The R29 Transparency Awards: 10 Brands Truly Worth Gifting

PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
It's the home stretch of the biggest shopping season of the year, and you're looking for presents that are useful, gorgeous, and sure to elicit a spontaneous happy dance from the receiver. That's not all; you want a gift with a story you can feel good about, where the stuff that went into it is as good as what came out. For our first annual Transparency Awards, we’ve acknowledged 10 brands that are doing a damn fine job of delivering just that.
You want to feel good about every aspect of the production cycle. A full three-fourths of Americans are looking for more information about whether or not buying certain products will affect the environment. They want honest information about how a product made it to the shelf (or website), and about the people behind it. There’s a reason “artisanal” is such a buzzword: You want stuff that is handmade, homemade, or just thoughtfully made by skilled craftspeople because it helps to give an object meaning.
Advertisement
In fact, Americans are more concerned than ever with the impact of the goods they purchase, especially millennials, the age group most committed to supporting companies that care. Overall, an impressive 55% of shoppers are willing to “pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact,” according to a June 2014 Nielsen study of 30,000 shoppers polled across 60 countries. (A surprising 89% of Americans think about where their food is produced, according to an April 2014 survey by Cone Communications.)
So, which companies are being completely and totally transparent with us? We've highlighted about a dozen, ahead. To be sure, these companies are not perfect, but they own that — acknowledging where they fall short and working to improve. Us, too: Our list is by no means exhaustive; we surveyed hundreds of companies in order to find the standouts that are committed to doing good while looking good.
Here's how we did it:
We looked at five areas to decide if a brand was being transparent about its business practices.

1. Does it practice transparency in aid of a higher cause?
The company focuses on transparency because it wants to make a product that is manufactured, transported, sold, and marketed in an honest way that is beneficial to one or all of these: the environment, the consumer, the employee, the community.

2. Does it share information with its employees?
The company is excited to openly share its mission and manufacturing processes with employees at every level.

3. Does it share information with the public?
Information about the company's mission and policies is readily available to the public.

4. Do its transparency practices have an impact on the industry?
The company leads by example, using transparency policies to encourage like-minded brands and competitors to increase overall compliance and improve industry standards

5. Does it continually improve and refine its transparency practices?
The company is willing to disclose areas within the operation where there is room for improvement, and to work toward improving them.
Advertisement
One more thing: We focused on small business, most of which make their own products. Multi-brand retailers are in the business of wholesaling, which means that they sell other people’s products and take a cut of the profits. While it’s possible to run a transparent multi-brand retailer, it’s much, much harder to keep track of the production and manufacturing processes of what sometimes amounts to hundreds of different companies. We didn’t count those folks out, but it’s a big reason you won’t see any of them on the main list.
1 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
THE GOLD STANDARD

Weleda
This 93-year-old beauty firm, best known for the cult product Skin Food, could be categorized as an oversharer. In this case, that’s a very good thing. On Weleda’s website, consumers can find information on everything from its commitment to social sustainability — including fair trade and wages guidelines — to a list of environmental standards. The Arlesheim, Switzerland-headquartered brand, which is available in 52 countries, is a part of the Union for Ethical Bio Trade, a non-profit whose members are committed to responsibly sourcing ingredients: that means preserving biodiversity and working with local suppliers to help build sustainable businesses.

Weleda products boast the NATRUE seal of approval, meaning they are made with zero synthetics, and of the highest-quality raw materials. NATRUE is just one of many certifications Weleda has received. It is also committed to keeping an open dialogue with its employees about the way the business is run, and involving them in the decision-making process whenever possible.

Many brands that label their products "natural" are guilty of greenwashing: using environmentally friendly words (that often have no real meaning) as marketing tools. Waleda has been able to avoid that trap by setting its own standards. According to the brand's definition, a natural ingredient is something that has undergone “no more than a one-step chemical change from the natural source.” Its products use 1,000 different ingredients that fall under that definition.

What Weleda Can Teach Others: That this can be done. Many beauty companies believe that synthetic ingredients are the only effective ingredients. Yet Weleda’s plant-based products work — just check out the hundreds of Amazon ratings, which almost always average between four and five stars.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Excellent
Community Correspondence: Excellent
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Excellent
2 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
GIVING US AN INCENTIVE TO TAKE A SEAT

Herman Miller
Lovers of midcentury furnishings bow to Herman Miller, the manufacturer of Eames chairs and Noguchi tables, but they might not be so familiar with the firm’s stellar reputation in matters of business. Founded in 1923, the Zeeland, MI-based company has won multiple mantels' worth of awards for its efforts in sustainability, corporate equality, and the Made-in-America movement.

