The Discerning Consumer: 5 Ethical Credentials To Prioritize

This is sort of a follow up to my What Is Ethical? post, so I’d recommend brushing up on terms if you’re not too familiar with the jargon of the conscious consumer movement. I would make a small change to the original list when it comes to defining sustainable. I previously grouped Eco, Organic, and Sustainable into the same category, albeit with a bit of nuance, but now I tend to think of sustainability in a much broader sense. 

A sustainable business should incorporate practices that are good for the earth, good for all people involved (farmer to consumer), and good for long term profitability and appropriate (not exploitative) growth. 

This piece includes some affiliate links. 

In many ways, this post is meant to illuminate where my ethical efforts are headed, and what I’ve considered and processed over the last several months. I realize that sometimes my point of view will shift on a particular facet of the conscious consumerism experience, but because it’s either articulated in private conversation or simply gets stuck in my head, there’s the occasional gap in the narrative on StyleWise, which leads to questions and confusion. 
That being said, you may have noticed that I’ve become a little bit of an eco-crunchy-hippie, particularly in the last year. Reading the literature on climate change and understanding how interconnected ecological issues are with human welfare has pushed me toward a perspective that gives environmental sustainability near if not equal weight with labor rights. Ensuring worker welfare is tied up in reducing chemical dyes and processes, eliminating harmful pesticides, and making sure the ecosystem that supports those workers survives the onslaught of abuse mass production hurls at it daily.
I think it’s hard for a lot of us, maybe particularly those of us who were brought up with human-centric religious and social values, to feel very much when we talk about ecological degradation, and that lack of empathy can hold us back from seeing that this really does matter and that we have a responsibility to be good and gracious stewards of the earth and its resources. 
But, enough philosophizing! This post is actually about my hierarchy of values and how I decide what makes the cut when I’m hankering for a new item to add to my closet or home. The key is remembering that no company is perfect, so progress and apparent interest in improving their supply chain sometimes matters more than having a certification. 
For simplicity’s sake, I’m not going to talk about secondhand shopping, because that’s an option that exists almost as a secondary market with its own criteria. For more on that, read my personal thrift shopping rules here.

1. Overall Sustainability

Obviously, companies that take a measured, holistic approach to ethical business are my top pick. That means that they take the long view, ensuring worker welfare; creating innovative initiatives that build lasting infrastructure; treating all workers as equal partners in long term growth; creating high quality, marketable designs; and using and/or developing environmentally sustainable processes, textiles, and everything in between. 
Numi Tea does this extraordinarily well, as do Tonle and ZADY, though Eileen Fisher may represent the pinnacle of this responsible, thoughtful business model.

2. Fair Trade Labor Practices

People should not be treated like slaves. Other than the fact that it should inherently be something we’re opposed to, it’s also bad business practice. Downtrodden people have a hard time innovating. Overworked people have a hard time building lives for themselves and their children that will improve local infrastructure and lift communities and countries out of corruption and poverty. We may not be able to sway leaders in countries where the most dangerous sweatshops are housed, but we can say we aren’t okay with allowing some people to get virtually no share of the prosperity good business should bring about. 
Krochet Kids, Elegantees, Mata Traders, Equal Exchange, and Ten Thousand Villages are exemplars of the fair trade movement.

3. Dedication to Environmentally Sound Practices

Just because it’s fair doesn’t mean it has our ecosystems’ best interests in mind. Nearly all commercial dyes used in the clothing industry are toxic, so even if factories are properly ventilated, there’s the question of how byproducts are disposed of. Somewhere down the line, someone or something gets hurt. I applaud those companies that have switched over to organic cotton, but cotton is a thirsty crop and, in some ways, that makes it inefficient. Companies that use safely processed bamboo and eucalyptus fibers, repurposed textiles, and factory remnants offer a better alternative. Even better when they use recycled packaging and renewable energy at their factories.

Amour Vert, Naja, Dorsu, and PACT are great examples of this point of view.

4. Made locally or benefits local culture and economy

Sometimes you just want to celebrate local artists! I’ve eased up a bit on my scrutinizing gaze when it comes to local artisan work and products from local, small scale boutiques. While perfect production standards are an important goal, I think that the key to getting more people on board with conscious consumerism is letting them see the quality of artisan products up close, so supporting small businesses that allow that to happen is key. Items from small scale designers and craftspeople were likely crafted with what we’d consider fair labor practices, but materials sourcing is often murky. Occasionally, local designers will outsource some of their production, but the great thing is that you can actually have a conversation with them about it and figure out why.

Local businesses I love are OESH; Savvy Rest; C’Ville Arts Gallery; and Rock, Paper, Scissors.

5. Messaging with the potential to lead industry change

This bullet point is really about Everlane. Everlane has transparent pricing and used to be pretty good about letting you into their factory practices. I think they’ve lost some of that accessibility as they’ve scaled. They also don’t share a lot about their textiles or raw materials sourcing. But because of their incredible success, they’ve encouraged a lot more companies and consumers to consider and start to dismantle the fast fashion industry. Because of companies like Everlane, people are beginning to demand quality products sold with pricing transparency. In many ways, it’s given some amount of power back to the people. As long as we keep asking questions, we’re on our way to growing the ranks.

I should also mention TOMS and Warby Parker as companies that start the conversation without fully committing to sustainability. Maybe we can work together to push them toward it.


Though this list was written in hierarchical order, I prioritize progress over perfection. Sometimes good design wins the day over the best ethical credentials. Sometimes a company is so innovative in one way that I believe they deserve support, even if they aren’t completely with it in every way. And I believe that it’s up to the individual consumer to create their own set of standards within the broader umbrella of conscious consumerism.

Conversations with people who don’t quite agree with me is what has led me to my current list. It’s broadened my view on some points and hyper-focused it on others.

I’m curious to know what you prioritize, and what companies you hold up as industry standards. 

Leah Wise

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.

May we recommend...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.