A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications

A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications stylewise-blog.com

While I don’t subscribe to a consumption practice that demands certifications from every brand I support, there is no question in my mind that certifications are good for the garment and consumer goods industries.

Certifying agencies set a minimum standard for a particular ethos, such as fair labor or organic textiles, then require companies to pay for regular auditing in order to receive certification status. 

Of course, this strategy is not free of loopholes, and certifying agencies like Fair Trade USA have been accused of being too generous in their approval process – which led them to

part ways with Fair Trade International

in 2012 – because they let large scale brands like Starbucks take advantage of the fair trade label without fully understanding the complexities of the global fair trade coffee sourcing industry (Bruce Wydick, a journalist I really admire, wrote about

fair trade coffee here

). Fair Trade USA argues that their intention was to use the standard more consistently across industries, and having heard a representative from the agency speak at the

Sustainable Fashion Conference I attended

in September, I do think they are trying.

Despite inconsistencies and disagreements within agencies and from consumers, certifying agencies, at the very least, provide a framework for understanding what we mean when we use “ethical” terminology.

And this also helps companies that aren’t certified, because it means they have a set of metrics to weigh their process against.

So, certified or not, we can use the language of certifications to express what our goals are when producing and consuming goods, and that’s a good place to start. (Note that I originally gathered this data for a post on garment industry certifications, so please let me know in the comments if you know of others that apply to food and other consumer industries.)

Labor Certifications (Fair Trade)

According to the World Fair Trade Organization, fair trade is:

“…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 following certifications ensure that basic fair trade standards are being met:

Fair Trade Federation

US based, the Fair Trade Federation works to build sustainable, long term partnerships with marginalized artisan communities.

Learn more here

.

Fair Trade Certified/Fair Trade USA

“The leading independent third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in North America,” Fair Trade USA offers certification to producers of both food and textiles.

Learn more here

.

Fair Trade America

Fair Trade America is the US arm of Fair Trade International and operates under its standards. Members include food companies like Divine Chocolate and Ben & Jerry’s, but they also certify cotton.

Learn more here

.

Fair For Life

Founded in Switzerland, The Fair For Life credential applies to both food and textile products, and currently boasts over 3,000 products under its certification program.

Learn more here

.

World Fair Trade Organization

Founded in 1989, WFTO is one of the world’s largest fair trade certifiers, with over 324 networked organizations across the world. All certified organizations must meet the WFTO’s

Ten Principles of Fair Trade

, which includes environmental stipulations.

Learn more here

.

Environmental Certifications

While fair trade certifications operate under a unifying set of values regarding labor rights and sustainable empowerment, environmental certifications tend to be more specific.

As you’ll see below, these certifications deal with a particular environmental concern and, as a result, eco-friendly companies are often certified under more than one standard.

OEKO-TEX

Used internationally, OEKO-TEX is a textile certification program that ensures that fabrics are safe. The organization checks for toxic dyes, banned chemicals, and other toxic substances to ensure consumer and environmental health.

Learn more here

.

GOTS

The leading certifier for organic textiles, GOTS, which stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, sets a universal definition for what constitutes the category “organic” when it comes to fibers like cotton and wool. In addition, textiles companies must make a commitment to exclude toxic dyes and chemicals.

Learn more here

.

Rainforest Alliance 

Rainforest Certified products that bear the green frog label must meet several standards that protect for biodiversity, safe pesticide use, natural resource conservation, human flourishing, and a commitment to continuing improvement. 

Learn more here

.

RSPO

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies that palm oil distributed under its label is harvested sustainably and fully traceable throughout the supply chain. This certification is somewhat contentious, with critics arguing that it is actually impossible to fully trace palm oil.

Learn more here

.

Holistic Certifications

There is no question that fair trade and environmental certifications are useful. But while they build trust with consumers, they don’t always tell the full story. Businesses that seek to be sustainable in the long term must weave social responsibility into every aspect of their process, from corporate environment to textile sourcing to waste reduction.

These holistic certifications see the big picture.