Beyond accolades, there have been plenty of notable accomplishments along the way. Since 2004, Herman Miller has reduced its environmental footprint by 91%, in part by using 100% of its electrical energy from renewable resources for the last three years. To help its customers get a better sense of what the company is all about, it takes great lengths to list its policies in detail on the corporate website. Consumers can see which products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and which are not, as well as information on its production process, the long-standing employee stock option program, and thousands of words on the company’s philosophies regarding sustainability, community, and operations.

What Herman Miller Can Teach Others: Transparency is all about making a place for everyone at the table. At Herman Miller, the buzzword is inclusiveness. That means giving employees an opportunity to have a say in company policies, but also sharing that information with consumers, too. The firm is also big on hiring outside designers to add diversity to its product portfolio.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Excellent
Community Correspondence: Good
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Excellent
Advertisement
3 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
SAFE COSMETICS CRUSADER

Beautycounter
Digitally driven cosmetics line Beautycounter wants to change your mind about a few things. For one, it’s shaking the dust off of the direct-selling business model, offering beautifully packaged product at drugstore prices. Thousands of Beautycounter consultants across the country are becoming small business owners thanks to their personal belief in the product.

The company’s safety-first ethos is even closer to founder Gregg Renfrew’s heart. Since its March 2013 launch, Beautycounter has done everything in its power to better educate its customers — and employees! — about what makes a safe product. Its “Never List” is a roundup of the ingredients you will never find in Beautycounter products, with brief-but-impactful explanations of why they’re banned. An ingredient glossary is equally informative, offering details on the meaning of basic beauty terms, as well as specifics on the ingredients Beautycounter uses. Renfrew even hired someone from the non-profit coalition the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to lead the vetting process. The Santa Monica-based company is also a certified B Corporation, which means that the environment and society must be as important in its decision-making process as profits.

What Beautycounter Can Teach Others: That honesty truly is the best policy. Many “natural” beauty companies claim that their products are preservative-free. Beautycounter does not make that claim. “Companies MUST use preservatives in any cosmetic product that contains water — it is the law, and preservatives are needed for safety and for performance,” says a statement on its website. Instead of glossing over the topic, the company details exactly which preservatives it uses and why. “Beautycounter tells you everything that is in our products, always. No secrets.”

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Excellent
Community Correspondence: Excellent
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Excellent
4 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
NOT JUST ANY CUP OF JOE

Stumptown Coffee Roasters
The Third Wave coffee movement has transformed the way a lot of us think about that age-old caffeinated beverage. (Who knew that a cup of coffee could be as complex as a glass of wine?) It’s also drawn attention to the business practices around buying and trading coffee. Portland, OR-based Stumptown is an industry leader, sending its employees to visit coffee farms in person and paying higher-than-fair-trade prices for the best beans.

“We are committed to the wellbeing of everyone we work with, from the farmers and the communities they live in, to our employees and communities here in the States,” reads a company statement. Stumptown’s Direct Trade program has transformed the way coffee companies work with suppliers. Instead of negotiating with a broker or importer, the Stumptown team deals directly with farmers. That way, they can get a better understanding of the farmer’s costs and the quality of the goods they produce.

What Stumptown Can Teach Others: The closer you can get to the source, the better. Other than outright buying its own coffee farms, Stumptown can’t get any closer to its producers. A shorter supply chain means more control and more knowledge, making it easier to be honest with your employees and customers. The best news? People seem to be willing to pay higher prices for better coffee. Stumptown now has 10 locations across the country, and its beans are brewed in hundreds of other coffee shops.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Excellent
Community Correspondence: Good
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Good
Ability to Accept Criticism: Good
5 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
NOT-SO-FAST FASHION

Everlane
Founded in 2011, this San Francisco-based e-commerce startup has become the go-to for elevated basics, but it’s almost as well known for its no-nonsense approach to explaining how the business is run. The site’s Factories section features a world map dotted in the spots where it manufactures. Click on Ubrique, Spain to get a walking tour of the facilities where its leather handbags are made, or Hangzhou, China to see inside the silk and shirt factory. There are videos, stories, and images to give you a real sense of how things get done, even when they go wrong. For instance, the company recently changed up where it manufactures its men’s PK Polo shirt. “We weren’t entirely happy with last year’s PK, so we moved production to a new factory and developed a better fabric,” the page reads. It goes on to describe the facilities in Dongguan, China, how Everlane found them and why they’re a good fit.

