is based on five pillars with various weights allocated to each. Supplier relationships and human rights monitoring is worth 34%, worker empowerment is 25%, environmental sustainability is 20%, tracing and risk is 15%, and policies and governance is 6%.

Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index

Global not-for-profit fashion activism movement Fashion Revolution is a collective powerhouse that fights for an ethical, sustainable, and transparent fashion industry. Annually, it ranks the world’s fashion brands and how they stack up in terms of transparency across their social and environmental policies, and practices and impacts. Fashion Revolution knows that transparency isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it is a crucial step for a safer fashion industry.
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As the name suggests, Ethical Made Easy hopes to simplify the shopping process for consumers. This Australia-based digital hub is both an online store and a directory of brands doing good. In the latter you’ll find a rating system that provides in-depth rundowns of each brand, prioritising factors like minimal waste, gender equality, vegan materials, and local production.
Progressive Shopper is a browser extension that puts politics at the forefront of purchasing decisions by making a company’s political contributions readily accessible. The US-based site collates its data from The Federal Election Commission which then shares whether a brand mostly support Democrats, Republicans, or whether they remain bipartisan in their financial contributions.
The goal of Fashion Checker is to ensure payment of living wages for garment workers across transparent supply chains. To do so, its created a nifty website that surveys brands on where they’re at in their journey towards a living wage. The word journey is paramount here, as Fashion Checker considers any action plans and public commitments brands make — it’s not expecting overnight change. 
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It's a big, bad, messy world out there. But the truth is, there's a lot of brands doing the right thing. You just need to know where to look.

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