Cradle to Cradle

With a focus on preventative measures, Cradle to Cradle certifies that businesses have made an effort to decrease energy, water usage, and waste in their supply chain in addition to using nontoxic processes and treating workers and communities fairly.

Learn more here

.

B-Corp

Based in the US but open internationally, B-Corp Certification is tailored toward for-profit social enterprises that seek to meet high transparency standards along with responsible labor and environmental practices.

Learn more here

.

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A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications stylewise-blog.com

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Ethical Fashion Definitions & Certifications

ethical fashion definitions and certifications
Photo by Ali Naaz on Pexels.com

Ethical Fashion Definitions

Fair Trade

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 Enterprise

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.

There are better and worse social enterprises. Be wary of businesses that seem to use “social good” as a marketing tactic but don’t live up to their goals when it comes to transparency and labor rights. 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.

B Corporation

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.

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.

Sustainable

Sustainable manufacturing, as defined by the Financial Times, is:

managing the triple bottom line – a process by which companies manage their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities. These three impacts are sometimes referred to as profits, people and planet.

You’ve probably noticed that some ethical brands are more oriented toward environmental impact while others focus on labor rights. 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 and account for the long term financial livelihood of the brand. I’ve come to embrace sustainability above all because I know that those who are committed to sustainability understand that it must extend to employees, consumers, and the earth.

Eco-Friendly/Green

The most basic definition of eco-friendly is:

Not harmful to the environment.

When it comes to manufacturing industries, this is much easier said than done. Chemical runoff, water pollution, degradation of resources, toxic off-gassing, environmental destruction, climate change – these are issues eco-friendly and green brands aim to prevent through practices that prioritize organic materials’ sourcing, low-impact dyes, human and animal friendly processes, closed loop systems, and clean energy.

Still, the definition is broad and open for interpretation, so pay attention to what the company says about its process, not just what it uses in its branding.

There’s also been a lot of greenwashing – or labeling things as eco-friendly when they’re not – as it’s become more popular in recent years. Something made with organic cotton could be produced with toxic dyes. Nature imagery can disguise toiletries steeped in destructive chemicals. 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 ecological sustainability and check to make sure dyes used are low-impact and nontoxic.

Transparency

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 certainly isn’t the first or only company to value supply chain transparency and, in fact, most companies that fall under the previous categories are likely concerned with transparency, as well. But they have made transparency a buzzword and I think they set a particularly good example for other companies who may not be ready to get certified organic/B corp/fair trade, but want to respond appropriately to consumer demand for ethically produced goods.

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.

Vegan

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).

Ethical

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.


guide to ethical and environmental certifications

Guide to Ethical Certifications

While I don’t subscribe to a consumption practice that demands certifications from every brand I support, there is no question in my mind that certifications are good for the garment and consumer goods industries.

Certifying agencies set a minimum standard for a particular ethos, such as fair labor or organic textiles, then require companies to pay for regular auditing in order to receive certification status. 

Of course, this strategy is not free of loopholes, and certifying agencies like Fair Trade USA have been accused of being too generous in their approval process – which led them to part ways with Fair Trade International in 2012 – because they let large scale brands like Starbucks take advantage of the fair trade label without fully understanding the complexities of the global fair trade coffee sourcing industry (Bruce Wydick, a journalist I really admire, wrote about fair trade coffee here). Fair Trade USA argues that their intention was to use the standard more consistently across industries, and having heard a representative from the agency speak at the Sustainable Fashion Conference I attended in September, I do think they are trying.

Despite inconsistencies and disagreements within agencies and from consumers, certifying agencies, at the very least, provide a framework for understanding what we mean when we use “ethical” terminology. And this also helps companies that aren’t certified, because it means they have a set of metrics to weigh their process against.

So, certified or not, we can use the language of certifications to express what our goals are when producing and consuming goods, and that’s a good place to start. (Note that I originally gathered this data for a post on garment industry certifications, so please let me know in the comments if you know of others that apply to food and other consumer industries.)