What Everlane Can Teach Others: Transparency does not have to equal high prices. Along with making great-looking items in an open and honest way, Everlane also operates under a direct-to-consumer business model, which means that it sells straight to you instead of going through a department store or another site, which would take a cut of the profits. Everlane passes those savings to the consumer.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Good
Community Correspondence: Excellent
Leadership: Good
Altruism: Good
Ability to Accept Criticism: Excellent

Everlane The Petra Market, $365, available at Everlane; Everlane The Petra Clutch, $198, available at Everlane; Everlane The Petra Crossbody, $365, available at Everlane; Everlane The Pencil Case, $35, available at Everlane.
6 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED

Patagonia
Founded in 1973, this Ventura, CA-based outerwear brand is leading the way in the movement to get consumers to make better shopping decisions. It calls this philosophy the "Responsible Economy." One part of the plan: Do away with unnecessary waste. The company’s Worn Wear program encourages customers to either get their old gear repaired or trade it in for a discount on new products. Then, there’s the matter of reducing environmental impact. (This includes developing new, less damaging fabrics and buying those that are certified fair trade.)

Patagonia is equally interested in spreading the love. In 2013, the company launched $20 Million and Change, an investment fund that supports like-minded start-ups. It’s also a certified B Corporation, which means it has pledged to put as much effort toward being socially and environmentally responsible as it has toward making money. Patagonia illustrates all of these efforts in extreme detail on its corporate website, where customers can read up on every initiative, and cull information on supply chain, employee activism, and corporate responsibility.

What Patagonia Can Teach Others: Doing good doesn’t have to get preachy. A big key to Patagonia’s strategy is its marketing. On Black Friday, for instance, the company didn’t shame consumers for going deal crazy. Instead, it offered an alternative: Through its Worn Wear initiative, shoppers could come into the store with an old Patagonia product and exchange it for something off the rack. Fun, incentivized initiatives like these that give customers a reason not to brush off the brand.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Excellent
Community Correspondence: Excellent
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Excellent


Patagonia Women’s Full-Zip Snap-T Fleece Jacket, $129, available at Patagonia; Patagonia Women’s Down Sweater Jacket, $229, available at Patagonia; Patagonia Women’s Los Gatos Fleece Jacket, $129, available at Patagonia.
7 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
PUTTING OTHER FAST FOOD RESTAURANTS TO SHAME

Chipotle
The farm-to-table movement has proved that consumers want to eat delicious things from reliable sources, and that they’re willing to pony up for the privilege. Since its inception in 1993, Chipotle has aimed to prove that responsibly raised food can be served on a fast-food scale. In 2013, the chain served up more than 15 million pounds of local produce. It only works with animal farmers that adhere to a strict set of standards (vegetarian diet, no hormones), and it's not just about the food. The company uses recycled napkins, 100% organic cotton for employee uniforms, and even built a Platinum LEED certified restaurant.

What Chipotle hasn’t done: send out an annual report detailing its sustainability efforts. (A company rep told Bloomberg News earlier this year that it wasn’t in the marketing budget.) However, as the already-multi-billion-dollar brand gets even bigger, an official report will be its ticket to ultimate transparency.

What Chipotle Can Teach Others: The bigger the company, the harder it is to be perfect when it comes to transparency. Still, being open and honest with your customer at a mass level can help transform how other big companies are run.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Excellent
Community Correspondence: Fair
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Fair
Advertisement
8 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
LUXURY REDEFINED

Maiyet
Every corner of the world houses highly skilled artisans. The mission of New York-based luxury brand Maiyet is to find those artisans, collaborate with them on new products, and help them build long-lasting, scalable businesses. Founded in 2010, the brand partnered early on with non-profit Nest, which helps facilitate those relationships. For instance, there is a silk-weaving facility in Varanasi, India, where the craft is a 500-year-old tradition. Handbags are made by master craftsman in Italy, and fine jewelry is hand-crafted in Jaipur, India. Even its new fragrance, designed in partnership with Barneys New York, has a pay-it-forward element. Its rare scent, Namibian Myrrh, was harvested with the help The Kustha Project, an organization with an eye on “economic empowerment through fair trade and labor.”

What Maiyet Can Teach Others: Storytelling is key. In an age when consumer loyalty is dwindling, shoppers need context to help draw them in. It’s not easy to launch as a full-fledged luxury brand, but Maiyet’s backstory gave it the credentials it needed for fashion industry insiders, editors and consumers to pay attention. It also puts the onus on other luxury brands to do better when it comes to transparency. The more money someone is spending on a product, the more validation they need. A valiant backstory doesn’t hurt.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Excellent
Community Correspondence: Excellent
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Good


Maiyet Peyton Mini Tote, $1595, available at Maiyet; Maiyet Hand Painted Scarf, $550, available at Maiyet.
9 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
DESIGN WITH MEANING

Marimekko
Best known for its cheery, smile-inducing prints, this Helsinki-based company is playful in its design philosophy but serious about its economic, environmental, and social impact. Founded in 1951, it releases a yearly sustainability report that details its efforts in five categories: design, sourcing, production, employee wellbeing, and business practices. A lot of attention is paid to the fabric itself, including upgrading machines to ensure the company is using the smallest amount of water possible. In 2013, Marimekko joined the Better Cotton Initiative, a coalition aiming to improve conditions along the cotton supply chain.

