Key indicators of an ethical clothing brand
1. Fair wages and working conditions for all working in a supply chain
From those producing raw materials (such as farmers growing cotton) to the workers stitching together a garment, or shredding and repurposing unwanted clothing, all workers should receive a living wage and should be treated fairly as defined by the International Labour Organisation.
Of the companies covered in this guide, 24 get a best rating for Supply Chain Management, for upholding workers’ rights in their supply chains, with many going above and beyond what Ethical Consumer would normally expect the average small company to do.
For example, Brothers We Stand has a six-point standard that brands (sold via its website) must comply with and have systems in place that ensure important labour standards are met. It is a member of Social Enterprise UK (a national body for enterprises with a social or environmental mission), and its suppliers and partner brands are working with initiatives like the Fair Wear Foundation and GOTS. 100% of its own-brand t-shirts are made from GOTS-certified organic cotton and approximately 98% of items from other brands on its website are made with certified organic cotton. To get into its collections, products also must have a social or environmental impact that sets them apart from the mainstream. Examples of stand-out social impact included “schemes for worker engagement with decision making, working to fair trade criteria, programmes of worker training and capacity building, clear examples of how workers are valued and their needs prioritised.”
Only three companies get a middle rating for Supply Chain Management in this guide: Bronwyn Lowenthal (Lowie), Howies, and Bibico.
Read our detailed article on workers' rights in the clothing industry to find out more about what the conditions are and campaigns you can support to help bring about change.
2. Transparency and traceability
Information about suppliers, raw materials and production processes is readily available on a company’s website or via email when asked.
3. Environmental practices are embedded into how they work
They seek out sustainable fabrics (such as organic and recycled fibres); less polluting production processes such as the use of natural plant-based dyes; use renewable energy to process fabrics; develop systems to take back and upcycle worn clothes.
In this guide 19 companies received our best rating for Environmental Reporting, eight a middle rating and only one, Oxfam, a worst rating. Oxfam was one of the few organisations in this report to be rated against the higher standards we expect of larger organisations.
Eight companies also received our best rating for their approach to Carbon Management and Reporting: Beyond Retro, Where Does It Come From?, Living Crafts, Rapanui, Kuyichi, THTC Clothing, Birdsong, and MUD Clothes.
Not only were their products offering an environmental alternative, but they had taken steps to actively reduce their carbon footprints. For example, MUD Jeans is striving to create a circular business model that sees its jeans made from 100% post-consumer waste. It has 2030 targets in place to decrease kgCO2e per pair of jeans by 80% whilst reducing its total land use by 80% and reducing the total energy used per pair of jeans by 60%.
All remaining companies received a middle rating, offering environmental alternatives with lower carbon impacts, but failing to actively discuss their carbon footprint and steps they were taking to reduce emissions in line with international agreements.
4. Timeless clothing that lasts
In many cases, companies avoid offering new seasonal ranges each year to try and combat our fast-fashion appetite; opting instead to produce clothes that are built to last and offering a repairs service or clothes that you can lease.
“We are really aiming to inspire behavioural change in our customers through designing long-lasting versatile items. We do not bring out a new collection every season, we offer perhaps a new colourway and a slow evolution. We encourage customers to style their garments in many ways rather than buy many styles” – Outsider.
“We offer two collections per year, doing small runs that give exclusivity. We focus on timeless styles (not trend led), that are well made and durable” – Bibico.
5. Moving toward circularity?
At least seven companies in this guide are working towards developing closed loop, circular business models: reclaiming fibres and garments, designing out waste and investing in the innovation of new materials that support a circular textiles economy, and discouraging excessive consumption.
These include Finisterre, Lucy and Yak, Mud, Ninety Percent, Nudie, KoolKompany, and THTC clothing.
There is some critique around circular economies however, namely:
- The more complex a product, the more complex it is to recycle. Each step of this process also results in resources and energy being lost.
- Energy spent on creating things cannot be recycled. Even if we move towards renewable energy, the infrastructure needed to generate and maintain renewable energy still currently requires new resources and energy.
- Growth makes a circular economy impossible. The amount of recycled materials will always be smaller than the material needed to support growth, resulting in further extraction and use of new materials. Even if we achieved a steady state economy, it is unlikely that we can meet all needs with recycled or reclaimed materials.
For us to truly move towards more circular economies would therefore require more than simply recycling. It requires us to reduce energy and resource consumption, to decouple sustainability from financial economic growth, to produce and consume much less and to simplify the goods we use to ensure they can be easily recycled and composted – becoming soil once again.