As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right? Swipe that credit card.
Buyer beware — greenwashing is definitely a THING, and it’s not just the big fast fashion brands.
We’re always getting questions about H&M, Zara and others. Are they “greenwashing”? (i.e. exaggerating their environmental chops or social practices in an effort to make themselves seem sustainable, and even diverting attention away from negative practices like child labor, or the consumption-driven fast fashion model. Ew.)
But recently, savvy readers, like yourselves, have been asking more questions about the credentials of smaller “ethical fashion” or “eco-fashion” brands, and whether their practices add up to all their marketing.
Greenwashing is never good. But with the smaller “ethical” new kids on the block, it’s almost even more dangerous if they don’t stack up to their claims. It seeds pessimism and cynicism among consumers, just as a new vision of a sustainable industry is starting to gain traction.
So over the last month we did a mini experiment to dig into the practices of a few exciting and popular “ethical” brands, who outwardly celebrate their positive impact, intentions or transparency, and see what evidence they had to back up these assertions.
We looked at:
Everlane, the “radically transparent” basics brand
Kowtow, a fairtrade, organic cotton brand making knitwear and basics from New Zealand
Krochet Kids, a social impact brand, empowering women in Uganda and Peru
We studied their websites and social media, contacted them through numerous channels, looked at publicly available records and everything else we could find. We did an intensive search beyond what a consumer could do in an afternoon, but without using any tools you wouldn’t have at the ready.
We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.
Below we’ve shared some highlights, AND, as we did this in-depth research, we pieced together the five questions we realized could help you sniff out greenwashing. (If you’re a nerd for this stuff like us, you can view everything we found on their updated brand pages on our Project JUST wiki)
So check out what we found and TRY these questions on for size:
1. First, check out what kind of fabrics / materials they are using.
Fabrics are an easy way to really change the impact of a supply chain for the better. PLUS it’s a super easy way for you as a shopper to know which brands are serious about changing the game. Raw materials are a big portion of the product, and consequently, its environmental and social impact. As a designer or a brand, committing to a restricted set of fabrics can be difficult — sustainable fabrics can be more expensive and not as easy to source — but it pays off in both your impact and performance in the end. So how did the brands we picked stack up?
Kowtow uses organic and fair trade cotton. Organic cotton is proven to be significantly better for people and planet, and fair trade means farmers and workers get fair wages for their work.
Krochet Kids uses some sustainable fabrics, but also uses acrylic and polyester (oil). They’re in the process of rolling out an organic cotton line.
Warby Parker uses cellulose acetate, titanium, and stainless steel in its frames for both eyeglasses and sunglasses. Cellulose acetate is usually made from wood pulp. In February 2014, the brand reported via its Facebook page that Warby Parker frames are made of acetate that comes from a family-owned Italian manufacturer.
2. Second, do they have any certifications?
When you’re shopping, check out the tags — any symbols or certifications there? A certification offers a brand a rigorous program of standards and assessment, and a signal to shoppers of monitoring, high standards, and intention. A brand doesn’t have to have a certification to do good work, but often times, brands use them as a roadmap to build out a more sustainable supply chain. You have to be cautious though — some certifications aren’t that rigorous, or have major flaws in monitoring or auditing what’s actually happening on the ground. You can read more about certifications in our New Slang dictionary.
Kowtow has organic and fair trade certifications. Plain, simple and thorough.
Warby Parker is a BCorp, but we couldn’t find any information about what this means in terms of their environmental impact, or how they treat their workers. However, their recently released response to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act means that the brand has now made its Code of Conduct publicly available (check out this release of new information on our Warby Parker brand page).
Krochet Kids is launching an organic line, and has their own special impact measurement tool that they use at each of their facilities.
Everlane doesn’t have any certifications that provide us with an easy signal to show that they’re trying, but it’s clear they like to set things up their own way. For their supply chain, they have three pillars of work: they started with transparency, are currently building their compliance, and sustainability is next. They do hold the factories they work with accountable to a 85% or higher score on the labor audit. If they don’t hit the mark, they step in with a corrective action plan, in partnership with their auditing firm, Intertek, to help.
Certifications aren’t for everyone, nor do they always work, but for the shopper and for us, it’s an easy way to know what standard a brand is holding themselves to, what are their intentions and to look into what’s actually happening to meet it.
3. Third, how transparent are they… really?
This basically comes down to what — and how much — they’re truly sharing with us. What’s on their website? Their social media? What data do they share to back up their claims of social or environmental impact?
Let’s stack ’em up.
