What Makes a Brand Sustainable: How to Find Sustainable Fashion
It’s amazing to see sustainable fashion – and sustainable production in general – taking off. From the shelves in your supermarket to your Facebook page, eco-friendly, ethical, and green commitments are everywhere. But what makes a brand sustainable, and how do you find sustainable fashion?
In this post, I’ll take you through some of the key elements of sustainable production. We’ll explore what it means to be a sustainable brand, including production and values, and also look at how you find sustainable options.
As you take the journey to fashioning a greener wardrobe, understanding how to make a people- and planet-friendly choice is key. I hope this post helps you on the way!
What is a sustainable brand?
As with most things in life, sustainability is a spectrum. Items, brands, and retailers can be more or less sustainable, but defining something as a fully sustainable brand is a challenge.
When I look at what makes a brand sustainable, I consider two dimensions: planet and people.
Sustainable for planet
One of the first things to determine when deciding what makes a brand sustainable is how it treats the planet. This means how items are made (production), what they’re made of (materials), how long items last (durability), and what happens to them when you’re finished (after life).
How items are made is important in determining the environmental footprint of an item, and relates to the production line that underpin the brand. Are factories designed and powered sustainably? Do they overproduce? Are they committed to supporting sustainability in the community? Are products shipped sustainably? The answers to these questions should be made clear on a brand’s website.
When thinking about what materials are used, you want to think about sources that are recycled, non-toxic, vegan, organic, and/or natural. Certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Soil Association can help you determine if a brand is using materials that are better for the planet.
But don’t forget: it’s not just about the materials themselves. How a material is dyed or treated also makes a difference. According to reporting in The Independent, dyeing textiles is one of the largest clean water pollutants in the world. Leather tanning similarly offers challenges, with 90% of leather tanned using a solution that includes chrome. Chrome is a highly toxic chemical that can have serious consequences for the health of the soil and the communities on it. Look out for natural/non-toxic dyes and vegetable tanning – these are both options that are better for the planet.
How long items last is also important. This is about how well they are made and, again, what materials they are made of. If you are buying fast fashion, for instance, you’re likely to get rid of it fast. The production quality is poor and you’ll wear right through it. This is unsustainable for you and for the planet. Look for high-quality production and reviews that suggest the products have staying power. Classic silhouettes, shapes, and materials also help make sure your item stays in style forever!
Finally, think about what happens after you use the product. Does the brand have options for recycling your used items? For instance, Ella’s Kitchen baby food has EllaCycle, a simple way to recycle the packaging used for their items. This shows a commitment to sustainability and makes it easy for you to reduce your environmental footprint, too.
Sustainable for people
Once you’ve decided if a brand is more sustainable for the planet, it’s time to look at how it treats its people. This includes if the brand ensures safety for workers, secures a living wage, recognises trade unions, does not tolerate child labour, establishes fair working hours, and generally treats workers with dignity and respect.
Critically, these elements must be present across all stages of the supply chain in order to determine if a brand is ethical. Here are a few key things to look out for when trying to figure how what makes a brand sustainable for people:
- Does the brand have a code of conduct for suppliers, and (ideally) is this aligned with recognised standards (like the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code)?
- Does the brand list its factories and suppliers?
- Do all factories in the supply chain undergo independent inspections?
- Has the brand achieved certifications like SA8000 or Fairtrade?
With these questions in mind, you can feel confident in assessing if a brand is clearly and consistently supporting its staff.
What makes a sustainable product?
What makes a sustainable product is similar to what makes a brand sustainable. The product itself is made with people and planet at the heart, using sustainable production methods and materials and created in a way that benefits the community behind it.
This means that supply chains are clear and transparent and people and planet are treated fairly in the production of the item. And once you’re done with the product, you’re able to upcycle, recycle, or donate the item. When you’re looking for a sustainable products, the more you can reduce, reuse, or recycle, the better.
A sustainable product has one additional dimension: the personal. A product that is sustainable also has to be sustainable for you. The item should be something you both need and want. There’s no use buying organic bicycle shorts that will quickly be out of fashion, or a bamboo toothbrush that will only sit on the shelf. Make sure you’ll use and love the item for a long time, before you invest.
