2 Simple Questions to Ask When Purchasing Clothing (or anything)
This blog will focus on two simple questions you can ask yourself to ensure that you are supporting ethical and sustainable companies. It will also go over the differences between “ethical” and “sustainable” fashion — yes, my friends, there are differences.
Every piece of fabric has a story woven into it, whether you are aware of it or not. Many of those unsung stories are hidden from us, covered with thousands of dollars spent on marketing, massive discounts, and/or endless sales. If the sweater or the shirt you are wearing right now could talk and tell you how it was made, would you listen? And would you continue to wear the item if the story were not as you imagined?
Two important questions I like to ask myself when purchasing items, clothes specifically, are:
who made the item?
how was it made?
Asking these simple questions can provide a memorable checklist when trying to figure out if the companies you are purchasing from are, in fact, ethical AND sustainable.
What Does It Mean?
These terms are often used interchangeably on social media, but do we know what they really mean? Here are some helpful definitions:
Ethical (and Fairtrade) Fashion: I like to think of Ethical and Fairtrade as the “humanity” side of fashion. “Ethical fashion” means the people a part of the production process are treated (working conditions) and paid fairly. “Fairtrade” means that the brand or the product has officially been certified because the company meets the standards of International Labor Organization (ILO).
“Fairtrade describes a brand or an individual product that has been certified and labelled by an independent organization because it meets certain standards. The general goals of these standards are to support producers from underdeveloped countries through trading, protection of workers’ rights, preservation of the environment, and the promotion of sustainability.” (Good on You, May 2017)
Sustainable Fashion: The designer has thoroughly thought about the product at all stages: life cycle, design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components. Here is one of the best definitions I have found on the term “sustainable fashion”:
“More sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. In practice, this implies continuous work to improve all stages of the product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components. From an environmental perspective, the aim should be to minimize any undesirable environmental effect of the product’s life cycle by: (a) ensuring efficient and careful use of natural resources (water, energy, land, soil, animals, plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, etc); (b) selecting renewable energy sources (wind, solar, etc) at every stage, and (c) maximizing repair, remake, reuse, and recycling of the product and its components. From a socio-economic perspective, all stakeholders should work to improve present working conditions for workers on the field, in the factories, transportation chain, and stores, by aligning with good ethics, best practice and international codes of conduct. In addition, fashion companies should contribute to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns, caring and washing practices, and overall attitudes to fashion.” (Green Strategy, June 2014)
Some other terms:
Organic: An easy way to remember this: sans (without) chemical. Organic means it has been naturally produced, without any intervention from chemicals.
Fast fashion: A helpful way to remember this is in the name – “fast.” These are garments that are produced quickly (to match the expectation of seasonal trends) and produced cheaply (with the help of machines and cheaper fabric, usually fabric with plastic in it).
Slow fashion: A little history — before the industrial revolution introduced mass production, there was “slow” fashion. Garment materials were self-sourced, made by hand, and the goal was durability, so the garment could last for a long time. Today, “slow” fashion mirrors this pre-industrial thought process and combats fast fashion.
“Slow Fashion is an awareness and approach to fashion, which considers the processes and resources required to make clothing, particularly focusing on sustainability. It involves buying better-quality garments that will last for longer and values fair treatment of people, animals and the planet.” (Good on You, November 2018)
Secondhand Fashion: This is another prong of sustainable fashion; this is how are we utilizing the garments that are no longer in demand, such as clothing in thrift stores or clothing in the back of a friend’s closet. Secondhand fashion is ensuring that we can make use those garments before they are dumped in a wasteland to sit for however long.
Now, that those terms are a little clearer, let’s dive back into those checklist questions!
Who Made the Clothes (or Items)?
Asking this question will help uncover the “ethical” side of the equation and may lead to a string of questions like:
Was the person who made this piece of clothing treated and paid fairly?
Can I verify this by looking on the website or writing an email to the company?
If the answer is no to any one of these questions, then you can choose to make a better-informed decision and no longer purchase from the company.
If you are unsure who made your clothing, now is a good time to research.
Helpful tip: Try to look for the Fairtrade Certified image on their website. Most companies cannot put this image on their website unless they meet the ILO Standards.
If the image is not on their website, they are probably not certified. You can verify here at https://www.fairtradecertified.org or you can simply shop from this website. It has listings of Fairtrade companies.
How Was the Clothing Made?
This question covers the “sustainable” side of the equation. This simple question can be expanded to:
Will the garment have a negative impact on the planet through production (excessive water use, chemical use, large carbon footprint)?
AND after production (e.g. washing, after use, will they overproduce and then send it to the dumps)?
If you ask yourself these questions and you are not certain how the clothing was made, head to the internet to find out. Or check out the tag inside the fabric and get familiar with fabric you would like to see, such as cotton, organic cotton, hemp, and more sustainable materials.
If the company you are researching is not transparent about their process or their factories, it is safe to assume they are not currently exercising responsible practices until you verify yourself.
Helpful tip: If you head to the bottom of most company websites, they should have a tab related to their production process. For most sustainable and ethical companies, it can be easily spotted.
At the bottom of LuluLemon’s page, they have tabs labeled Sustainability, Social Impact, UK Modern Slavery Act, California Transparent Act, Construction, Fabric + Technology, Our Philosophy, Product Care to demonstrate their push towards a more sustainable and ethical product line.
Companies like Everlane used their transparency as unique selling point so it can be visible on every page and all marketing material.
Keep those questions in the back of your mind, they may come in handy one day when the-urge-to-purchase-clothing lingers at your fingertips. Hopefully it can transfer those fingers to research more about the product line and company!
By purchasing from ethical and sustainable-focused companies, you are supporting better livelihoods, safer working conditions, and the protection of the planet’s natural resources. That is something we all deserve to wear proudly (and for a long time); you are what you wear, they say.
Disclaimer: Blog was written while watching my toddler run around. There may be some typos, just “know” what I mean lol