Everlane: As fashion supply chain nerds, ever since this brand came out with their tagline, radical transparency, we’ve been curious to know what constituted “radical” from the information they shared. After all, “radical” by definition implies something beyond average. But, when we looked on the Everlane website, we didn’t really find much beyond where some of their factories were located, and what they made. What were we looking for? How they guaranteed fair wages and safe working conditions, what kinds of environmental policies they had in place, and their intentions for future improvement.
So we reached out to their team with a list of questions, and low and behold, got to sit down with the Founder & CEO, Michael Preysman —getting serious now.
He shared quite a bit of info with us including:
Their code of conduct
The average score of their factories on quarterly audits: 90.1%
The number of times a year their team visits their factories: 3
Their current lack of environmental policies, but their intent to work on this as the next phase in monitoring their supply chain
And lots more! (available for you to see behind a tiny little paywall, but trust us it’s worth the 5 bucks)
So why isn’t all this info available on their website?
Michael said (paraphrased) that they prefer not to reveal their work until it’s fully complete, so that the company can figure the right strategy to communicate the information to their customer, in a way that makes sense.
You tell us. Given that these guys have shaken things up before, we’re excited to see what they churn out in the coming months to truly be “radical” in their supply chain practices.
Warby Parker: When it came to Warby Parker, we received not one answer to our questions. Not one! Between January and February 2017, we reached out six times to the PR company and twice to the brand, who then redirected us back to the PR company (head spinning emailing 😕).
This brand that claims positive social impact, and even has a BCorp certification (!), never answered our questions about whether they can trace their entire supply chain, where their suppliers are located, if they have a code of conduct, how much the workers in their supply chain are paid, how they monitor their social and environmental practices, and what their goals are to decrease their negative impact. In just the last two days, they did release a new set of info to comply with the California Transparency Act. Great – but we’ve still got questions.
Kowtow and Krochet Kids: These two brands both have a lot of information available on their website. Krochet Kids was willing to answer any question we threw their way, while Kowtow had enough info on their website and via their certifications to thoroughly answer our questions.
4. Do they express intention for improvement?
No brand is perfect. But given the major impact of fashion supply chains on people and planet, it’s important to at least have the intention and plans to continue to improve. Do they have goals on their website? Any plans that they share with the media, or consumers?
Krochet Kids told us all about their future plans. So did Everlane. Warby Parker — no answer and nothing available on their site. And finally Kowtow, who by committing to only use fair trade and organic cotton, has restricted their growth and made a sustainability commitment for the long run.
5. Fifth, and finally, will they get back to you / us / anyone?
When you ask a question — do they respond? And do they give you a straight answer?
After we emailed them this month, Everlane gave us a sit down with their founder & CEO. We had also reached out to them before with questions through various consumer channels, and had received responses — but not nearly as comprehensive as this. We appreciate this, but we also recognize that not everyone is afforded this kind of access. We hope they continue to strive to be as responsive to consumers as possible to attain this same standard of radical transparency.
Krochet Kids’ CEO and COO had a phone call with us after they answered our comprehensive survey. We were impressed with their brand, and especially with their willingness to share and open up to us.
Kowtow and Warby Parker both didn’t answer our repeated efforts to get in touch with them with our questions. That said, Kowtow has a ton of information about their brand and practices available on their website for anyone (not just supply chain dorks like us) to see. Warby Parker? Not so much.
So what did we learn?
In this day and age, with consumers buying products made by global supply chains, and with issues of human trafficking, child labor, worker abuse and environmental violations — the consumer should have a right to know how the product they’re paying for is made and be able to see the evidence to back it up.
And with brands like these, consumers should also know legitimately that the brand’s vision and proclaimed values match how they treat workers in their supply chain, and how they treat our planet. If you’re paying, you deserve to know.
So don’t get taken for a ride— keep searching, keep asking questions and tell your friends to ask, too. From our experience, you might even get to sit down with the CEO.
From the Paris runway to Chennai’s pop up, we trace the journey of Coimbatore industrialist Kavitha Chandran’s brand of bags, Urmi
The colourful koodais (baskets) that your grandmum wove with tubes of plastic just became haute couture. All thanks to Kavitha Chandran and her brand of bags, Urmi. Chandran, who employs women from in and around Coimbatore to hand-weave totes and clutches from recycled plastic, using age-old basket-weaving techniques from the region, says it’s all about women empowerment, sustainability and reviving an almost-forgotten craft.
