The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

How We Decide Whether a Brand Is Sustainable and Ethical

The team at EcoCult prides itself on being the smartest and most well-informed sustainable fashion website in the world. We are serious about being unbiased and transparent about our relationships with brands, and take our job of vetting brands for editorial inclusion and partnerships seriously. We will absolutely turn down a brand that we are not confident in, even if it means losing out on money.

This is in contrast to many other sustainable fashion websites, who tend to copy-paste marketing copy into posts promoting brands, and take promotional claims at face value. Not us. We investigate, research, ask questions, fact check, and quite often inform brands that some of their marketing copy is in fact incorrect or misleading.

But the truth is, it would be expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately impossible without a significant amount of outside funding to do the detailed digging and questioning that it would take to be 100% confident of our decision for every single fashion brand that we potentially want to link to. And we don’t want to redo work that someone else is already doing and doing well.

So, when deciding whether to feature or link to a brand, we start with two of the most comprehensive and reliable resources out there: Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index and Good on You.

The Transparency Index is a report from a well-regarded non-profit which simply measures how much information a large brand has shared on its efforts to be more sustainable and ethical. It doesn’t mean that a company is sustainable or ethical. But if a brand is highly ranked as transparent, you can be sure that almost any skeletons in its closet have been rooted out by activists and watchdogs. We don’t trust or include companies that are ranked low on transparency by Fashion Revolution. It either means they are hiding something, or they think the whole conversation around sustainability and ethics is beneath them. Either way, it’s not a good look. The Transparency index only ranks large global companies, however, with revenue in the hundreds of millions.

The Good on You app, on the other hand, includes brands of all sizes, from tiny to multinational. It uses all the information about a brand that is publicly available to come to a fairly educated conclusion on how sustainable and ethical a brand is. We tend to only feature brands that have an “It’s a Start” ranking or higher. Unfortunately, even with its single-minded focus, Good on You has not reviewed all brands, or even all the brands you’ve heard of, including that hot supposedly eco-friendly fashion startup you’re wondering about.

When it comes to small-to-medium-sized brands, they simply don’t get the same level of scrutiny as large brands and don’t share the same amount of information. Sometimes that’s on purpose, because it’s not in their best interest to be honest. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have the resources or bandwidth to do so. And to be honest, we also have lower standards for small brands, because A. they’re just starting out, don’t have teams of textile scientists on staff or consultants to call up, and B. they’re not producing very much, so their negative impact is tiny compared to large brands.

So in the case of brands that do less than a few million a year in sales, we can only do a quick poke through their websites. Sometimes we also email some questions, especially if the brand or a publicist is asking us to write about them or partner with them. We’ve been doing this for a while, so at this point, we have a pretty good idea of when a brand is the real deal, and when they’re just putting up a pretty marketing facade.

But to be more specific….

Here’s what we look for when evaluating brands for ethics and sustainability:

1. A lot of specific, well-organized, and clear information. Our favorite brand websites are like an anthill. At the tippy-top, you only see a tag line and short promise of sustainability. But click on the “Sustainability” link, and you find an organized but ever-branching world of information. The first level down might briefly describe their approach to materials, labor, emissions and extended producer responsibility (a.k.a. what you do with their product when it’s worn out or no longer fits). Click any of those, and it will take you further down into more details on their factories, certifications, exact fiber mix with percentages, and exactly where to send your old items for repair or donation.

It’s less about measuring exactly how sustainable their materials are, but about whether their sustainability page obfuscates or elucidates. On a good website, all the answers to our questions are just a few clicks away. On a greenwashing website, we’re left with our head spinning, and with more questions than answers.

2. Third-party certifications. Don’t just tell us you’re sustainable and ethical. Show us proof! We’ve explained the various certifications here. We don’t want to just see logos, however. We want to know how much of the supply chain these certifications apply to. For example: How much of the cotton is organic? Are the products themselves certified by Oeko-Tex, or just the material in the products? Is your brand certified, or only the factory you source from? We don’t expect tiny brands to be fully certified, but if you claim to be sourcing sustainaby and ethically, you should have at least one certificate of authenticity to back your claims up.

