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5 Questions to Ask to See If an ‘Ethical’ Fashion Brand Is Legit

Image Credit: Project Just

As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right?

Wrong.

Buyer beware — greenwashing (i.e. exaggerating their environmental chops or social practices in an effort to make themselves seem sustainable, and even diverting attention away from negative practices such as child labor, or the consumption-driven fast-fashion model) is definitely a thing, and it’s not just the big fast-fashion brands.

At Project JUST, we’re always getting questions about H&M Zara and others. But recently, savvy readers such as yourselves have been asking more questions about the credentials of smaller “ethical fashion” or “eco-fashion” brands, and whether their practices add up to all their marketing.

Greenwashing is never good. But with the smaller “ethical” new kids on the block, it’s almost even more dangerous if they don’t stack up to their claims. It seeds pessimism and cynicism among consumers, just as a new vision of a sustainable industry is starting to gain traction.

So, over the last month we did a mini experiment to dig into the practices of a few popular “ethical” brands that outwardly celebrate their positive impact, intentions or transparency, and see what evidence they had to back up these assertions.

We looked at:

  • Everlane — the “radically transparent” basics brand
  • Warby Parker — the “social impact” eyeglasses company
  • Kowtow — a fairtrade, organic cotton brand making knitwear and basics from New Zealand
  • Krochet Kids — a social impact brand, empowering women in Uganda and Peru

We studied their websites and social media, contacted them through numerous channels, looked at publicly available records and everything else we could find. We did an intensive search beyond what a consumer could do in an afternoon, but without using any tools you wouldn’t have at the ready.

We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.

We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.

As we did this in-depth research, we pieced together the five questions we realized could help you sniff out greenwashing. (If you’re a nerd for this stuff like us, you can view everything we found on their updated brand pages on our Project JUST wiki)

So check out what we found and try these questions on for size:

1. What kind of fabrics/materials are they using?

Fabrics are an easy way to really reduce the impacts of a supply chain, and for you as a shopper to know which brands are serious about changing the game. Raw materials account for a big portion of apparel’s environmental and social impact. As a designer or a brand, committing to a restricted set of fabrics can be difficult — sustainable fabrics can be more expensive and not as easy to source — but it pays off in both your impact and performance in the end. So how did the brands we picked stack up?

  • Kowtow uses organic and fair trade cotton. Organic cotton is proven to be significantly better for people and planet, and fair trade means farmers and workers get fair wages for their work.
  • Krochet Kids uses some sustainable fabrics, but also uses acrylic and polyester (oil). They’re in the process of rolling out an organic cotton line.
  • While Everlane uses some natural fibers, none of them are from certified sustainable supply chains. And they also use synthetics such as nylon (again, oil).
  • Warby Parker uses cellulose acetate, titanium and stainless steel in its frames for both eyeglasses and sunglasses. Cellulose acetate is usually made from wood pulp. In February 2014, the brand reported via its Facebook pagethat Warby Parker frames are made of acetate that comes from a family-owned Italian manufacturer.

2. Do they have any certifications?

When you’re shopping, check out the tags — any symbols or certifications there? A certification offers a brand a rigorous program of standards and assessment, and a signal to shoppers of monitoring, high standards and intention. A brand doesn’t have to have a certification to do good work, but often times, they use them as a roadmap to build out more sustainable supply chains. But some certifications aren’t that rigorous, or have major flaws in monitoring or auditing what’s actually happening on the ground.

Survey says?

  • Kowtow has organic and fair trade certifications. Plain, simple and thorough.
  • Warby Parker is a B Corp, but we couldn’t find any information about what this means in terms of their environmental impact, or how they treat their workers. However, their recently released response to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act means that the brand has now made its Code of Conduct publicly available (check out this release of new information on our Warby Parker brand page).
  • Krochet Kidsis launching an organic line, and has their own special impact measurement tool that they use at each of their facilities.
  • Everlane doesn’t have any certifications that provide us with an easy signal to show that they’re trying, but it’s clear they like to set things up their own way. For their supply chain, they have three pillars of work: they started with transparency, are currently building their compliance, and sustainability is next. They do hold the factories they work with accountable to a 85% or higher score on the labor audit. If they don’t hit the mark, they step in with a corrective action plan, in partnership with their auditing firm, Intertek, to help.

