How To Tell If A Fashion Brand Is Sustainable

It’s great to see how sustainable and ethical practices have become increasingly sought after by consumers in recent years. With a rising global consciousness around climate change and our unsustainable relationship with planet earth, it’s hardly surprising that people are turning away from brands who remain ‘blind’ to their negative impacts.

With this, we’ve seen an uptick in sustainable/eco-friendly brands and green initiatives from companies wanting to jump onboard this trend. While you need to be on the lookout for greenwashing, there are a load of really ethical and sustainable brands out there who truly care for their cause.

Today, we wanted to share what we’ve learned from our research into how to tell if a brand is sustainable. There’re essentially two main things you can do to assess this, (1) checking the labels/materials, and (2) doing thorough research.

Before we jump into this though, it’s good to decide the area of sustainability you’d like to focus on; to set your intention. It’s all about conscious living after all.

Choosing Your Area of Focus

‘Sustainable’ is an umbrella term that includes many different categories, such as eco-friendly, ethical and fair-trade. Everyone connects with different areas of sustainability and so I recommend honing in on what you care about most.

woman using umbrella with lights

For example, if you care about workers being treated fairly then you can set your sights on fair trade products.

Or, perhaps you’re after ethical clothing that doesn’t use animal products in their manufacturing, in which case you can focus on vegan or cruelty free products.

The key idea here is that if you’re new to sustainable living it’s usually best to focus on one part first, and move to others in time. If you’re a more seasoned eco-warrior and you already use loads of sustainable brands, you may like to take things to the next level with carbon neutral brands.

So, have a think about what’s most important to you for a second, and then continue reading…

Checking the Materials/Labels

One of the easiest ways to tell if a brand is sustainable is to check the labels/materials of the goods.

There are a multitude of different fabrics and materials used by brands to produce their products, each affecting the environment differently.

Let’s take a look at a few to get you started.

Natural vs Synthetic Fibers

All fabrics are broken down into natural vs synthetic fibers, each with differing impacts on the environment.

Natural fibers (e.g. hemp, silk, linen and bamboo) tend to use much less energy in their production and can be reused cyclically making them popular sustainable options.

On the other hand, synthetic fibers use more energy and are designed to last longer than natural ones. The downside of this is that they take centuries to break down and cannot be recycled, meaning they end up in landfill.

Being mindful of the fibers is a great place to start but it can certainly get confusing. Check out this guide for a deeper dive into this.  

Natural Vs Toxic Dyes

There are many toxic dyes used in textile factories. The runoff from which can have hugely negative impacts on the environment and local communities.

For a more sustainable option look for companies that use natural dyes (e.g. madder, brazilwood, logwood, weld, woad and indigo) or properly dispose of the harmful toxins they use.

Vegan/Animal-Friendly Vs Animal-based Materials

Animal rights can pose a slightly tricky issue when it comes to sustainability.

On the one hand you have materials like wool, leather and fur which are unsustainable in production and cruel to animals. On the other you have many vegan alternatives that often use unrecyclable plastics, thereby cancelling out some of their positive impacts.

Ultimately, this one comes down to you and your preference for which one you’d like to focus on. Vegan alternatives offer many benefits and will lower your carbon footprint, however the use of non-recyclable plastics means they could end up in our oceans, break down into micro-plastics and still cause ill health for many sea creatures.

Fabric Source

Companies who are truly sustainable will be wholly transparent about the journey of their fabrics, from the growing and harvesting of the crops to the design, production and shipping.

One inspiring brand we recently started working with, People Tree, is an example of this. Below you can see a snapshot of their ‘our story’ page, which offers information on everything from the fabrics they use, to the makers of the materials and conditions of these workers.

In contrast, if there is no information provided then you can safely say the brand probably isn’t as sustainable as you’d like them to be.

One great way to tell if a brand uses sustainably produce materials or not is to look for the presence of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the OEKO-TEX standards. Both provide detailed information on how to make informed purchases when it comes to sustainable materials.

If you’ve established where the materials are coming from there’s a basic hard-fast rule to follow – beware of items from far away. The further the materials have travelled the less sustainable they’ll be as a result of the air miles involved in getting them to you.