Labor Certifications (Fair Trade)

According to the World Fair Trade Organization, fair trade is:

“…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 following certifications ensure that basic fair trade standards are being met:

Fair Trade Federation

US based, the Fair Trade Federation works to build sustainable, long term partnerships with marginalized artisan communities. Learn more here.

Fair Trade Certified/Fair Trade USA

“The leading independent third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in North America,” Fair Trade USA offers certification to producers of both food and textiles. Learn more here.

Fair Trade America

Fair Trade America is the US arm of Fair Trade International and operates under its standards. Members include food companies like Divine Chocolate and Ben & Jerry’s, but they also certify cotton. Learn more here.

Fair For Life

Founded in Switzerland, The Fair For Life credential applies to both food and textile products, and currently boasts over 3,000 products under its certification program. Learn more here.

World Fair Trade Organization

Founded in 1989, WFTO is one of the world’s largest fair trade certifiers, with over 324 networked organizations across the world. All certified organizations must meet the WFTO’s Ten Principles of Fair Trade, which includes environmental stipulations. Learn more here.

Environmental Certifications

While fair trade certifications operate under a unifying set of values regarding labor rights and sustainable empowerment, environmental certifications tend to be more specific. 

As you’ll see below, these certifications deal with a particular environmental concern and, as a result, eco-friendly companies are often certified under more than one standard.

OEKO-TEX

Used internationally, OEKO-TEX is a textile certification program that ensures that fabrics are safe. The organization checks for toxic dyes, banned chemicals, and other toxic substances to ensure consumer and environmental health. Learn more here.

GOTS

The leading certifier for organic textiles, GOTS, which stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, sets a universal definition for what constitutes the category “organic” when it comes to fibers like cotton and wool. In addition, textiles companies must make a commitment to exclude toxic dyes and chemicals. Learn more here.

Rainforest Alliance 

Rainforest Certified products that bear the green frog label must meet several standards that protect for biodiversity, safe pesticide use, natural resource conservation, human flourishing, and a commitment to continuing improvement. Learn more here.

RSPO

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies that palm oil distributed under its label is harvested sustainably and fully traceable throughout the supply chain. This certification is somewhat contentious, with critics arguing that it is actually impossible to fully trace palm oil. Learn more here.

Holistic Certifications

There is no question that fair trade and environmental certifications are useful. But while they build trust with consumers, they don’t always tell the full story. Businesses that seek to be sustainable in the long term must weave social responsibility into every aspect of their process, from corporate environment to textile sourcing to waste reduction. 

These holistic certifications see the big picture.

Cradle to Cradle

With a focus on preventative measures, Cradle to Cradle certifies that businesses have made an effort to decrease energy, water usage, and waste in their supply chain in addition to using nontoxic processes and treating workers and communities fairly. Learn more here.

B-Corp

Based in the US but open internationally, B-Corp Certification is tailored toward for-profit social enterprises that seek to meet high transparency standards along with responsible labor and environmental practices. Learn more here.

More industry-related posts in Industry Talk.


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Is Online Shopping Eco Friendly or Sustainable?

 Thanks to  noissue  for sponsoring this post so I could do a deep-dive into the sustainability of online shopping.
Thanks to noissue for sponsoring this post so I could do a deep-dive into the sustainability of online shopping.

How the Internet Has Transformed Sustainable Shopping

One of the great advantages of the rise of online shopping is that it has simultaneously allowed worldwide access to formerly niche, boutique-only, artisan goods and made it possible for small and independent brands to make a name for themselves without the need for huge overhead. 

Add to that greater access to educational resources thanks to the proliferation of sites and blogs dedicated to the cause – along with search engines to discover them – and you’ve got a recipe for real progress.

And there’s ample evidence to suggest that this combination of resources has actually had an effect: 

Packaged Goods

The sustainable personal care and food sector grew by about 20% from 2014 to 2018 (compare that to about 5% in the general market) and packaged products with sustainability claims on the label were responsible for 50% of growth in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry from 2013 to 2018. 

According to the Harvard Business Review:

Consumers are voting with their dollars — against unsustainable brands. The legacy companies that will thrive are those that accept this shift and are willing to pivot, such as PepsiCo and Unilever.

