What is Ethical?
This post contains a few referral links, noted with a *
When I first started this blog, I found it rather difficult to navigate the ins and outs of “ethical consumerism.” I knew vaguely that designated fair trade items were preferable to conventionally produced goods, but that was about it. All I really knew was that my consumer habits needed to change if I was to live up to my faith tradition’s call (and personal goal) to love even when it’s inconvenient.
I thought it might be a good idea to define a few terms in the ethical consumerism category and parse out the pros and cons of different models.
Let us begin…
According to the World Fair Trade Organization (my go-to for fair trade info), fair trade is defined as:
a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.
The fair trade model is set up to help the poorest people in the poorest areas of the world. It doesn’t necessarily seek to revolutionize the entire industry (though I think many would argue that it does set itself up as a model for the ideal relationship between producers and consumers).
Rather, it hopes to provide economic opportunities and social stability to those who would otherwise not have access to good work and fair wages. That’s a big reason why fair trade organizations and businesses focus on skills and education for women, who often experience the greatest disadvantages when access to resources is scarce.
A number of the most prominent “ethical” companies – and certainly most of the brands I’ve featured here – are categorized as fair trade. Some have official fair trade status granted to them by external auditing agencies, but it costs a pretty penny to get fair trade certified, so some operate under fair trade principles without official certification. Many fair trade organizations are classified as non-profits.
Social Enterprises, according to the Social Enterprise Alliance, are:
businesses whose primary purpose is the common good. They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental and human justice agendas.
Social enterprises operate in the regular business sector instead of the non-profit sector. A perfect example of this is Sseko Designs*, who employs women in Uganda as a means of both providing job skills and assisting with their ongoing education through scholarship programs.
Operating as a regular business also allows them to take on investors, expand, and develop new products and job positions quickly and efficiently (ideally), which in turn means greater economic prosperity for everyone involved. Sseko’s model also means that no one is ever made to feel like a charity case.
A less wonderful example of the social enterprise is TOMS. Don’t get me wrong: TOMS revolutionized the ethical market with its often copied one-for-one model, but it’s taken them awhile to realize that people would rather have a nice job and pay for their own shoes than get free shoes and remain unemployed.
Until recently when they began to improve working conditions at their factories, TOMS and Sseko Designs were on opposite ends of the social enterprise spectrum. Instead of offering dignified employment (the start of the marketplace), they offered goods to those in need (the end of the marketplace).
In my mind, a social enterprise is better than just any old enterprise, but it leaves itself open to some troubling mindsets and can cause more harm than good for both the people who receive the “benefit” and for the psyches of American consumers. Watch this awesome video with Slavoj Zizek for clarification.
According to the B Corporation website (and helpfully summarized on Wikipedia) a B Corp Certification is:
a private certification issued to for-profit companies by B Lab, a United States-based non-profit organization. To be granted and to preserve certification, companies must receive a minimum score on an online assessment for “social and environmental performance”, satisfy the requirement that the company integrate B Lab commitments to stakeholders into company governing documents, and pay an annual fee ranging from $500 to $25,000.
Phew! That’s a lot of money. Basically, B Corp certifications are given to businesses with a commitment to fair labor, sustainability, and transparency.
The B Corp is the no nonsense sibling to the sentimental social enterprise in the sense that they strive to do good by integrating it into the entire supply chain.
B Corps aren’t necessarily attached to a specific social good, but they aren’t as likely to fall prey to well meaning but ineffective ways of “helping” people because they’re simply adhering to a sort of best practices for people and planet.
A good example of the B Corp is PACT Apparel (from whom I just purchased a couple of cute t-shirts).
The above terms have slightly different connotations depending on who you ask, but for a lot of brands, they’re often interchangeable concepts. Organic and eco tend to fall under the larger umbrella of sustainability. Sustainable manufacturing, as defined by the International Trade Administration, is:
the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities, and consumers and are economically sound.
You’ve probably noticed that some ethical brands are more oriented toward environmental impact while others focus on labor rights. As it turns out, the eco/sustainable brands tend to think of what’s ethical in a holistic way – after all, we don’t exist apart from nature – so most incorporate fair labor into their business model while also finding ways to reduce waste, water usage, and pesticides throughout the production process.
I was initially turned off by the hippie dippie branding of the sustainability movement, but I’ve come to embrace it because I know that those who are committed to sustainability understand that it must extend to employees, consumers, and the earth.
