You're standing in a department store, boutique or sportswear outlet and you've picked out the perfect ensemble for your big night out or so you can look good and feel comfortable while working out. Then the little voice in your head asks - how did my new clothes get here? It turns out, you can find out a lot about how your clothes are produced and what impact their manufacture has on the environment.
I admit that, until recently, this wasn't really something I gave a lot of thought to. I was happy to wander into a store, find a t-shirt and part with my cash. But over the last few years, we've seen the price of many items plummet. The idea that you could put together a basic ensemble of casual clothes for under $50 would have been hard to fathom just a few years ago.
As department stores with their own house brands and well-known designers have shifted their factories to places with lower labour costs and laxer employment laws, we've seen the costs of clothing come down. There's also the impact of how materials are sourced and the environmental impact of waste and energy use to consider.
Over the last few years, tech companies have been under increased scrutiny to ensure that the gadgets they create are manufactured responsibly. That covers everything from where they source the minerals used to create components, through to the people working in factories, packing, shipping and recycling programs. But when you're standing in a store, cash or credit cards at the ready, how do you now your money is supporting an ethical supply chain?
There's An App For that
As it happens, the free Good On You app (there are iOS and Android versions) makes things easier. The bad news is that if you're really concerned with where clothes are made and where they come from then your shopping choices become very limited.
Good On You uses three main criteria to assess each of the over 3000 brands in their database; labour, environment and animal. They explain how they came to their ranking for a brand based on those criteria and take into account information from over 50 different certification schemes as well as public statements made by the company.
For example, popular sportswear brand Nike is rated as "Not good enough", with a score of two out of five. That means Nike has provided some information but not enough for them to truly know what happens in their supply chains. In Nike's case, its score was dragged down because they use a low proportion of eco-friendly materials in their products. And while they have committed to reducing carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2025, they haven't made a commitment to eliminating hazardous chemicals from their supply chain.
Popular fashion brand Zara picked up a score of three out of five with their "Closing the Loop" program that repairs and recycles garments. They have also committed to reducing carbon emissions and getting rid of hazardous chemic from their supply chain by 2020.
If you're looking for a particular style of clothing or accessory, Good On You lets you look at manufacturers by product category or you can look up a brand while you're standing in front of a rack or shelf. If you look at the category listing, the best-ranked manufacturers are listed at the top.
Ethical Fashion Guide
Baptist World Aid has published an Ethical Fashion Guide that provides a different perspective on choosing your clothes ethically. They use 33 different criteria to assess companies on their policies, traceability and transparency, auditing and supplier relationships, and worker empowerment.
Higher grades are given to companies with labour rights management systems that, if implemented well, should reduce the extent of worker exploitation.
Although their guide provides less information, it's available as a PDF which you can carry around and read offline. You can also search for brands using their mobile-friendly website.
Brands are ranked using the old-school A+ down to F scale.
The Challenge For Shoppers
Looking at the two resources there is a significant discrepancy in some of the rankings depending on which criteria are deemed most important.
For example, The Baptist World Aid list ranks Cotton On with an A grade, But Good On You only gives the a score of three out of five. That means you need to look at how the scores are allocated. Good on you says Cotton On is "Good" when it comes to labour protections for workers but Baptist World Aid givens them a B on "worker empowerment".
That means you still need to make your own decisions about what's important and whether you're prepared to compromise.
The other option is to skip on new clothes and hit the opp shops and clothing recyclers. That way, the demand for new clothes is reduced, thus reducing the environmental footprint from manufacturers.
Choosing clothes is no longer just about fit, style and colour. We all have a role, perhaps even an obligation, to ensure clothing makers are accountable for how they bring clothes to us. And we can make that clear by where we spend our money.