What makes an ethical fashion company ethical? (It’s all about standards)

There’s much more choice than you might expect when it comes to ethical fashion. One ambition of the Where stuff comes from Directory is to make it easier for people to discover the incredibly diverse range of options available.

But it’s important to ask questions. The more people demand ethical fashion, the more companies (both large and small) will aim to market themselves as being ethical. And, as we know from other sectors, appearance doesn’t always match reality – particularly when it comes to the big corporates. (I’m thinking, for example, of Tesco’s fictional farms used to market food to customers who care about traceability and where their food comes from).

And it’s equally important that we all make informed shopping choices, so that the best and most ethical companies can survive and thrive.

So a key question is which brands to include in the Directory (and which to leave out!). I’ve made a decision to concentrate mainly on smaller companies, as they’re the ones people are least likely to know about already. And, anyhow, other resources such as Ethical Consumer provide analysis of high street fashion brands along with recommendations.

But how do I decide which fashion brands are ethical? Clearly I’m looking for companies with a genuine commitment to social and environmental aims. It’s relatively straightforward to assess financial performance. But it’s a different matter when it comes to ‘people’ and ‘planet’ as opposed to ‘profits’. For example, Standards Map “provides information on over 210 standards, codes of conduct, audit protocols addressing sustainability hotspots in global supply chains”. I looked up standards for cotton, a common material in fashion, and found 42 different potential standards relating to cotton sold in the UK.

How easy is it to assess or compare fashion brands if they’re using different standards to provide reassurance to customers? And how does the average person know which of these standards is worth the paper they’re written on? (Remember that – unlike financial audit – social and environmental accreditation is purely on a voluntary basis, and standards aren’t necessarily externally verified).

It gets more complicated when you consider that many small companies, especially start-ups, simply can’t afford accreditation regardless of their ethical aims and practices. So it’s useful to take accreditation into account. But, until standards are more clearly aligned; compulsory; and, perhaps most importantly, externally verified, they don’t necessarily answer all the questions that consumers might have.

As a result, inclusion in the Directory is a matter of judgement to some degree. Overall, I’m looking for indications of genuine intention to make the world a better place: clarity of purpose, authenticity, transparency, and consistency. And, yes, possibly some form of accreditation. On the other hand, I’m also alert to any indications of potential ‘greenwash’. (To maintain independence, I don’t accept payments or commission for recommendations in the Directory.)

I name company founders in the Directory where possible because – apart from demonstrating that business can be personal – I also believe that transparency about ownership and leadership underpins wider accountability. (Witness the challenges in claiming tax from large multinational corporations where it can be practically impossible to establish who the beneficial owners actually are, especially when they’re hidden behind a ‘veil of secrecy’ in tax havens).

I’m not saying I’ve got this 100% right yet. But I’d be pleased to hear comments and suggestions, from consumers and from brands, on whether the Where stuff comes from Directory is useful and how it could be improved. (Scroll right down to the bottom of the page to ‘Leave a reply’).

(If you’re interested in business ethics, transparency and ‘greenwash’ you might also enjoy my blog on ‘eco’ yoga mats.)

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Sue Written by:

I'm a finance professional who's interested in whether we're accounting for the right things in the right ways.

One Comment

  1. January 31, 2017

    This was a great read. Thanks, Sue!


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