Of course, there’s been a lot of greenwashing – or labeling things as “eco” when they’re not – as it’s become more popular in recent years. Not everything made with organic cotton is truly sustainable. Not everything in a green bottle is nontoxic.
Be wary. A certification for organic cotton is available for companies who can afford it. Look for the GOTS Certified label on product listings and tags to ensure that your organic item was produced with consideration for sustainability and human welfare.
The basic definition of transparency is fairly obvious and doesn’t just apply to the fashion industry, so I’ll use Everlane‘s* concept of “radical transparency” here:
Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.
Everlane hasn’t done a particularly good job with transparency in more recent years.
But the best case scenario is that companies concerned with transparency are ready and willing to share information about their factories, production standards, costs, raw materials, and corporate structure.
They do an unusually good job at answering tough questions because their employees are trained to know the answers. And they’re prepared to make changes if they don’t live up to consumer (or their own) expectations.
In the words of Happy Cow, Vegan fashion is:
clothing and accessories made from cruelty-free sources, i.e. NO animal products were used in making the garments and gear, and no animal was harmed.
I’m not a vegan, but I do believe in maintaining high ethical standards in the meat and fashion industries. The definition is simple and straightforward and, as such, something can be labeled as vegan without necessarily being sustainable or concerned with the human good.
Some leather substitutes, for example, are fairly toxic to the environment and to the people who work with them. But by ensuring that no animals were slaughtered to make your purse or shoes or whatever, you can be certain that no animal suffered, and that matters.
It should also be noted that the conventional leather industry wreaks havoc on workers and the environment, so choosing leather substitutes that treat animals, people, and the planet with respect is a good idea (The True Cost movie expands on this. You can download it here if you haven’t had a chance to see it).
This one’s a doozy, because ethical priorities are different for everyone. I’ll stick to the Ethical Fashion Forum‘s definition:
…ethical fashion represents an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment.
The models defined above are all ways of being ethical. What I like about Ethical Fashion Forum’s definition is that it broadly defines the two main categories (or really one category if you can smoosh together the artificial human-nature dichotomy for a second) that matter: people and planet.
Whether you come to this conversation because of your concern with climate change, human trafficking, pollution, personal health, or economic justice, people and planet are connected, and ideally we’d let our definition of ethical include everything that we have the power to influence.
And heck, even the Pope knows that we don’t have time to waste here. We’re destroying ourselves and our earth home.
Ethical is no longer an option; it’s absolutely essential.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.
Monday 1st of February 2016
Hi Leah, This is such a great post. It's so good that you have made these terms and their meanings more accessible. You're so right about "ethical" meaning something different to everyone. We discuss this a little too in our "Ethical Clothing - What does that mean?" post.
Wednesday 1st of July 2015
I agree with you that people use eco/natural/green flippantly, but I don't think they needed their own category because when they're used correctly within the larger category of sustainability, they further define what sustainability means. And in my research, I've found that most clothing companies marketing themselves from a green perspective actually are doing things that make them more sustainable overall (of course, I tend to start my search from a labor perspective, so I probably don't know the full breadth of "Eco" businesses). I would also say that something can be sustainable in terms of ethics and be a failing company in terms of marketing and branding and I would still call their framework "sustainable" when choosing whether to buy from them or not. But I get what you're saying and appreciate your nuancing the conversation.
Wednesday 1st of July 2015
Leah I love that you are defining these words! I find it super important in reaching an audience that isn't already "bought in" to the whole sustainable fashion thing. I especially love your definition of "Ethical" as it is a broad term that can be interpreted in many ways. I do think that "Sustainability" is separate from "Eco/Natural/Green," however. Sustainability by definition refers to whether something can be sustained - and that includes natural resources, human labor, and your price point, marketing and everything else in your business plan. Eco/Natural/Green refer more to the environment, in my opinion. I am always so wary of those three words as they are too easy to just throw out there with nothing to back them up! Good job on calling attention to the greenwashing problem! I have a few blog posts that define some of these words as well, I don't know if I'm ready to tackle them all at once, yet, though ;)
Wednesday 1st of July 2015
Very useful resource, thanks Leah for putting this together.
Fair Trade Healdsburg
Monday 29th of June 2015
Well done Leah, it's because of posts like these that you have become one of the favorite ethical bloggers of our staff! Perfect timing as well as we just hosted a viewing of the clothing documentary, "The True Cost" last week. I will be sharing this post with our whole crew. Keep up the good work!