Fashion

According to a 2016 report conducted in the UK, more than half of young consumers find sustainability important when considering their purchases. The 2019 Pulse of Fashion Report suggests that 75% consider sustainability before making a purchase. 

The Fashion Law reports that:

Many brands are using sustainable cotton initiatives to reduce water, energy and chemical use, new dyeing technology to reduce water consumption by up to 50 percent, as well as numerous energy and chemical saving schemes throughout the supply chain. In the UK, the result of this work is percolating through to retailers, with a reduction in the carbon and water footprints per ton of clothing of 8 percent and 7 percent respectively since 2012.

Hard data on sustainable fashion sector growth is still hard to pin down, however.

That has to do with a combination of factors, including the fact that there is some confusion around what constitutes a sustainable garment, and which brands “count” as sustainable when there are so many factors to consider (I discuss this quandary in my Is Everlane Ethical post).

Still, it’s clear that sustainable consumerism is something a much larger portion of the population is considering these days. Pair that with online shopping trends – it increased by 15% last year – and it’s safe to say that lots and lots of packages filled with “sustainable” goods are being scattered across the world searching for the loving arms of their buyers. 

Do you see the problem here? 

Fossil Fuels Use in Consumer Goods Industry

In 2018, 28% of energy used in the US, garnered largely from fossil fuels, was dedicated to the transport of people and goods.

But that’s not even the main problem. The bigger issue, by far, has to do with the literal shipping of goods (in ships) across the world:

“If shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world,” says Nerijus Poskus of the shipping technology company Flexport. “About 3% of global emissions are released by ocean freight shipping.” (Source)

The good news is that significant progress is being made on the shipping front, with hydrogen fuel currently being tested across markets to see if it can eventually replace the dirty fuel typically used in shipping.

But there’s another polluter in the shipping industry that we don’t always consider…

What About Packaging Waste?

It doesn’t take a researcher to know that packaging is a problem. If you go back through your packages from online purchases, what do you see?

Most likely, you received your goods in a plastic mailer or cardboard box (maybe it was laminated in plasticated branding). You opened it up to find packing peanuts, bubble wrap – or, if the shipper was conscientious, some kind of post-consumer recycled paper – but the garments themselves were individually wrapped in clear plastic bags, called poly bags.

According to Alden Wicker’s research for VOX, those clear plastic bags that your clothing comes in are considered essential for protecting it against the dangers of world travel in a globalized garment industry:

From my conversations with brands large and small, I gleaned that most overseas consumer product factories — and all garment factories — from tiny sewing workshops to giant 6,000-person factories, ship finished products in plastic polybags of their choosing. Because if they don’t, the goods wouldn’t make it to you in the condition that you require.

Wicker points out that polybags are actually recyclable, which would be great if anyone was willing to recycle them. But increasingly, it’s not worth the money to do so. As a result, you end up with hundreds of thousands of plastic bags cluttering landfills, waiting in storerooms until the day someone is willing to recycle them, or drifting off to sea, where they impact ocean animals and ecosystems.

Online shopping is great! Sustainable fashion is the best! But what does it mean that these two things that undeniably spell progress are still tied up with trash?

For one, it’s a reminder that no choice is a perfect one, and to insist that you can free yourself from complicity by making the exact. right. choice. is simply not a meaningful way forward. (This is actually the catalyzing premise of the final season of The Good Place!)

I say this mostly to remind you that curling up into a little ball at this point in the post won’t help that much, and neither will determining to totally opt out of the system.

The good news is that there has been progress on the packaging front.

Noissue

noissue is a New Zealand-based packaging company that solves two problems for small scale, sustainable e-commerce brands: they make compostable, eco-friendly packaging with low order minimums.

The owners didn’t intend to start a packaging company. They were actually working to launch a consumer goods brands and couldn’t find the kind of packaging they needed at a scale they could afford.

They started by producing FSC-certified tissue paper using soy ink and have since then launched 100% compostable mailers.

