It’s hard to figure out whether a fashion brand is actually sustainable. We live in a sea of greenwashing, and fashion is unfortunately one of the biggest sharks in it.
One of the main reasons for this, is the multi-faceted nature of the fashion industry. It’s not just about checking that the ingredients were organically and locally produced and the packaging is biodegradable (yes, oversimplifying the food industry). Instead, there are often at least four tiers of traceability – the raw materials, mills, fabric production, clothes production. Often these are in different countries, and often they involve different regulations – both environmental and social. On top of this, you then have the animal cruelty, shipping, storage, transport to customer, quality, marketing (i.e. promoting fast or slow fashion), and a hoard of other factors to consider. And finally, what if they’re lying about it? How do we know their employees are actually fairly paid?
Don’t feel overwhelmed. This guide will break it down for you. We’ll take you through what you need to know in order to figure out – for yourself – whether a fashion brand is what they say they are.
In our guide, we’ll tell you what to look out for, and how to assess the factors contributing to our Planet, People, and Animals. You might care about one factor more than another: that’s where you can make your own judgement, based on what sustainability means for you. We’re here to guide you.
1. THE PRODUCT
A clothing or brand’s great majority of carbon emissions comes from their product – a jacket for example. The many traceability tiers and parts that make your final product make the ethics and sustainability of it hard to determine.
Firstly, the materials used are one of the largest contributors to a positive or negative carbon footprint. The best is for the materials to be recycled, as this reduces the environmental impact it has significantly.
Here are some questions you should be thinking about:
Just like with food, organic means that the material was grown without the use of fertilisers, pesticides, or any other toxic chemicals that could pollute both the jacket, along with the environment surrounding the farms.
Organic cotton is better than normal cotton because it is much more sustainable. It uses no chemicals, fertilisers or pesticides in its production, protecting local habitats and the farmers who grow it. It also uses less water, preserves soil quality, and limits soil erosion.
GOTS is the most recognised certification from governmental organic farming standards. To obtain it, you need to prove the cotton fibre is grown and farmed without GMO seeds (genetically modified seeds), and without the use of any chemicals or pesticides. The overall product must be made with at least 70% organic fibres.
If not, is there a reason? These certificates are tough to achieve for small enterprises, so perhaps the final product doesn’t have a GRS certificate, but all the fabrics and fittings that go into it do.
Make sure that the material is actually recycled, whether that be through certifications, or another way. Just because the zipper is recycled, does not mean that it is a recycled jacket.
What most people don’t know is that many clothes contain toxins. These harm not only you, but also the environment when we wash them, or the toxins are released into the water.
Next, the material goes through processing and manufacturing, to build you that jacket.
Some raw materials are just – no matter how you use them – bad for the environment. These include:
- Leather: we have an entire explainer on this
Quite a lot, isn’t it? Fortunately, many alternatives have been developed. Instead of conventional cotton, use organic cotton; instead of polyester, use recycled polyester, and instead of leather, use recycled vegan leather (RVL).
For more details on why these materials aren’t sustainable, read this article.
For an overview of pollution the fashion pollution causes, read this article.
Factories should have passed full social audits by international auditing agencies, such as BSCI. A Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) audit assesses an organisation's social compliance in the global supply chain, by evaluating the processes and working conditions of the organisation.
Many fashion brands source materials from all over the world. Transporting these to the production factory pollutes, particularly if done through air freight.
2. SHIPPING & PACKAGING
Picture this: a box, full of plastic wrap protection, shipped by air. Not so sustainable, right? No matter how sustainable the product is.
The size of the shipment is important, because the larger it is, the more space it takes, and therefore the more carbon it emits (as a percentage of the ship or plane). As you probably know, shipping freight is much less carbon intensive than air freight – so that should also be factored into your consideration.
The packaging is important. Clothes (generally) do not need to be packaged using plastic. The ideal is packaged in recycled fabric, which can also be reused. (yes, you guessed it, that’s what culthread does!)
Don’t fall into this trap:
“We care about our Planet – 100% recycled packaging & carbon neutral shipping!”
Some fashion brands use shipping and packaging as proof of their sustainability. Shipping and packaging are one of the easier things to change, and while it definitely contributes to your jacket’s overall sustainability – it doesn’t discount the material used or the factors we’re going to discuss below. So, don’t be fooled – carbon neutral shipping does not equal ethical & sustainable clothing!
Ethics and sustainability involve people, even though this is sometimes forgotten (check out the sustainable development goals if you don’t believe us). So, they’re key to a sustainable jacket as well.
1. Fair wages
Everyone deserves a fair wage.
What does that mean? It means a wage that enables you and your family to live decently.
How can you tell? In some countries, it’s tough, because the legal minimum wage does not provide for a decent life. Use the indexes Global Living Wage or Asia Floor Wage for a reference of what the minimum fair wage should be in the country of your jacket’s factory. Ensure that that’s what the workers are being paid.
Don’t fall into this trap:
General statements that say “we pay our workers fairly”. We want specifics: Are all the workers paid above the Global Living Wage? What are they being paid.
2. Working conditions
Working conditions play a vital role in the lives of employees, and include things as fundamental as health and safety, sick leave, and insurance.
The media disclosed some horrific working conditions in some big brands’ factories, and they regularly still do. When buying from a brand, look at their transparency around working conditions. Because no matter how high the wage is, it doesn’t make up for an unsafe work environment.
Key working conditions to look out for:
- Insurance (social, health, accident, unemployment)
- Maternity & Paternity Leave
- Working Hours
- Annual Leave
- Sick & Compassionate Leave
- Trade Union
3. Gender equality
Gender equality is important, both in the factories and in the commercial team. It’s one of the harder aspects of a brand to find out about, because sometimes there might be a high percentage of women in leadership, but they’re paid less than men, or similar types of imbalances.
Some questions to ask about the brand:
- Does the brand have gender equality policies in place?
- What’s the percentage of women in leadership?
- Is the brand female-owned?
- Are the designers designing women’s clothes women or specialists in women’s fashion?
- How long is maternity leave?
At culthread, we found it extremely rare (and often un-proved) that animal-derived products could be cruelty-free.
We did some in-depth research about this: cruelty-free certifications are usually received based upon infrequent checks. Unfortunately, processes deteriorate. What ultimately tends to happen is that people prioritise time and money, which often means maltreating animals (apart from on small farms where the animals are treated as friends). An example we use at culthread is down: down feathers tend to be plucked out of live geese. It’s possible to do this in a more humane way, but that takes time and money. In businesses, profit is important, and so humane treatment is one of the first things to go out the window.
2. No Animal-Testing
Products being 100% vegan is not enough, the processes need to be 100% vegan as well. That means absolutely no animal testing, which is also never totally cruelty free.
To ensure that materials are vegan and have no animal-testing, check that the brand is PETA-approved, which means the business either signed PETA’s statement of assurance or provided a statement verifying that they do not conduct or commission any animal tests on ingredients, formulations, or finished products and that they pledge not to do so in the future.
It’s important we fight fashion greenwashing
According to the United Nations Environment Program, clothing accounts for up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than shipping and aviation combined!
The rise in awareness of fashion’s impact on our Planet is incredible, but it’s also what spurred the new wave of greenwashing. In order to really protect our Planet, People, and Animals, we need to fight that greenwashing. By making a concerted effort in our research, calling out greenwashing, and buying as ethical and sustainable as possible, we can reduce fashion’s negative impact step by step.
The wave has already begun: the demand for transparency and traceability is greater than ever before. But there’s still much more to be done, and the first step is understanding what actually makes a fashion brand truly sustainable.
We hope this guide provided you with just that knowledge.