What Marimekko Can Teach Others: The Scandinavian way. A lot of what makes Marimekko such a transparent company is Scandinavian culture, which puts great value on honesty and trust. In Finland, where Marimekko is based, 58.5% of residents say most people can be trusted, according to the Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual ranking of 142 countries that measures wealth and wellbeing. The global average is only 24.2%; in the U.S., it's 37.1%. Marimekko is honest about its work because it holds the truth in high regard.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Good
Community Correspondence: Excellent
Leadership: Good
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Excellent
10 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
SMALL-BATCH BEAUTY

Tata Harper
Few cosmetics lines are as beloved by fashion editors as Tata Harper. It took the Colombia-born industry insider five years to develop her first collection of 14 products, which launched in 2010. From the beginning, Harper insisted on avoiding synthetic ingredients and chemicals. Instead, she has established a 1,200 acre organic farm in Vermont where she sources ingredients — such as meadowsweet, arnica and lemon balm — and operates the rest of the business in its entirety, from research and development to packaging and shipping. Low carbon footprint aside, the process allows Harper to maintain complete control over her product.

The Traceability Program is Tata Harper’s most unique — and refreshing — value proposition. By simply typing in a bottle’s tracking number on the company’s website, customers are able to trace their product’s origin, finding out when exactly it was produced and by whom (complete with a picture of a Tata Harper employee). There are plenty of other videos, pictures, and literature for an inside look at how each product gets made.

What Tata Harper Can Teach Others: Explain your value. Tata Harper products are expensive. (The best-selling Rejuvenating Serum, for instance, is $150 for 50ml.) Instead of glossing over price, Harper has chosen to address it outright, citing all the elements that factor into it, including the company’s unique R&D process, high-quality ingredients, and extra efforts made toward ecological sustainability.

Refinery29 Rating:
Employees as Partners: Good
Community Correspondence: Excellent
Leadership: Excellent
Altruism: Excellent
Ability to Accept Criticism: Good
11 of 11
PHOTOGRAPHED BY COREY OLSEN.
HONORABLE MENTIONS
These up-and-comers are making transparency a pillar of their burgeoning brands.

Zady
Founded in 2013 by two high school friends eager to bring some clarity to the world of fashion manufacturing, Zady is an e-commerce site featuring brands that are made with sustainability and transparency in mind. Each product page features badges that indicate how and where the piece was made, and with what kind of materials. Recently, Zady launched its first product, a sweater made from Oregon sheep’s wool that was cleaned, dyed and knit right here in the U.S.

The Honest Company
Jessica Alba’s 3-year-old brand of bath, body, cleaning, and baby products are made with safe ingredients that are eco-friendly, too. A registered B Corporation, Honest takes a holistic approach to the idea of health and sustainability. Some interesting facts: 100% of the electricity used in Honest’s offices and warehouses comes from renewable sources, and the company incentivizes employees who use eco-friendly transportation, including biking, public transportation, and alternative fuel/hybrid vehicles.

Honest By
Not be confused by Alba’s growing baby-goods empire, Honest By was launched by Belgian fashion designer Bruno Pieters in 2012. The website features Pieters’ own line, as well as collections by other European designers, including Calla and Maison des Talons. The point of difference? Extremely detailed information on each product page. There is a section explaining the sourcing of each material used in the garment, a list of manufacturers — down to the address of the factory — as well as an in-depth rundown of why the piece costs what it costs.

Juice Press
In 2010, the first Juice Press opened near the Bowery in New York City. Four years later, the cold-pressed brand is a leader in the juicing revolution, and it’s made a point of making its business more transparent — and more efficiently run — year after year. Since opening a central kitchen in Queens in the summer of 2014, Juice Press has amped up its composting efforts, generating 10,000 pounds of compost each day. Right now, 100% of that compost is donated to the family-owned McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, NY.

BIG COMPANIES DOING GOOD
Big doesn’t always equal bad. There are plenty of superized companies committed to transparency, including:

Nike
The athletic wear giant’s “MAKING” app allows its designers to see the environmental impact of material choices. The goal is for designers to make better informed decisions when constructing a garment.

Starbucks
The java giant has set a goal of implementing front-of-store recycling in every company-operated store by 2015.

Heinz
By 2015, the ketchup maker has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, energy consumption and amount of solid waste sent to landfill by 20%.

Whole Foods
The upscale supermarket pledged to label all genetically modified products on its shelves by 2018, keeping consumers updated annually on this multi-year project.

Kering
The luxury conglomerate, which owns animal-free fashion brand Stella McCartney, has made sustainability a tenet of its business, partnering with the London College of Fashion’s Center for Sustainable Fashion, where it is co-developing the curriculum for a sustainable design course.
Advertisement

More from Shopping

Watch

R29 Original Series