Noissue Compostable Mailers

Our compostable mailers are made from a combination of PBAT, a bio based polymer which is compostable, and PLA which is made up of plant materials such as regular field corn and wheat straw. Our use of PLA makes up barely 0.05% of the annual global corn crop, making it an incredibly low-impact resource. Read on for further certifications and information.

The term “compostable” can be a bit misleading, because some products – particularly things like “compostable” plates and serving ware – are only compostable in an industrial facility.

By contrast, noissue’s mailers will compost in your – or your neighbor’s – backyard compost bin in around 180 days. This is the only appropriate option for packaging geared toward individual consumers, in my opinion, because it’s actually something an individual can participate in without having access to robust infrastructure.

For Sustainable Brands

While I think that this information is important for everyone, I wrote this post with my ethical brand owner friends in mind.

Noissue’s minimums – you only have to order 100 mailers at a time, for instance – and their commitment to innovating in sustainable packaging without sacrificing aesthetics is exactly what this industry needs.

Sustainability can often feel like the luxury option, with higher start-up costs leading to higher consumer costs, making it nearly impossible for accessibility-minded brands to meet all of their sustainability goals.

One step forward, in the case of packaging, won’t solve the fashion industry’s problems, but it may mean that a small brand can assert itself in the market in more competitive ways, and lead the charge on building a more sustainable future.

So, Is Online Shopping Eco Friendly?

Not exactly, but it’s not the worst choice either.

On the consumer end of things, I would argue that it’s still better to choose a well-made garment in a style you like from a more sustainable brand – or even secondhand – through an online source if that’s what will best suit your needs.

Overproduction and overconsumption are considerably larger polluters than shipping and packaging, so it’s better to make a smart choice the first time than to waffle back and forth just for the sake of trying to be perfect.

The number one thing you can do right now to be more eco-friendly is to reduce how much you consume. But when that isn’t an option, make the best choice you can within your means. Like The Good Place reminds us, we’re all doomed if we’re trying to remove ourselves from complicity. Instead, let’s celebrate education, self-discipline, and exciting innovations in the sustainable fashion industry.

Get more info and peruse products at noissue

12 Places to Find Eco-friendly & Ethical Vegan Shoes

When it comes to ethical credentials, some are more straightforward than others. 

The Vegan designation, for instance, is complicated. If something is labeled vegan, it simply means it was produced without the use of animal products. It doesn’t, however, account for the environmental costs of production, biodegradability, or toxicity, which means a whole lot of vegan products are made with synthetic, oil-based materials that are bad for people, animals, and the ecosystems both parties depend on. Read more on that here.

This doesn’t seem to ring true to the broad ethos of veganism, which is to respect all life. Though I’m not vegan personally, I respect the arguments of those who avoid leather and other animal products and figured it was time to create a resource that pairs the vegan label with ecological sustainability and human rights.

Tip: When shopping for eco-vegan shoes, look for materials like cork, canvas, Pinatex, and recycled fibers. 


Contains a couple affiliate links

12 PLACES TO FIND SUSTAINABLE VEGAN SHOES

Bhava

Made ethically with organic, natural, and recycled materials. Boots, flats, mules, and more.

Nicora

Made with recycled faux leather (called Kind Leather) in the USA. Classic combat boots, flats, and more.

VEJA’s Vegan Line

Made ethically with natural rubber and canvas. Sneakers.

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Po-zu’s Vegan Line

Made ethically with cork, Pinatex (pineapple fiber), and other innovative materials. Sneakers, flats, and more (+ Star Wars exclusives).

Bourgois Boheme

Made ethically with more eco-friendly PU and sustainable materials like Pinatex. Flats, boots, sandals, and more.

Etiko

Fair trade and made with canvas and natural rubber. Low and high top sneakers.

BANGS

Made ethically with canvas and rubber, with 20% of profits benefiting Kiva entrepreneurs. Low and high top sneakers.

And don’t forget the secondhand option! Because secondhand shoes have already been produced and purchased once, they are a more sustainable option than buying new even if they weren’t produced with natural fibers.

Tip: When shopping for secondhand shoes, aim for higher quality brands with minimal wear.

