Sustainable Shopping Is Good For The Environment, But It’s Even Better For Workers

It’s easier than ever to buy eco-friendly products, whether it’s shoes made of recycled ocean plastic or fast fashion dresses made from sustainably sourced wood fibers. And yet, all too often, the human beings that toil to make our clothes get left out of our clamouring to save the planet. While sustainable products proliferate, sweatshop-free products remain as illusive as ever.

Of the world’s estimated 60-plus million garment and textile workers (the vast majority of whom are young women), only 2% earn a living wage. In Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment producing country, many workers fail to make enough money to feed their families. What’s more, social and environmental exploitation often go hand in hand in the places where our clothes are made: By 2050, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns will displace as many as 18 million residents in Bangladesh. And many of the capital city’s rivers, a main source of drinking water, are biologically dead due to toxic runoff from textile mills.

What’s clear is that fashion is a political and a feminist issue. A truly ethical fashion industry looks beyond creating a few niche sustainable products for Western consumers, and works to keep water and air healthy across the globe, and it empowers its mostly female workers through fair pay and humane working conditions. As citizens and feminists, we can do our part to make fashion fair and green by using our voices and choosing more responsibly products that look good and do good. Here’s how.

1. Curiosity Comes Before Consumption

Choosing clothing consciously starts with education. Make a little time to do some homework about the brands you’re supporting and the industry that’s fashioning your clothes. A quick Google search will turn up basic info: Fashion is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions. It is also one of the world’s largest employers of forced and child labour. And you can also start to find better companies by scouring brand home pages. They can be a wealth (or dearth) of information.

More socially responsible brands will include links to information about life inside factories, wages, and sustainability initiatives, from eco-friendly materials to how they’re cutting back carbon emissions. For example, the outdoor brand Patagonia has sections of its website dedicated to sustainable materials, a supply chain map, and stories from inside their Fair Trade factories in Thailand, Vietnam, and Mexico.

It’s a red flag if you find yourself having to dig for this basic info.

2. Sustainability & Ethics Literally Start From The Ground Up

From compostable coffee cups that actually don’t decompose in a landfill to “natural” products made with toxic chemicals, greenwashing is everywhere these days. How do you seek out brands that are genuine in their efforts to produce responsibly made clothes? Those efforts should focus on the supply chain: According to a 2018 report by Quantis, as much as 90% of the carbon impact of fashion happens while crafting raw materials from farms and fossil fuels into clothing and then spinning and dyeing those materials into fabric. Factories and fields are where brands have the biggest human rights impact, too. In other words, retail stores with LED lights and recycling bins aren’t enough.

Feminist slogan tees or inclusive ads aren’t enough to protect human rights.

Meaningful sustainability initiatives should aim to reduce water usage, fossil fuel consumption, and toxic chemicals at the supply chain level. Likewise, feminist slogan tees or inclusive ads aren’t enough to protect human rights. Look to see what the brand or retailer is doing to protect the right to unionise, eliminate child and forced labour, and raise wages and reduce working hours for all fashion workers.

Sergey Filimonov/Stocksy

3. Support Better Companies, Not Just Perfect Ones

The expression that the perfect is the enemy of the good applies to conscious fashion, too. When shopping, it makes a difference to avoid the worst actors and shift your spending to big brands that are on the road to reducing their impact and creating safe, well-paying jobs. It sends a message to the rest of the industry to step up.

How to tell who’s doing a better job? The Good on You app and website is the most user-friendly, current and well-researched database for finding ethical and sustainable brands. The ratings — from Not Good Enough to It’s a Start to Great — makes it easy to shift away from the bad actors and find more ethical alternatives. If you want to do a little of your own investigating, the Baptist World Aid Ethical Fashion Report and Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index are two annual reports — both free — that grade or rank major brands on a list of social and environmental criteria.

4. Become Label Obsessed

You can also look for certifications wherever you shop: Fairtrade certified clothing protects small-scale producers in the developing world through sustainable farming and a “fair trade” premium. Likewise, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certifies clothing made out of natural materials (meaning wool, cotton, hemp, and linen) for non-toxic inputs and high labour standards. Bluesign, Cradle-to-Cradle, and Oeko-Tex all regulate toxic chemical usage. And one of the easiest ways to shop responsibly is with B Corporations, for-profit companies that must meet rigorous social and environmental standards.

You’ll start to notice that the most ethical companies have all the certifications — and don’t make you choose between your commitments to worker rights and the planet.

Examples in the clothing industry include Allbirds, Patagonia, Athleta, Eileen Fisher, Nisolo, and Soko, and PACT organic. You’ll start to notice that the most ethical companies have all the certifications — and don’t make you choose between your commitments to worker rights and the planet. PACT is Fair Trade, organic, and a B Corp for example.

5. Your Voice Matters As Much As Your Cash

Yes, supporting ethical fashion brands creates economic opportunity. They can be a key source of poverty alleviation and empowerment for women. What companies you support is important. But it’s just as important to use your voice to change the fashion industry. The number one reason fashion brands are scrambling to go green is directly in response to consumer pressure, from global protests to letter-writing campaigns to venting on social media. Brands listen to their consumers. We can use the same leverage to put worker rights on the agenda in fashion — and as high up as the planet.

How do you talk to brands? Find their customer service email address, or just hop on social media and shoot them a direct message, or leave a comment. Your message doesn’t need to be antagonistic. Something like, “Hi, I love your brand but what are you doing to help pay garment workers a living wage?” Or, “Can you send me more information about what you’re doing to be environmentally friendly.” Better brands will get back to you.

You can also link up with others or donate to activist non-profits like Fashion Revolution — the originators of #WhoMadeMyClothes social media campaign, which has fuelled greater transparency in garment supply chains. Likewise, Remake is a global campaign that teaches consumers about the origins of their clothes and gives them easy, actionable ways to make a difference, such as their recent #NoNewClothes campaign, where followers swear off shopping for a year, a season, or a month. Individual actions have power. But it’s when we use our voices collectively that we can shake the foundations of power.

Elizabeth Cline's book The Conscious Closet is out now