The stylish Chandran could easily pass for a model herself, but is intensely private and would rather not have her photo taken. “But you are welcome to ask me anything,” she says. Chandran speaks about Urmi’s collaboration with designer Manish Arora at the recently-concluded Paris Fashion Week 2017 (PFW). His models carried Urmi bags, and now, boutiques in New York, Tokyo, Ibiza and Paris are selling them. The bags will also be seen at the London Design Fair in September.
Chandran, who was always fascinated by baskets, says the idea for Urmi was born when she saw an employee’s wife and mother hand-weave baskets. The idea took shape when she got into a discussion with Amirthavalli who ran a small shop near her textile factory in Udumalpet. From her, she learnt about the various weaves. “I learnt about the Malli Muggu (jasmine or flower bud weave), Shiva’s Eye, Star and the regular weave. The Nellikai (gooseberry) and the biscuit weaves are in the pipeline,” she says. Amirthavalli became the first point of contact and she gathered together other women who still practised basketry.
Speaking of her first lot, Chandran says, “I showed the first batch of bags at ‘Who’s Next Paris 2015’ and people loved it.” She was flooded with enquiries from across the world, and that got her thinking. “It was not just about a fashion accessory,” she says, “but one that ties in with my commitment to sustainability and women empowerment.” Chandran, who recently received the Astitva Samman Award by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was the President of the FICCI Ladies Organisation in 2012. “We provide women the opportunity of working from home, as for many, stepping out to work is not an option. They are given the raw material and specifications. The bags can take anything between eight to 22 hours to weave,” says Chandran, who now employs 40 women in Udumalpet and Coimbatore.
The Urmi collection has evening clutches, box clutches, shoppers, tote bags and casual bags. The next big thing is going bigger with events like the Amazon Fashion Week and Lakme Fashion Week.
Urmi is available on 16 stores online, besides their outlets in Puducherry, Kochi, Delhi and Jaipur. Bags are in the ₹3,200 – ₹5,000 price range. The Chennai pop up is at The Amethyst Room, from April 5 to 15.
Through the next two months, GreenStitched sits down with the finalists of EcoChic Design Award 2015/16. EcoChic Design Award is a sustainable fashion design competition organised by Redress, inspiring emerging fashion designers and students to create mainstream clothing with minimal textile waste.
The interviews with these young designers will be posted every Wednesday on GreenStitched.
Today we meet Annie, a Fashion Design student at Central Saint Martins.
What brought you into the world of fashion? That ‘aha’ moment which opened doors to sustainable fashion?
Annie: Honestly I am completely appalled and disgusted by the fashion industry. It is infuriating to see how such a natural and beautiful craft has turned into a wasteful, environmentally and humanly-damaging mess that only cares for the gain of money and popularity, as with most things in the world.
I am trying my best to develop my own practice of work to be as environmentally aware as possible is really the least I can do. I want to be a sustainable fashion designer to raise awareness and change the way people think about consumption and waste and I want to develop alternatives to an industry that is primarily based on ephemeral trends and mass production.
What was your inspiration for the EcoChic Design Award collection?
Annie: The collection was inspired by paintings by Karel Appel, Kandinsky, Kirchner and Matisse, and in particular one of Matisse’s paintings in which naked bodies recline and walk freely around a garden. My collection was based on a series of textiles I created which used up all the waste from the collection by cutting up and fraying all the off cuts and painting over them. These decorated simple silhouettes and all the fabrics used were obtained from old furnishings or off cuts.
3 things you learnt from of the challenge?
– Considering the human conditions of production are just as important as the environmental impact when designing. Because I have never had to design on a huge scale, I had never really thought about how mass production factories work, but visiting one of the largest shirt producing factories in the world during the Ecochic Design Award was incredibly eye opening and shocking.
– There are so many aspects beyond the garment itself that need to be taken into consideration when designing. For instance will the user need to wash or iron the garment often? Is the garment easy to dispose of or transform into something else?
– There are always so many ways to improve the sustainability of a design, so it is a process that keeps growing.
How do you think sustainable fashion can move from a niche to the mainstream?
Annie: There are very few new and exciting designers who genuinely care about sustainability, and it would be great for this to change. Large designers are often guilty of green-washing consumers, or making poor attempts at sustainability that make this branch of design seem like a joke or a fad. Then of course, there is the problem since brands have to sell to make money ; nobody wants to slow down the pace of fashion, or create fewer, longer lasting garments. The whole attitude towards consumption needs to change, and consumers need to start appreciating craftsmanship and slow fashion more.
What is the biggest misconception about sustainable fashion?
Annie: The biggest problem in my opinion is green-washing, and large companies using sustainability as way of advertising and marketing. This sort of false “sustainability” or “eco-friendly” clothing is damaging to those who genuinely care about the environment and workers rights.
