Who-What-Where: Identifying Sustainable Brands & Apparel
Navigating the sustainable fashion sector can be tricky. Whether the challenge is greenwashing, lack of available brand information, or not enough guidance on the consumer end, feeling confident in a purchase is never easy. And, unfortunately, the system is purposely designed this way. The fast fashion industry does not want consumers questioning their operations because it inevitably shines a negative light on the brand. They use underpaid and forced labor to produce products laden with chemicals and plastic in developing countries lacking proper regulations. This blatantly ignorant production process benefits the fast fashion sector and brings in massive profits.
Although it should not be up to the consumer to take on this burden, that’s the way it is right now. We must arm ourselves with practical and helpful information to make the most sustainable choices when leading a low-impact lifestyle. This post checks out the 3 W’s to look for: Who, What, and Where. This criteria indicates whether a product leaves a high or low impact on the planet and people—basically its environmental and social footprint. Often times it is difficult to find brands who openly disclose this information. Those who do are the minority; however, brand transparency is on the rise from last year (Ditty 2020, 5).
Who makes your clothes? Who has had hands on the shirt that you are wearing from start to finish? Understanding who cut and sewed, ginned or spinned, embroidered, printed, finished, dyed, cleaned your clothing is extremely multi-faceted. You also have to consider who grew the cotton or killed the cow to make the leather. Indeed, it is a lot to examine, and some brands don’t even know the answers to these questions due to subcontracted work. But brand ignorance is not acceptable.
Brands that do not hold factories accountable lead to workers that are severely underpaid, abused, and exposed to unsafe working conditions. It is easy for companies to turn a blind eye to this instead of correcting the problem. Some brands, like Spell & the Gypsy Collective, are able to show their customers the exact people who make their clothing in certified factories that they visit. It is essential that practices like this become the norm in order to forge a more transparent industry.
What are my clothes made out of? Designers can control more than 80% of a product’s environmental impact (Sustainable Apparel Coalition 2019). A larger majority of this impact is the textile selection, taking in consideration the origination of it to end-of-life. Is a brand primarily using polyester, viscose, cotton, hemp, wool, etc.? All of these textiles and others hold varying environmental and social concerns.
There are certainly some characteristics to look for in fiber production. For instance, we know that when a brand chooses organic over conventional cotton, they prioritize the natural environment and communities who live near these farms. If a brand creates with rayon or viscose, it could potentially be from trees in an old-growth endangered rainforest. Selecting polyester or spandex means that they will release microfibers in the washing. Each fiber holds with it a different level of impact, and we will dive deeper into these in our next post
Where were my clothes made? This question takes us from the origination of the fiber choice to all of the processing facilities that the article of clothing passed through on its journey to the consumer. Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia are notoriously lax with their environmental and social regulations. Being able to outsource production to developing countries brings up a whole storm of ethical challenges. It places the environmental and social burden on other places rather than dealing with them properly in the U.S. under specific regulations. These developing countries do not have a robust regulatory system that values the protection of the planet and people.
And that is not to say that buying clothing from these countries is a bad choice. Production facilities can earn certain certifications discussed here and others to prove their ethical production. Most of these certifications audit the facilities to ensure adherence to social and environmental measures. This gives the consumer a piece of mind that although a shirt was made in Bangladesh, it was done so in a respectable and ecofriendly manner.
Transparency is Key
If brands are:
- Continuously repeating information over again but rewording it,
- Using large filler words and grandiose explanations,
- Beating around the actual point (who, what, and where), and/or
- Throwing out statistics that are not relevant
than this is probably on purpose. It is neither transparent nor honest nor helpful. Brands that communicate their mission and progress best are those that are straightforward and succinct (Ditty 2020, 5). Yes, the fashion production pipeline is complicated, but this does not mean transparency and accountability are impossible. You can even check out Fashion Revolution’s 2020 Transparency Index to see how 200 of the worlds’ largest brands scored about how much they disclose to the public about their environmental and social policies.
And just because a brand is deeply entrenched in unethical practices doesn’t mean all hope is lost forever. Developing a clear strategy, defining specific goals, and identifying the metrics to measure these goals are a great step forward towards sustainability. Meaningful progress does not happen overnight; however, it is never too late to take steps towards an ecofriendly and ethical future where the Who, What, and Where of fashion are deeply considered.
Continuously Questioning the Norm,
eM and the eMpulse Team
Ditty, Sarah. 2020. “Fashion Transparency Index 2020.” Fashion Revolution. https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/transparency/.
Sustainable Apparel Coalition. 2019. “Higg Product Tools.” The Higg Index, Sustainable Apparel Coalition. https://apparelcoalition.org/higg-product-tools/