Secondhand Marketplaces

Follow the Frog: The Important Work of Rainforest Alliance & How You Can Support It

Rainforest Alliance Follow the Frog stylewise-blog.com

Sponsored by

Rainforest Alliance

. Text, photos, and stories are my own.

As a child of the nineties and early aughts, I was saturated in environmentalism.

From Fern Gully to Animal Planet documentaries to political conversations on climate change, it was impossible not to know something about earth’s dire state, and our responsibility to protect and restore it.

I’m sure I watched hundreds of nature documentaries growing up, but the topic I came back to again and again was the rainforest. Simply put, it was enchanting, and as a young kid with an active imagination, who wouldn’t be mesmerized by tales of jaguars, river dolphins, toothy piranha, poisonous frogs, sloths, monkeys, not to mention the vast mystery of life bustling beneath the canopy on the dark forest floor? While other kids were playing Oregon Trail, I was busy playing Amazon Trail (no, I never finished – spear hunting for fish is hard!).

Honestly, I’m still enchanted.

I’ve watched Planet Earth and David Attenborough. I’ve seen Naked & Afraid and read about Victorian orchid hunting expeditions in the rainforests of South America. I’ve even visited the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. But it’s not just me. It’s clear that, as a culture, we keep coming back to the rainforest. Why is that?

Rainforest Alliance Follow the Frog stylewise-blog.com

This is mere speculation, but I think some of it has to do with its unapologetic alive-ness.

Teeming with thousands of species of animal, insect, and plant. Revealing at once the fragility and forthrightness of our small, mortal lives. Rainforests – and really, forests in general – are natural cathedrals, wide enough to hold our wonder, enclosed enough to recall the comfort of the womb. I might sound like I’ve lost it, but I really feel this way in the forest, and I bet if you quiet yourself for a few minutes in the woods, you’ll understand what I’m saying.

The Work of Rainforest Alliance

It’s not just rainforests: the goal of the Rainforest Alliance is to sustain and replenish earth’s forest ecosystems through accountable, strategic, global initiatives that work to address the key factors behind deforestation and soil depletion.

Did you know that

123,000 acres of forest is lost

daily across the globe due to the timber industry, development, and plant and animal agriculture?

Forests are vital not just because hundreds of thousands of species depend on them for their survival…

  • 25% of the earth’s population relies on forests to provide sustenance and agricultural jobs

  • 70 million indigenous people live off of the bounty provided by forests

  • 70% of the global poor are negatively impacted by soil degradation and deforestation

  • Trees are the greatest absorber of carbon after the ocean

  • By sustaining micro-climates, forests regulate “ocean currents, wind patterns, and rainfall

Quite frankly, we can’t survive without thriving forests. It’s time to make them a priority before it’s too late.

Rainforest Alliance Follow the Frog stylewise-blog.com

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of deforestation, so it’s important that we understand how individual and collective demand for certain goods, like coffee and beef for instance, makes us complicit.

Three Easy Ways to Contribute to Thriving Forests

1  |

Take an “everything in moderation” approach

with nonessential foods like chocolate, coffee, and meat to reduce your overall carbon footprint and decrease demand for deforestation.

2 |

When buying “unavoidable” paper goods

– like toilet paper for instance – look for an indication of sustainable forestry practices or the use of recycled paper.

3 |

Prioritize farms

, and farming policies, that are sustainable and work to re-enrich soil over time.

When these things are not possible, or when the path is a bit murkier, it’s helpful to know that Rainforest Alliance has their own certification to help consumers navigate which goods are actively helping rather than harming earth’s forests and its dependent communities.

#FollowtheFrog

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably noticed the

Rainforest Alliance Certified

symbol on everyday groceries like coffee, chocolate, even Tetrapak (those coated paper containers used for almond milk and chai). I’ve always assumed this meant

something good

, but I hadn’t looked into it in any detail.

Rainforest Certified products that bear the green frog label must meet several standards that protect for biodiversity, safe pesticide use, natural resource conservation, human flourishing, and a commitment to continuing improvement. This ensures that the daily organizational work of Rainforest Alliance is complemented by farming techniques and processes that reinforce sustainable and ethical practices. 

