What it means to be ethical and sustainable in today’s world

Ethical Sourcing and sustainability are buzzwords that are hard to be missed in today’s marketing campaigns. Every day we come across these words while strolling through our high streets or browsing the internet in search of products. But have we really thought about what these words actually mean in our everyday life ?

Ethical and Sustainable are two words that are interchangeable and it is very hard to separate them out. A brand cannot be sustainable if it is not ethical. So how do we define these buzzwords.

Ethical is not just limited to paying fair wages and treating the employees right , it goes beyond the realm of looking at the socio-economic impact of production on the people involved in the process. Are they paid as per the economic standards? What are the factory working conditions? Is everyone treated fairly at their workplace?

Sustainable on the other hand means reducing the environmental effects of the production by the use of more earth friendly manufacturing processes such as recycling water and materials, using solar power, reducing the use of harmful dyes etc. This involves looking at the end to end manufacturing cycle to understand what are the various steps undertaken to lessen the environmental damage. They are using renewable energy to production? Are the materials non-toxic and recyclable ?

To a lot of these brands, the words Ethical and Sustainable could mean different things. One can argue in many ways, Brands who claim to be ethical and sustainable should not be pushing their products on the consumers to increase consumerism to start with. The consumer should only be encouraged to buy what they need – this can be done by providing a long lasting product. This is the human element attached to sustainability – otherwise the brand is just Greenwashing themselves to promote them as Ethical and Sustainable brand just for marketing and PR purposes.

Greenwashing is when a company claims to be earth friendly but does not live up to the claims. How to spot them ? Here are a few flags that you need to keep in mind while looking for these brand:

  • Even though they claim to be sustainable, they are still selling/promoting conventional products which are not made of any sustainable materials. They try to create a green halo just to promote themselves and appear as a brand making a difference. In simple words a company could call themselves sustainable and sell cotton apparel/homeware when we know that cotton is one the greatest contributor to industrial waste and it takes months perhaps years to degrade the cotton waste if in big quantities. 
  • They talk about Ethical sourcing by supporting Artisans but do not directly impact the Artisan wages. This usually happens when brands source from other smaller brands and re-sell them at a higher markup which doesn’t justify the claims of actually passing on the higher price to the customer just by marketing a product as sustainable one . These mark-ups are only used by the companies to strengthen their marketing and PR and in no way helps the artisan earn a good social economic standard of living. This kind of green washing is the most difficult one to identify. So one of the key ways to check this is to see what way is the higher mark-up charged to customer passed to the producer.

For Example, if a Brand X is charging x4 mark-up on the product and claiming to support artisans when they are actually buying this product from a third party supplier who are infact buying the product from these artisans at a fraction of the cost and re-selling them to these brands.  Have we thought about what % of the x4 mark-up is actually being passed down? This calls for a total transparency in the production and costing. 

As a consumer, what part can we play to ensure that the brands are actually living up to the claims they are making? It is often very difficult to spot greenwashing because there is so much that is done in terms of social media engagements to actually lend them the “green halo” , we often find ourselves falling for these claims. Here are few ways in identifying if the brand is actually sustainable: 

  • Check if the products are actually made of sustainable materials such as recycled cotton, hemp, linen, recycled plastic, Tencel, Lyocell, Econyl etc. 
  • Ensure that there is transparency in the production cycle – see to it that brands openly talk about who their manufactures are. This is often not done by smaller brands due to their fear of competition. But look for cues on their social media to see if they are talking about where the products are made and the faces behind the products. A great example is the campaign started by Fashion Revolution who encourage brands to showcase the real faces behind their products using tags such as #imadeyourfabric. 
  • Checking if the brands are re-investing in the local society or supporting other environmental causes such as partnering with NGO for funding local schools, planting trees etc. 
  • Always, look for third party certification(can’t stress this enough). This is one of the easiest way to check if the companies are actually living up the claims made by them. Today there are so many certifications out there – if we talk about material certification then we have GOTS, GRS, Okeo Tex. Obviously it’s harder for smaller brands to attain these certifications, but a good start would be to check if their suppliers do actually own any of these ethical certifications such as Fairtrade, SEDEX etc and the brands are open about it.
  • Keep a watch on their social media – are they constantly trying to encourage you to buy new styles? How good are their quality when it comes to making the product last long. One of the biggest signs of greenwashing is when the brand’s social media is all about new products, latest media coverage etc and do not talk about how they are contributing to a more sustainable model of supply chain . This goes back to same discussion that a brand needs to be ethical in order to be sustainable.

It might be overwhelming as a consumer to give so much attention to detail to every brand or product you buy – but it’s equally important that we as a consumer should be able to tell the difference between the sustainability attached to the product and the incorrect claims that’s made.

That being said, a brand can only be a sustainability champion only if it is able to help its consumers make the conscious switch to a more sustainable living. The greatest way to do that is by being more transparent, offering long lasting products at a price point that makes the consumer switch to the sustainable option without having to give it a second thought.