Understanding what is sustainable can be overwhelming. Many brands buried the truth in clever marketing language meant to imply their sustainable efforts. However, we want to help you set your standards for what sustainability looks like. 

Here are a few ways you can tell if you’re truly shopping sustainably or not. Some of these efforts are laid out clearly by brands, others are and below we’ll help you determine what to look for:

  • Their environmental impact
  • The treatment of workers 
  • Materials being used

Yes, there is a trend toward sustainable everything, but, sadly, the fashion industry has a history of less than ethical practices. While a handful of brands are making strides to do better as consumers demand more from retailers, there is a lot of gray area regarding what “better” actually means. We’re here to help. 

Avoid Mass Production 

One of the most obvious ways to tell if a company is doing its part is by considering the scale on which its products are being produced. Clothes being sold by Big Box stores and franchised fashion brands are unlikely to be sustainable. The work is usually outsourced to low-wage workers, the items shipped across the world, and the materials made from cheap, mono-crop sources that decimate farmland.

In short, if it’s inexpensive and produced at mass, there’s a very low probability that the product is being manufactured sustainably.

Ask #WhoMadeMyClothes

Is the brand you are shopping with showing the workers who created the product? Underpaid foreign workers and even slave/child labor is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in fashion. Brands utilizing these kinds of unethical practices are never going to showcase the conditions in which their “makers” are working.

Brands with an intentional effort towards improving the labor standards in fashion will be talking about those efforts. And showing them. You’ll likely get to see the actual humans behind the products you are purchasing. They may even be involved in transparency programs like the Lowest Wage Challenge where a company shares how much their lowest-paid employee makes and what the livable wage for that employee’s market is. 

It’s also important to remember that you can make a difference too by encouraging brands to participate in challenges like this or by reaching out to them directly to ask the hard questions. 

Research Materials

From product creation to shipping packaging, the materials a company uses are a vital part of its sustainability. 

Fibers

Dig a little deeper into the materials being used and don’t get enticed by buzz words. See if the company is using abundant sources like bamboo, hemp, or upcycled materials! Understanding the difference between slapping the word “Organic” on an item and a term like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification is just one example. Technically, all cotton is “organic” because it grows in the ground. But that doesn’t mean it’s eco-friendly, sustainably planted, or farmed by properly paid workers. 

Packaging

Don’t just stop at what they are sending you, think also about how they are sending the product. Do they talk about their packaging and how it’s handled? Have you ordered from this company before and found an oversized box compared to the product? Single-use plastic? Have orders broken up into multiple shipments?

The Packaging Coalition is a movement to end wasteful shipping practices and you can look into their standards to discover what a more Earth-friendly delivery looks like.

Fair Trade

Companies that are certified in Fair Trade are a good place to start as a “catch-all” for best sustainable practices. It covers everything from environmental impact to the treatment of workers. 

A brand working hard to create change is going to talk about what they are doing for sustainability. Before you buy, look into the efforts the company is talking about. If it’s just a word slapped on a label, that’s likely not creating any meaningful impact. If they have a mission statement that goes into great detail about how they are working to improve the industry now and their plans for the future, then you have a jumping-off point.

We know you want to go deeper. You want to see that a brand is not only producing in a forward-thinking way, but they are also trying to solve existing problems. For some, local is their ideal. For others, providing fair wage opportunities to workers across the globe is meaningful. 

What do you look for in a sustainable brand?