In the past few years, shopping ethically and sustainably have become very fashionable. We love this trend, as it has always been Lucia's mission to bring ethical and sustainable products to the modern shopper. However, with the new boom in conscious consumerism there has also been a boom in greenwashing, or false advertising about ethics and sustainability, by large companies. Navigating these waters between truly ethical businesses and those that are greenwashing can be very difficult. That's why I'm sharing my process to find ethical stores for my daily life. I've broken it down into six easy-to-follow steps that will immediately clue you in to whether or not a business is really ethical.
Transparency, or the amount of information that a brand shares with it's customers, is one of the most important features of an ethical brand. If a brand isn't doing anything wrong, it won't try to hide information about how a product is made or who makes it. Transparent brands will respond to your questions quickly and will be excited to share the stories behind their goods. To learn more about what transparency looks like and why it matters, read our deep dive on the subject here.
2. Product Quality and Price
One of the easiest ways to see that a company isn't ethical is to look at the quality of their product and its price. Imagine a t-shirt. If you see that the seams on this shirt are loose or have hanging threads, it almost definitely means that the person who made it was unable to take the time to do a careful job. Many manufacturers pay their workers via a quota system. This means that they have to make a certain number of products a day, and if they don't make this quota, it comes out of their paycheck. Typically these quotas are also set at unrealistically high numbers, forcing workers to forgo breaks, trips to the bathroom, and more.
Now, back to the t-shirt. If this shirt is also very cheap, maybe $5, it could not have been made ethically. Consider that the people who grew the cotton for the fabric, produced the fabric, dyed it, sewed the pieces, transported the shirts, marketed them, packaged them, and sold them in the retail store have all had to be paid to get this shirt to you. Even splitting that cost over thousands of shirts, $5 is still lower than the cost of production for the shirt. For the company to profit off its sale, they must be participating in unethical practices.
Now, this doesn't mean that ethical goods must be expensive, or that expensive goods are ethical. In fact, ethical products are usually priced at mid-range values. However, seeing poorly made, cheap goods is a quick and easy way to rule out a brand as an ethical one.
3. Brand Directories
One of the quickest ways to find ethical brands is to search for them in ethical brand directories. These are websites that do the hard work of evaluating a brand's practices and products for you and report the results in easy to read reports. Simply search what kind of product you are looking for and see tons of great brands to choose from! This is my favorite way to find ethical products, and some of my favorite directories are The Good Trade, Good on You, The Ethical Home Edit, Ethical Made Easy, Ethical Marketplace, and of course the Fair Trade Federation!
4. Brand Certifications
Another very quick and easy way to see if a brand is ethical is to look for certifications or verifications that they have. Here at Lucia's we partner with the Fair Trade Federation and Green America. These third party organizations hold us accountable by reviewing our ethics and sustainability practices regularly. In order to maintain these verifications and certifications we must meet high standards. You can often find the certifications a business has in the footer of their website or on their about pages.
Reviews are a great way to evaluate a brand. If you see that a company constantly gets praised for great customer service, high quality product, and has loyal customers, you know that they value treating people well. You can help us spread the word about ethical shopping by writing a good review on our Facebook page!
However, this is also not a fail-proof way to tell whether or not a company is ethical. A company with great reviews can still be hiding dark secrets in their supply chain.
This last step is one of the most important in learning to tell whether a company is ethical or not. Subtle cues in the way that a brand talks about their products and producers can alert you as to whether or not they are greenwashing. There are two key things to look for with any brand that you are considering shopping with.
First, how do they talk about their producers? Do they simply mention donation to charities and not share anything about how their products are made? This is likely greenwashing. Do they rely on stories of traumatic experience or charity rather than celebrating the heritage and skill of their producers? Then, they may need to rethink how they view the people who make their products. Protecting the privacy of producers while sharing the stories of how products are made is difficult but very important work, and you will be able to see it in the way that a brand advertises to you.
Second, does the brand promote immediate gratification and consumerism or do they boast the utility and joy that comes from owning their products? This difference can be subtle, but powerful. For example, if a brand changes their entire product catalog every few months they are likely participating in greenwashing. They almost definitely have to destroy large amounts of left-over stock and they may not be able to keep a core group of producers on staff as the skill sets they require will constantly change. However, if a brand has a core set of products and producers, with seasonal variation in their offering, they are probably ethical. They are showing signs of being devoted to keeping their employees working and making products that last.
I hope that this short guide can help you to make informed and ethical shopping decisions. Still, as you use these steps, keep in mind that no business is 100% perfect. Even here at Lucia's, we are growing, learning, and updating how we do things every day. Each of us has to make a decision about how ethical we expect brands to be, and all of us must do our part to support and help brands through mistakes. The important thing is to try and find companies that are doing the best that they can and to come alongside them as part of the community of conscious consumers.