What is your advice for the next breed of fashion designers?
Annie: Start learning about ways to be more sustainable as early on in your education as possible.
What is next in store for you?
Annie: This year I will be interning for Bernhard Willhelm, Vivienne Westwood and then a new brand in Shanghai, after which I will go back to university to begin my final collection.
Watch Frontline Fashion, a documentary following these talented Asian and European emerging fashion designers determined to change the future of fashion. As they descend into Hong Kong for the design battle of their lives, all eyes are on the first prize; to design an up-cycled collection for China’s leading luxury brand, Shanghai Tang. This documentary is available on iTunes here.
The next cycle of the EcoChic Design Awards is open for application from 3 January to 3 April 2017. Interested students can find more details here.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the public wants to make greener fashion choices. As more people learn about the impact of their clothing, they want to be empowered to make more informed shopping decisions. According to the Savers State of Reuse Report, more than half of North Americans report they are more likely to practice reuse after learning about the clothing industry’s environmental footprint.
But there’s a problem: People can’t choose sustainably-sourced clothing if it’s not available on the shelves.
The clothing industry has quietly become one of the biggest polluters in the world. The public is only now starting to hear about it through the recent wave of events, films, dialogues and research studies. With the production of a single cotton T-shirt requiring over 700 gallons of water, the fashion industry is now being confronted with the strain it puts on our planet’s finite resources.
Eileen Fisher is one industry leader to publicly acknowledge the devastating environmental impact of the fashion industry, and has unwaveringly pledged to change. Eileen Fisher’s Vision 2020 initiative is guiding her business toward 100 percent sustainable practices while still creating high-quality, timeless and fashionable garments.
Although it may not be apparent that Fisher is blazing a trail when you walk into the nearest mall or department store, she is one of many designers and organizations that remained committed to eco-friendly and sustainable fashion for years.
Take Eco Fashion Week, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to discovering solutions and innovations to help advance the fashion industry in a sustainable and responsible direction. Founder and President Myriam Laroche uses her deep understanding of retail buying to empower designers, retailers and stylists to embrace sustainable fashion.
And after 10 successful years in Vancouver, Canada, Eco Fashion Week brought the world’s largest sustainable fashion show to Seattle this year to further its mission – highlighting fashion rooted in zero-waste production, eco-friendly textile treatment and development, and the environmentally conscious disposal of unwanted clothing. Two days of runway shows celebrated unique collections fashioned from sustainable materials as well as reclaimed materials.
These efforts are pushing the fashion industry in the right direction, but there is still more work to be done. With high price tags and limited selection, sustainable fashion can seem unattainable to the average person. To truly move the needle and minimize our clothing footprint, sustainable fashion must become mainstream.
From how cotton is grown, fabrics are dyed and garments are manufactured, to how owners care for these items and whether unwanted garments are repurposed or recycled to ensure a second life, sustainably-sourced fashion begins long before a garment is placed on a shelf. And it ends far after a person no longer wears it. Both shoppers and retailers must acknowledge that the real cost of clothing is more than what’s printed on the price tag.
When over 95 percent of textile and clothing waste sent to landfills is recoverable through recycling or reuse, it’s a huge loss to simply toss these goods away.
Committing to the affordability, availability and increased visibility of sustainable garments is only part of the solution. As Runway Reimagined at Eco Fashion Week demonstrated, it’s also important for designers, artists and manufacturers to consider what happens to their discarded garments. When over 95 percent of textile and clothing waste sent to landfills is recoverable through recycling or reuse, it’s a huge loss to simply toss these goods away. Runway Reimagined challenged designers and stylists to use unsold secondhand clothing and textiles to create new looks, because the most sustainable fashion is fashion that already exists.
From the production of a garment to its disposal, we must continue to seek out innovative solutions. Given that over 80 billion new pieces of clothing will be purchased this year alone – 400 percent more than we consumed 20 years ago – Savers feels this is an important challenge. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to create a sustainable fashion future, one that fosters sustainable production and distribution while also addressing waste as a part of the fashion industry. How our industry chooses to respond to these challenges is up to us.
After a decade in the organic food and beauty industry Marci Zaroff (above) recognized the “missing link” in the supply chain – ethics and sustainability.
She coined the term ‘eco-fashion’ and set about pioneering a market for organic and sustainable textiles.
Rethinking the fashion supply chain can cut costs, add value to collaborators and offer better-priced garments.
She shares her views with Real Leaders on how to keep the fashion industry pure, transparent and authentic.
In your opinion what are some of the obstacles to overcome in the fashion industry?
