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.
1. Overall Sustainability
2. Fair Trade Labor Practices
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.
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.
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.
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.
Additional Reading: 5 Questions Every Conscious Consumer Should Ask