You can read more here

.

Rainforest Alliance Follow the Frog stylewise-blog.comRainforest Alliance Follow the Frog stylewise-blog.com

You can join up in a very accessible way!

Until September 23rd, Rainforest Alliance is doing a #followthefrog giveaway in which they’ll share the myriad ways their programs are working to save the planet. Here are the rules…

Enter the contest by answering how you incorporate sustainability into your own daily lives, in relation to each day’s sustainability topic. Follow @RainforestAlliance and tag two friends with your answers. You only need to answer under one of the weeks’ posts to be entered. There will be one winner each week (two in total). Entry deadlines are September 16th and September 23rd.

Learn more on the

Rainforest Alliance Instagram page

. If you don’t use Instagram, you can participate by joining the

30-Day Sustainability Challenge on their website

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Forests matter to me because flourishing matters. A verdant earth full of people who have the security and health to see the big picture and change things for the better is what paradise looks like in my view. And initiatives like the ones provided by Rainforest Alliance, among many other good organizations filled with good people, are one way to get there.

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Is Your Artisan Made Item *Really* Ethical? 5 Things to Look For

is artisan made ethical? matter prints stylewise-blog.com

This piece was written by me with compensation and support from MATTER Prints

What Does Artisan Made Mean?

Artisan made was the buzzword that triggered my exploration of ethical consumerism.

In 2011, while undertaking a routine shelf-tidying during my shift at Hobby Lobby, a privately held “Christian” craft and home decor chain, I came across a little metal frog, the kind of random object you buy for a friend’s housewarming party without considering what they’re actually going to do with it.

The tag said something along the lines of “made by skilled artisans in Haiti.” The price? $3.99.

Holding that little frog in my hands, I was puzzled. Here was an item being marketed as a kind of art, intricately cut and crafted by skilled hands, and yet it was nestled onto a retail shelf containing dozens of like items. And yet it was the same price as a latte at Starbucks, less expensive than a Hallmark greeting card.

It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that there must have been hundreds of other items in that store that were made by human hands. The frames in the frame shop, cut to size before shipping to my store. The decorative vinegar bottles containing bright red peppers. These invisible hands were not even given the dignity of “artisanship,” and yet they touched and crafted the things that bored grandmothers bought on a whim with their 50% off coupons.

This story might tell us lots of things – for one, it woke me up to the exploitative realities of the global consumer goods industry – but today I want to focus on something too often overlooked:

Artisan-made does not mean much without context.

What the designation does tell us is that a person, or group of people, made a product, likely with minimal high-tech tools.

But the phrase is thrown around to imply that these “artisans” are known entities – people with whom the company or boutique owner may have a relationship. But, as was the case with Hobby Lobby, more often than not these nameless, faceless craftspeople are anonymous even to the ones who’ve categorized them as artisans and subsequently exploited that label for marketing purposes. 

The fair trade market is chock full of items designated as artisan-made, but even the best intentioned “ethical” advocates can get lazy when tracing these niche supply chains. Instead, they will tell a secondhand story passed down from middle men or co-op managers, not ever knowing how the artisan groups function, or whether they’re receiving a living wage. 

I have to admit that not even *I* was committed to doing this work until a reader asked me, point blank, if I knew how a fair trade organization I had promoted was linked to their artisan producers. So when

MATTER Prints reached out with the same conversation – themselves puzzled by the way other purportedly ethical producers were using the term – I was anxious to do a deep dive. I spoke with MATTER team member, Farisia, about how they derive greater, more transparent meaning from the artisan-made distinction.

How to Tell If Your Item is Artisan-Made and Honestly Made

1 | Artisans Live and Work in Multi-Generational Craft Communities

Unlike industrialized consumer product manufacturing, which typically takes place in designated facilities outside of town centers, artisans typically live in small communities or extended families that support and uphold multi-generational craft traditions. 

