How to tell if a brand is really “sustainable”
The pandemic has made many people slow down & ask themselves some tough questions. Many are taking the time to reevaluate their shopping habits and vowing to do better to uplift the local economy and protect the environment. But when it comes to clothes, many are skeptical at sustainability claims put forward by companies – and unfortunately, they’re not wrong. Many companies are jumping on the “eco” bandwagon to appeal to customers without actually doing the work that it takes to be truly sustainable. So how does a consumer tell the real from the fake? I’ve put together this blog post to help with just that, using real-life examples. Hope you enjoy & find it useful 🙂
So, first things first:
Anyone can say that they’re sustainable. It’s their actions you have to look at.
There are currently no laws or regulations anywhere that control what can and can’t be labelled as “sustainable” (or “natural”, or “ethical”, or “ecofriendly”). So, anyone can use these terms to describe anything they want. This isn’t the case, for example, with food that’s labelled “organic” – in the US and Canada there are strict conditions that have to be met for a company to say that their food products are organic (see here and here).
So, if anyone can say anything is “sustainable” (or “ethical”, or “ecofriendly”) – and they WILL if they think it’ll convince you to buy – how can you know if they’re not being all that truthful? The answer is to look for a holistic integration of sustainability at every stage of the brand’s operations. Here’s what I mean:
Look out for vague claims.
The most telling way for me to recognize when a brand is trying to seem more sustainable than it actually is is vagueness. I’ll use a real-life example of a brand whose aesthetic I LOVED and was considering buying so naturally I looked into their sustainability efforts. Having found nothing about sustainability on their website (red flag #1), I wrote to them to ask where & how their clothes are made, how the garment workers are treated, and what efforts are made to ensure that the environment isn’t harmed as a result of the production process.
This was their answer:
At first read sounds fine, right? Wrong. “Cult Gaia’s Vendor Principles and Guidelines” are nowhere to be found on their website or via a Google search. And, “we expect our Vendors to adhere to “wages and benefits”, “working conditions”, and “environmental standards” is about as vague as it can get. In an industry where exploitation of garment workers and environmental destruction is the norm, “expecting” vendors to adhere to “principles and guidelines” isn’t good enough. If they wanted to truly ensure that their clothes are ethically made, they would look into it themselves, align themselves with vendors who have third-party certifications, and make an effort to use ecofriendly fabrics & materials, which they don’t.
Compare this to Girlfriend, for example, which is a company that makes activewear out of recycled post-consumer plastic. I didn’t have to send this company an email because they already have an impressive amount of information about their sustainability efforts in their detailed FAQ section. For example:
- Their leggings are made out of 79% recycled polyester (or RPET) and 21% spandex, and they use 25 recycled post-consumer bottles to make one pair.
- Their products are made in a specialized facility in Taiwan and then cut-and-sewn in their SA8000 certified factory in Hanoi, Vietnam.
- Hien is the name of the person who runs their factory in Vietnam, and she used to work for the United Nations Development Programme!
Companies that take the time to go against the grain will want to brag about it, in detail, on their Insta bio/page, website and everywhere else. If they’re quiet or avoidant or answer with fluffy marketing speak, beware.
They’ll try to distract you
Here’s an example of a response I got when I asked where and how a certain company’s swimwear was made:
“Made of polyester from our warehouse in Asia” is about as unsustainable as you can get. But of course, the brand will say that quickly and then move on to talking about their packaging & focus on the fact that the bikini comes with a bag that you can reuse to store small things at the beach. What is this bag made out of though? Non-recycled polyester, like the bikini? Also, do you really need another bag to store small things at the beach? Probably not.
What is “sustainable” anyway?
There is currently no single definition of “sustainable fashion” (or “ethical fashion”, “eco fashion”, etc.). These terms generally refer to clothes that are made with a much lower environmental impact than “unsustainable” mainstream clothing, and/or by hands that are able to live decently with their wages. In my opinion, for a brand to be truly sustainable, there have to be efforts to reduce environmental impact AND ensure that everyone in the supply chain is treated fairly.