We have to break stigmas. One of these is the idea that in order to embrace fashion, style, quality, fit, colour and comfort, sustainability must be compromised. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. People think sustainability costs more, but it depends on how savvy a brand or designer is in navigating a supply chain. A typical garment can change hands 7-10 times within a supply chain and many designers will deal with a factory only, leaving the supply chain to others behind the scenes. For the past 20 years I have gone to the source, starting at the farm gates and cutting out much of the inefficiencies of a typical garment supply chain. This has added value to the products and creates a competitive price.
The fashion industry is the second biggest colluder in the world, alongside coal, for air and water pollution. It represents about 10 percent of the world’s carbon impact and uses three trillion gallons of fresh water every year. Twenty percent of fresh water pollution comes from textile dying and 5 percent of landfills are textile waste.
What are some of the biggest changes and improvements in the industry that you have seen?
The emergence of the organic cotton industry, as an alternative to fibre, is still seen as a niche sector and viewed much like the organic food trend. Studies have shown that 84 percent of American consumers occasionally buy organic food, so I really see organic cotton as the next frontier.
It’s a growing industry that has emerged mainly from collaboration. I was part of a team that developed The Global Organic Textile Standard that saw different organic standards in the U.S. U.K., Japan and Germany come together as one premier global standard for organic textiles. Fashion crosses borders by nature and we’re now able to track material from farm to shelf. If you can’t create sustainability on a financial level, then as much as you want to do good for people and planet, it won’t work.
Who inspired you at a young age?
When I was 15 a friend gave me a book, Living In The Light by Shakti Gawain. It opened my eyes to the fact that there’s more to the world than what we see.
It struck me on a very deep level. I also discovered Aveda, the cosmetic company that uses plant-derived ingredients founded by Horst Rechelbacher. I met him in my teens and he became my mentor for 25 years. He taught me that you can actually align your personal and professional values. My favorite quote is, “Work is love made visible.”
In the very competitive and cutthroat fashion industry, how do you separate your business from some of your competitors?
Staying true to your vision is important. We all create our own reality, because we’re made of energy. Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve todays problems with the same consciousness that created those problems.” It’s about trusting our gut, following our heart and adding social purpose to a business.
Believing that I can create something that doesn’t exist while generating authenticity and true leadership has set my brand apart and people aren’t just buying my products, they’re joining my brand and what it stands for. Consumer products are very powerful in effecting positive change, more so than governments.
In a predominantly female industry such as fashion, do you think more women are gaining the top leadership roles or do you think men still dominate? If so, how do you change this?
We still have a long way to go but progress is being made. I recently attended an award ceremony in New York and saw how empowered women have become. They are joining forces and it’s like 1+1=11. The more that women share success stories and support each other, the more exponential shifts we are going to see. It comes down to mentoring the next generation. A friend of mine is currently producing a movie called Women on Wall Street. In every Wall Street film preceding hers, women are either portrayed as secretaries or wives, yet dynamic and successful women already exist on Wall Street. The more we expose these types of women the more confidence it will give the next generation – showing that gender should never be an obstacle.
How would you describe a real leader?
Someone who has aligned their personal and professional values. As a real leader you need to be both strong and sensitive, empower people and treat others the way you want to be treated – not seeing the top guns and little guys as different human beings – but part of the same family. Embed the same values into your business that you’d find in your home – peace, love and happiness. It will help create an inner connection that makes you aware of our collective consciousness. You should strive to be a role model for others.
What mistakes have you learned from the most?
I don’t see anything as a mistake. I see everything as an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s human nature that until we experience the dark we can’t know the light. There’s no joy without pain. You can’t know what you really want unless you experience first what you don’t want. I achieve more when I build teams, and work with people who are open and communicative. It’s the key to successful relationships, partnerships and businesses. The days of dictatorial and authoritative attitudes are over. It’s about team – the “me” to the “we.”
What are some of the things that you would advise or that you would like to see happen to create a more sustainable world?
We need to create a new normal that doesn’t just consider how things look, but what kinds of materials and manufacturing methods where chosen. Millennials are the first digital generation that can pull back the curtain and ask, “Who made my clothes? Where is it made? What’s in it?”These questions are catalysts for making brands and retailers think about these issues.
After the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, where 1,133 garment workers lost their lives, 60 countries demanded that the industry change. Lives were lost for fashion and people were no longer willing to sit back and support a destructive industry. Everybody wears clothing and if you can add value to these products by demonstrating social and environmental accountable, without compromising great style, price and quality you have a win-win situation – doing good, looking good and feeling good.