To ensure authenticity, MATTER specifically partners with artisans that exhibit “skill in a craft acquired through generational transfer.” This creates greater accountability between the brand/marketer and artisan because it makes it impossible for a Fortune 500 company to march into a community, half-heartedly “teach” a skill, then slap the artisan-made designation on their tags and websites.

2 | Local production is run by the same locals

Many well-intentioned fair trade business owners enter an artisan community with a plan to build something from scratch. On its surface, this is understandable. If you’ve been dreaming up your business from a far-removed location, it’s easy to get wrapped up in an inaccurate idea of what products will be available to you, how you want them to look, and who your customer is. 

But this is inappropriate, not only because it often perpetuates Colonialist ideas of “progress,” but because it takes the power out of the hands of the people who hold all the skill. Artisan co-ops, when they are thriving, are run by locals, thereby keeping the heritage and financial success of the community in the community, where it belongs. Artisanship, by definition, resists outside forces that would place the burden of aggressive Capitalism on its shoulders.

is artisan made ethical? matter prints stylewise-blog.com

3 | Materials are eco-conscious and locally derived

Because craft tradition is reliant on the physical location of a community, it is impacted by the holistic needs of the community and available natural resources. 

For this reason, a majority of artisan-made products that fit the “generational transfer” designation will be made with materials indigenous to the region: things like cotton, silk, and various types of plant ingredients. Occasionally, items are also made with locally recycled materials, such as scrap metal and old tires. As demand for artisan goods has increased, and the world has modernized, more craftspeople are incorporating synthetic dyes into their goods, but traditionally dyes would have been plant-derived (you can read more about plant-based dyes here). 

4 | Imperfections are apparent, but not distracting

A handmade item cannot, and should not, look like a factory-made item. Individual artisan taste and technique will impact the final product, which is part of what makes artisan work so meaningful. 

Artisan craft, especially when it becomes available to a global marketplace via brands like Ten Thousand Villages and MATTER, is taken on as a collaborative process between the artisan, their community’s tradition, designers, and merchandisers, and the final product is a testament to successful coalition-building. It is never merely a fashion statement.

5 | Artisans are artists

The artists out there will get in a fight with me for comparing craftsmanship to fine art (it’s happened to me before), but I stand by this statement: artisanship was the first type of art and it’s certainly the most meaningful. 

This is because artisan goods tend to be purposeful goods. They often derive from basic needs of clothing, food, and shelter, but they expand on this need. They beautify it, ritualize it, culturally embed it, and make it good.

For this reason, it is imperative that those of us who appreciate and collect artisan-made goods do so with a knowledge of which motifs are culturally and religiously sacred versus those that are intended for multi-cultural enjoyment. It is also important that we take an interest in the people behind the products. Nameless, faceless “artisans” used as a marketing angle quite literally erase the artisans themselves. 

What Now?

If you consider yourself a conscious consumer, I encourage you to explore your favorite ethical websites and see what they say about their makers. How do they write about them? Can they speak to the intricacies of the craftsmanship? Do they understand the motifs and symbols? 

A few examples of very transparent brands are MATTER and Ten Thousand Villages.

Artisans do extraordinarily time consuming, skilled, creative work, increasingly to appeal to the whims of a global market content to condone a throwaway culture. But this misses the point.

When you touch the raised embroidery on a cotton dress, examine the dotted paint patterning on a Oaxacan mythological figure, or trace your fingers across intricately woven ikat, the experience is akin to beholding a miracle. 

It’s a reminder that humans are capable of more than arguing on Twitter, to more than oppression and greed. That maybe, given enough time and support, we could craft something beautiful together, too. All is not lost, and we have artisans to thank for it.

Learn more about MATTER here

P.S. I think it is very difficult for Western and white brands to use images of artisans in their marketing and brand storytelling without inadvertently turning them into objects for the public gaze. This is due to the long history of imperialism and colonialism enacted by much of Europe and the United States over the last several hundred years. I generally avoid using images of non-Western artisans on StyleWise because I am wary of creating a power dynamic in which my reader, filtering through my own framing, sees them as novelties rather than equals. I am still trying to find a way to appropriately convey artisan stories in a way that reduces that power differential and I welcome your thoughts.

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