3. Where they are and where they want to go. No brand is perfect. So the brands we trust most have measured their negative impact in detail — toxins, emissions, water usage, waste — on the environment and set goals for where they want to go, and by what date they hope to achieve it. That helps keep them honest and motivate the company and employees to do better.

4. Labor transparency. For small brands, sharing the name and location of their factory can mean a competitor steals that factory, or can put the artisans in danger of a burglary. But we would at least like to see pictures and know which region of which country they’re located in, what they’re paid relative to the minimum and living wage in the area, and what kind of inspections and certifications they operate under.

5. Accurate information and promises. Even the best brands have shared misinformation in the past. But now that we’re all aware of the need for vigorous fact-checking, we don’t have the patience for pitches that tell us that fashion is the second most polluting industry. Or website copy that promises a product that is not possible. For example, one brand pitched bags that are made from leather that is the offcuts from a leather jacket factory, and later said the leather was vegetable-tanned. That’s not possible, as leather jackets can’t be made from stiff vegetable-tanned leather. That’s not a brand we will link to until they fix the copy and demonstrate more expertise and awareness.

6. Cultural awareness. We’ve received some truly offensive pitches before from brands who just don’t get it when it comes to white saviorism, cultural appropriation, and other hot-button topics in the sustainable and ethical fashion scene. Or, they don’t have any models of color in the lookbook they sent over. We might pass on these pitches completely, or if we think the issue is easily fixable and not representative of deeper issues, tell them that we simply can’t share their message until they do some updates.

What about sustainable collections from an otherwise conventional brand?

We don’t promote limited-edition eco-friendly or Earth Day collections from otherwise unsustainable brands, as they are cynically done to create an unearned halo effect around the rest of an amoral brand. And by definition, these collections are short-lived and so have little to no actual positive impact.

But for brands that are switching entire product categories permanently over to a more sustainable fabric or ethical factory, however, we will link to those products. It’s clear that this is a large step forward for the brand and a precursor to more actions in the future. It indicates they take this seriously and have put in the work.

This is just an example, but if a sort-of transparent brand has converted all its bathing suits to made from Econyl, an Italian fabric made from recycled fishing nets, we’ll link to those in our bathing suit roundup. But we won’t include that brand’s conventional sweaters in our sweater roundup or list the whole brand in our shopping guide.

What about vegan products?

While we do not support animal cruelty and would like to see information about how a brand ensures animals that provide wool, down, and leather are treated well during their lifetimes, EcoCult is not a vegan website. We will occasionally feature vegan brands if they rise to the standard that we’ve outlined above. However, many vegan brands disqualify themselves by stating their products are made from vegan leather, but failing to disclose what that material actually is where it was made. Some vegan brands also make scientifically inaccurate statements, or pretend that vegan leather is a perfect material with no drawbacks. And finally, we support the right of indigenous groups and artisans of color to use a material that is both traditional to their culture and is readily and locally available to them. Read more about vegan leather and alternatives to leather.

This can and will change!

The sustainable fashion scene is always changing and improving. Over the years, our standards for what counts as sustainable and ethical have been raised from, “Literally any effort at all” to the specifics that you see above. Plus, new brands and initiatives and organizations are launching and others are shutting down all the time. We’re also ourselves learning and adding to our knowledge. So we go back to posts that are older than a year and update them with new information. We also add and take out brands from our Shopping Guide.

And we welcome feedback! We’ve had readers write in or leave comments about certain brands, and we take these tips seriously. We’ll take another look at a brand we’ve featured and either justify our decision to include it, or take the brand out of all editorial. We’ve even taken a brand out and then put them back in a year later when they published a beautiful and detailed sustainability page.

So please do keep us honest. Leave comments about your experience with a brand. Send us tips. Ask us questions. We’re doing this for you, after all. And we couldn’t do this without you.

Thank you for putting your trust in us.

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