6 signs that a brand is genuinely sustainable
1. Details, details, details
How many recycled bottles are needed to make one garment? What exact fabrics are used? How many tonnes of CO2e are prevented from being released into the atmosphere? Where exactly does production happen? Brands that go the extra mile will want to show off their efforts. Here are some examples:
- Encircled tells you exactly which of its factories in the Greater Toronto Area produces which pieces on its website. With pictures.
- Kotn tells you the whole story behind their product – they only use cotton from a specific region in Egypt and work directly with 690 smallholder cotton farms to source their materials. All of their factories & mills are located within 400 km of each other (in Egypt). Their yarn facility is ISO 9001 and Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) certified, & offers employee benefits, bonuses, complimentary transportation, and daily team meals. Etc.
- People Tree publishes an impressive amount of detail about their story as a brand, their Fair Trade certification and what it means, the sustainable fabrics & processes that they use, and their various partner organizations that supply the labour needed to make their clothes.
2. High rating on Good on you
Good on you is a wonderful site / app that analyses all of the publically available information on a brand and boils it down to a single rating out of 5. Not all brands are rated on it, but many are and the list keeps growing. It’s a great resource and I use it all the time.
3. The founder is deeply committed to sustainability
This is partly why I publish interviews on my blog – to show that there are actually people out there who are NOT looking to trick people for their own profit but genuinely care about the world & want to make it a better place. And no one is perfect. Actually, if a founder is claiming to be perfectly sustainable, that’s a red flag. Our world just isn’t built for 100% sustainability (although that’s slowly but surely changing, yay!). More often than not, people in the sustainability space tend to constantly worry if they’re doing enough (this is called « eco-anxiety »). But anyway, I digress – here are some examples of brands whose founder has shown deep commitment to sustainability:
- Brother Vellies founder Aurora James recounts in her Girlboss radio interview that she was inspired to start her company when she saw the incredible craft and livelihood of African artisanal shoemakers threatened by donated goods from North America (think about that next time you just throw your unwanted clothes & shoes into the donation bin!). She recounts how important it is to her to see the women and artisans get the credit and compensation they deserve for their craft.
- The owner of 3 acres told me at the Montreal Zero Waste Festival that it took her 4 years to develop her 100% compostable packaging for her lip balm. She kept sending it back until it was perfect and could compost in your backyard (it’s made out of cardboard and non-toxic glue). I bought the lip balm and I love it.
4. Their models are size, race, and/or age-inclusive
Azura Bay and Girlfriend do this particularly well in my opinion. Companies that take the time to include diversity in their marketing are more likely to have a bottom line that goes beyond pure profit.
5. They have educational efforts on sustainability
Unfortunately, most people in North America aren’t aware of how their clothes are made. This means that sustainable brands need to raise awareness to explain the added value of their sustainable products, for example:
- Gaia & Dubos has a blog / Youtube channel / podcast that educates consumers about sustainable fashion (French only). They also offer online classes on how to repair your clothes.
- Ramonalisa has a sustainable fashion guide with tips on how to make your wardrobe more sustainable (French version also available). First tip: buy less.
6. They don’t encourage overconsumption
Sustainable brands are in a bind: sustainability at its core means consuming less, but if they don’t sell, they don’t survive. The ones who are truly sustainable will encourage mindful consumption and will sell quality clothes & shoes that last. Also, if they address what happens to the garment at the end of its lifecycle, that’s an excellent sign. For example:
- Girlfriend mentions that their products last a long time (I have a pair of their leggings and so far I believe it) and collects their old leggings through its ReGirlfriend program to turn them into new pieces.
- Etiko has a take back program for its sneakers and flip flops (called thongs in Australia, in Canada thongs are underwear lol). The returned footwear is recycled via a Melbourne-based company called Save Our Soles, and for each pair you send in you’ll get a gift voucher to use towards your next Etiko purchase.
That being said, it’s impossible for brands to be perfect, especially if they’re just starting out. The best a consumer can do is look for genuine best efforts to integrate sustainability at every stage of a company’s operations & product lifespan, with a commitment to do more with time. And, of course, it’s crucial to speak up and ask questions when brands aren’t offering detailed information on how “sustainable” they truly are.
Hope that helps! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.