Top tip: You might have come across brands that support charities or ‘give back’ to the community. While it’s great that companies take their place in the community seriously, it’s more important that no harm is done in the first place. Sometimes, charitable initiatives can be a form of greenwashing. Do your research so you can feel confident that you’re buying a product that matches your values.
What makes a clothing brand sustainable?
As with any company, what makes a clothing brand sustainable is how it treats people and the planet through its production. I’ve set out above lots of things to look out for when trying to determine if a brand is sustainable, but when it comes to clothes in particular, here are my top six questions to ask.
- Is the brand transparent? Can you see where and how the brand produces its clothing, right down to the people-level?
- Does the company use sustainable materials and methods? Is the brand using recycled or natural materials that are better for the planet? Can you recycle products after use? Does the brand produce in limited runs? Do products ship in sustainable packaging?
- Does the brand have a verified commitment to treating people well across the supply chain? Is there a way you can see that people are paid fairly and treated well?
- Is the brand independently certified? Has the brand sought independent verification of its practices at all possible stages of production?
- Is the brand values-driven? Is there a dedicated page on the brand’s website that sets out its values and the journey they’re on to be more sustainable? (P.S. it’s always a journey to be more sustainable – it’s a GOOD thing if a brand recognises this!)
- Will you use what you are buying enough to justify the purchase? Do you even need and want what you are buying? Will you wear it again and again?
Ideally, you want to answer yes to all of these questions, but that’s just not realistic for most brands. And in some cases, that’s not because the brand isn’t ‘good enough’ – things like certifications cost time and resources that small brands might not have, for instance. And of course, you won’t necessarily wear an evening gown time and again. But using these questions can help guide you towards more sustainable brands and products.
Top tip: If you’re looking for great ethical and sustainable fashion, check out my post The 12 best brands for affordable ethical clothing in the UK.
What are sustainable brand values?
The values behind a brand often define if it is sustainable. Here are some buzzwords to look for when identifying sustainable brand values.
- Sustainable: the brand uses and supports practices that are better for the planet.
- Ethical: the brand treats employees fairly, with a living wage, safe working conditions, and respect for their rights.
- People-, community- or values-driven: at the heart of the brand is the positive impact it wants to have on the local and global community.
- Eco-friendly, natural, or organic: the brand’s materials and production come from the earth – and protect it at the same time.
How can you tell if a brand is sustainable?
Now that you know what makes a brand sustainable, it’s time to look at how you figure this out! Luckily, there are lots of resources to check out when researching your favourite brand. Let’s begin!
The brand’s website
It’s always helpful to start by looking at the brand’s own website. Most sustainable brands have a page that sets out their ethical and sustainable values, and ideally it will have the answers to the questions set out above. If this page doesn’t exist: take a pause. You’re probably not looking at a sustainable brand.
Apps, websites, and magazines
There are some amazing apps, websites, and magazines out there that do a lot of the research for you! This saves you time and means you’ll find new brands to love! Here are a few of my favourites:
- Good on You
- GoodGuide (check your App store)
- Ethical Consumer
- Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index
Yep, as in that thing you used to watch on TV and now only get through your phone! A quick search for the brand on a news app or search engine should show any recent scandals or successes. Some brand’s commitments and practices can change quickly – and, unfortunately, some brands hide things quite well. Journalists may find dirt on a brand that you can’t find anywhere else.
Ask the brand!
And if all else fails, consider reaching out to the brand. Ask the questions I’ve outlined above and throw in your own, too. Maybe you’re wondering if all of the brand’s jackets are vegan, or where the plastic in their sunglasses comes from. Never be afraid to reach out and ask!
I always think it’s important to do this, even if you know the brand isn’t very sustainable. It is so important that we, as consumers, make sustainability profitable. Brands won’t change until we tell them to do so.
Top tip: Need more ideas and inspiration? Check out my post Sustainable inspiration – the best ideas for sustainable living.
Now that you know what makes a brand sustainable, it’s time to shop! Or rather, it’s time to invest in the brands that meet your sustainable values.
And remember – sharing is caring! Share the information and resources in this post with your friends and family if they’re also curious about sustainable brands. It’s surprisingly easy to determine if a brand is sustainable. The more people who know that, the more we can build a better world through our shopping habits.