Certifications aren’t for everyone, nor do they always work, but for the shopper and for us, it’s an easy way to know the standards a brand is holding itself to, as well as its intentions and what it’s actually doing to meet it.

3. How transparent are they … really?

This basically comes down to what — and how much — they’re truly sharing with us. What’s on their website? Their social media? What data do they share to back up their claims of social or environmental impact?

Let’s stack ’em up:

Everlane: As fashion supply chain nerds, ever since this brand came out with its tagline, “radical transparency,” we’ve been curious to know what constituted “radical” from the information it shared. After all, “radical” by definition implies something beyond average. But, when we looked on the Everlane website, we didn’t really find much beyond where some of its factories were located, and what they made. What were we looking for? How they guarantee fair wages and safe working conditions, what kinds of environmental policies it has in place, and its intentions for future improvement.

So, we reached out to the Everlane team with a list of questions, and lo and behold, got to sit down with the founder & CEO, Michael Preysman.

He shared quite a bit of info with us, including:

  • The company code of conduct
  • The average score of its factories on quarterly audits: 90.1%
  • The number of times a year its team visits the factories: 3
  • Its current lack of environmental policies, but its intent to work on this as the next phase in monitoring its supply chain
  • And lots more!

So, why isn’t all this info available on their website?

Michael said (paraphrased) that they prefer not to reveal their work until it’s fully complete, so that the company can figure the right strategy to communicate the information to their customer, in a way that makes sense.

Legit? You tell us. Given that these guys have shaken things up before, we’re excited to see what they churn out in the coming months to truly be “radical” in their supply chain practices.

Warby Parker: When it came to Warby Parker, we received not one answer to our questions. Between January and February 2017, we reached out six times to the PR company and twice to the brand, which then redirected us back to the PR company.

This brand never answered our questions about whether they can trace their entire supply chain, where their suppliers are located, if they have a code of conduct, how much the workers in their supply chain are paid, how they monitor their social and environmental practices, and what their goals are to decrease their negative impact. In just the last few days, they did release a new set of info to comply with the California Transparency Act. Great - but we’ve still got questions.

Kowtow and Krochet Kids: These two brands both have a lot of information available on their website. Krochet Kids was willing to answer any question we threw their way, while Kowtow had enough info on their website and via their certifications to thoroughly answer our questions.

4. Do they express intention for improvement?

No brand is perfect. But given the major impacts of fashion supply chains, it’s important to at least have the intention and plans to continue to improve. Do they have goals on their website? Any plans that they share with the media, or consumers?

Krochet Kids told us all about their future plans. So did Everlane. Warby Parker no answer and nothing available on their site. And Kowtow, by committing to only use fair trade and organic cotton, has restricted its growth and made a sustainability commitment for the long run.

5. Will they get back to you?

When you ask a question — do they respond? And do they give you a straight answer?

  • After we emailed them this month, Everlane gave us a sit-down with their founder & CEO. We had also reached out to them before with questions through various consumer channels, and had received responses — but not nearly as comprehensive as this. We appreciate this, but we also recognize that not everyone is afforded this kind of access. We hope the company continues to strive to be as responsive as possible to consumers to attain this same standard of radical transparency.
  • Krochet Kids’ CEO and COO had a call with us after they answered our comprehensive survey. We were impressed with their brand, and especially with their willingness to share and open up to us.
  • Kowtow and Warby Parker both didn’t answer our repeated efforts to get in touch with them with our questions. That said, Kowtow has a ton of information about its brand and practices available on their website. Warby Parker? Not so much.

So, what did we learn?

In this day and age — with consumers buying products made by global supply chains, and with issues of human trafficking, child labor, worker abuse and environmental violations — consumers have a right to know how their purchases are made and be able to see the evidence to back it up.

And with “ethical” brands, consumers should also know legitimately that the brand’s vision and proclaimed values match how they treat their workers and the environment.

So, keep searching, keep asking questions and tell your friends to ask, too. You might even get to sit down with the CEO.

This post first appeared in NewCo Shift on March 23, 2017


Natalie is the co-founder and co-CEO of Project JUST. Natalie has nearly a decade of experience working at the intersection of business and social impact. She began her career working in sustainable community development in West Africa and the US… [Read more about Natalie Grillon]


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