I sometimes get questions from readers who are wondering if I know anything about the ethics behind one of their favorite brands. And while I welcome those questions (seriously, please keep ’em coming!), I figured I’d share my (admittedly imperfect) research methods so that you have a better idea of how to go about learning more on your own.
This is the beginning of a piece I wrote for Relevant on the subject. You can read the whole story here.
Perhaps you remember the horror of the 2013 Bangladesh garment factory collapse, or maybe you watched a documentary that confronted you with the global consequences of cheap clothing. Either way, you’ve caught on to the fact that clothes shopping isn’t an amoral activity.
But that still leaves an important question: how do you tell if a brand deserves your business, in the first place? Here are a few steps to help you get started.
Familiarize Yourself with the Issues
In order to make informed decisions about whether or not a particular brand is “ethical,” you need to learn about the potential moral issues involved in making and selling clothing.
A good place to start would be by considering laborer rights, environmental impact, transparency and social impact. A few issues connected to laborer rights include safe factory conditions, fair overtime payment and the right to unionize. Regarding environmental impact, considerations include the sourcing of raw materials, carbon footprint and overall sustainability.
It’s also important to consider a brand’s transparency, as this is what keeps companies accountable by making outside monitoring of their environmental and human rights impact possible. Lastly, look at a brand’s social impact, examining what their advertising communicates or whether they’re known for treating their retail employees in fair, non-discriminatory ways.
This list by no means exhausts the issues involved in making clothing, but starting with these four broader topics—laborer rights, environmental impact, transparency and social impact—is a good first step toward understanding what ethical concerns you’ll want to consider when making a purchase.
Check Independent Brand-Ranking Organizations
Entities like rankabrand.org, free2work.org, GoodGuide and Ethical Consumer are all useful resources that conduct independent research on major brands. Most of them also break down their ranking process, so you can see how a brand scored on different issues.
This is especially helpful as you try to shop in tune with your own conscience—if you’re not committed to veganism but you are committed to workers’ safety, scores on individual facets of a brand’s practices will help you shop according to what’s important to you. Keep in mind that sometimes these organizations will rank the same brand very differently, so it’s wise to cross-reference whenever possible.