Once you’ve taken the time to look into the materials used to create the products, another fantastic way to tell if a brand is sustainable is to put on your detective’s cap and start doing some digging online.

Doing your Research

As pointed out above, brands who are sustainable usually want to tell you about every aspect of the what, how and why of their practices. This is why doing research online is a brilliant way to assess a brand’s sustainability.  

Is there no info at all? That might not be a very good sign.

Here are the steps we usually take to discern whether a brand is sustainable or not. You can conduct all of this from behind a keyboard and it takes only a few minutes to do so – so don’t worry, anyone can do this!

Check Their About Page

Learning more about the company’s story and mission is a great way to see if they are sustainable.

Who are the founders? What’s their story? Why did they found the company? It there a clear mission or goal they are trying to achieve?

If you’ve spent time looking into sustainable brands before then you’ll know that sustainable businesses want to tell you about every aspect of the what, how and why behind their practices. In contrast, unsustainable or unethical companies will try to hide their practices from you.

That’s why checking an about page is a great first place to start.

Are they open about everything? Or do they seem to be hiding part of the story?

For a truly transparent about page check out the People Tree example above!

Does the company have CSR Policies?

Corporate Social Responsibility Policies are a brilliant way for brands and companies to practice what they preach. Conversely, they are also used to deceive consumers about how ethical a brand really is.

Remember though, everyone says you should take these with a grain of salt.

A company claiming they comply with local labour laws doesn’t necessarily mean they are putting in extra effort to be sustainable, it just means they don’t operate illegally. You don’t know how close they are to that line of illegality.

In contrast, if you’ve got a company trying to develop new methods of producing their clothes that use less water and electricity, then you know you’ve found someone whose genuine and going above and beyond to do their part of the environment.

What’s the take away here?

CSR policies don’t necessarily make a brand sustainable. You need to dig deeper to find out if they are really genuine.

Check out this list of successful CSR initiatives for examples of what to look out for!

Standards and Certifications

While you’d think that the presence (or absence) of a certification is a sound indication of how sustainable a brand is, they are not always completely sound when judging brands.

Since many of these cost huge amounts of money and are notoriously tricky to attain, many small businesses (who may be super eco) don’t have them.

As a result, beware of larger brands who claim their products to be ‘Fair-Trade’ who don’t have the actual certification on their website. You’d be surprised by how many brands are happy to mislead customers who don’t actually have the certification and who’s product aren’t fair-trade at all.

In sum, these standards and certifications are good to look out for as a last resort. However, be sure to factor in their cost and difficult approval processes when looking at smaller brands and check that larger brands actually have the certification, instead of just claiming it without any truth or backing.

Here’s a list of ethical fashion standards and certifications and their badges that really are sustainable!

Apps and Sites that Rate the Sustainability of Brands

There are apps and websites out there that have made a science of generating brand and company sustainability ratings.

Our favourite at Kinsume is Good on You. We started using it since a third-party company failed to properly look into a brand’s practices for a campaign we were working on and it’s since been a great replacement.

What’s great about this app is that it’s free and they do all the research and vetting work for you. You just need to download the app and read about the scores given to brands. What’s more, they are hugely dedicated to providing accurate and sound data for their ratings.

Follow Sustainable Instagrammers, Bloggers and Creators

This is definitely our favourite way to look for sustainable brands since we work with so many eco-conscious creators.

What’s great about these guys and girls is they have already done the research for you and they’ve spent time creating content about their journey to make yours even easier. What’s more, they started to help to inspire people to live a more sustainable lifestyle and as a result, have a load of social proof behind them and are very genuine.

Check out this list of our favourite eco-creators!

Also, stay tuned for this week’s sustainable bloggers and Instagrammers round-up.

Final Thoughts

To sum up, to tell if a brand is sustainable you can (1) check the labels/materials, (2) conduct research into their mission, founders, CSR policies and certifications, (3) find those who have already done the research for you, i.e. eco-conscious creators or sustainable brand apps like Good On You.

Overall, everyone’s coming at sustainability from a different angel, making it important to remember that it’s all about making subtle shifts in your habits, striving for progress not perfection.

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