Asking Good Questions

With an increase in consumer demand for “ethically made” goods, there has been a wonderful surge of new businesses rising to meet that demand. There are so many good companies to choose from (check out this list for a few of our well-vetted favorites), but with language like “ethical” and “sustainable” being so subjective and many different certifications that companies can seek out (some more strict than others), it’s hard to know exactly what to look for when choosing where to spend money.

It’s not always enough to seek out keywords like “sustainable” or “fair wages” within a company’s website or marketing materials. Even big fast fashion companies with well-documented human rights abuses within their supply chains or who are currently contributing to massive environmental damages have “ethical policies” or “eco friendly initiatives” that look good on paper. With this in mind, how do we avoid being “greenwashed” or “fair-trade-washed”? After all, if we are spending more money on products with an ethical label, we want to be sure that our extra dollars are having a good impact and ensuring the good treatment of the people and places that produced the product.

It all starts with asking good questions. Looking for trusted measures of ethics (like whether something carries a Fair Trade certified label and has been assessed by a neutral third party) can be a good place to start, but what about the many companies with great ethics who don’t have any type of formal certification in place?

Here are some basic good questions to ask:

Materials

What materials are used in the manufacturing of the company’s products? Are the materials natural or synthetic? Does the company use recycled materials? What type of dyes or inks are used? Natural materials like bamboo, cotton, or hemp are often the most eco-friendly choice (no plastic microfibers to shed into waterways), but completely natural fibers may not be possible to use depending on the specific product. Look for fabrics made from recycled materials. Another good question with regard to materials is whether a company can trace where its materials are sourced. If a company is paying its sewers fair wages, but the fabric being sewn was made by underpaid workers, there is a gap in the ethics of that particular supply chain.

Labor and Wages  

How well does a company’s actions stack up against their claims of fair wages? Look for information on how the company determines a “fair wage”- is it the government minimum wage in the country where they work, a living wage guideline set by an advocacy group, or something different? Are healthcare and benefits offered to workers? What is the working environment like in terms of safety and regulation of hours? What type of initiatives are offered to improve the lives of a company’s workers? Look for education initiatives, training and skills programs, and financial literacy aid.

Environmental Impact

It’s nearly impossible for a company to have absolutely zero negative environmental impact, but many are making fantastic efforts to minimize or at least offset their footprint. In addition to asking questions about materials, look for whether the company has a policy in place to reduce or offset emissions, and how they go about packaging and shipping products to avoid wastefulness and excess plastic packaging.

Don’t have time to do the research on your own? Not to worry! You can search for your favorite brands and check out how they rate in terms of ethics through Project Just or Good On You

Hannah Theisen