Ever wondered how ethical is that cute dress or pair of jeans that just rock? We can relate! It is already hard enough to find something that looks good on us and resonates with our personality. But it can get even more challenging if you care about shopping responsibly.
Unfortunately, most clothing supply chains are complex and lack transparency which gives a lot of room for unethical practices. Brands in the industry don't make it any easier by putting all sorts of claims which in most cases are just inflated marketing slogans with no real backing.
Here comes the importance of an assessment framework that's simple enough to understand and apply, but is also comprehensive so we can feel confident in our purchases.
Much like ourselves, every product is made, has a lifetime, and then it turns into "ashes" (or in some unfortunate cases - waste). More importantly, we have to consider how it is made, what is the impact of its use, and what happens to it when no longer needed.
To be completely objective, however, we have to acknowledge that the responsibility of any fabric is shared between the manufacturer and the consumer. And since we believe that the magic happens when good intentions meet educated decisions, in the next sections we share the framework by which to assess the sustainability of products.
To come up with a score, we explore four aspects of every product:
- Raw materials
- Third-party certifications
- End-of-life potential
- Brand authority
Then a weighted formula is used to compute the rating.
Rating = 50% Raw Materials + 25% Certifications + 15% End-of-life Potential + 10% Brand Authority
Finally, the value is normalized to a 5 point system for more intuitive visualization (the leaf indicator).
There's no doubt that the most resource-intensive process in manufacturing is the sourcing of raw materials. It's no surprise that we dedicate half of the product rating score to them.
In our database, we store factual and quantitative LCA data for 40+ materials commonly used in the textile industry. The research shows that conventional options like cotton, polyester, viscose, wool, etc. all have different sorts of problems.
For instance, cotton is known to contribute to water scarcity and negative effects on biodiversity, while synthetics like polyester and nylon are linked to global warming, fossil fuel depletion, and waste. Equally bad, viscose and other cellulosic fabrics are guilty of deforestation and the use of toxic chemicals, which has an impact on local communities and workers' health.
We are not even started yet and it's already evident that some raw materials can cause a wide range of environmental, social, and ethical issues. That makes it impossible to say which factor is the most critical. They are all important and we can't afford to stigmatize one at the cost of embracing another. Sustainably made materials excel in that regard. They mitigate existing downsides through the adoption of good practices in agriculture, reuse of materials and chemicals, fighting for animal welfare, etc.
On that note, the framework classifies materials into 3 groups based on their potential impact - Conventional, Enhanced, and Sustainable.
|Conventional||Cotton, Polyester, Nylon, Spandex, Viscose, Cupro, Wool, Silk, Leather, etc.||🚫 Avoid||0 points|
|Enhanced||Responsible Wool (RWS, ZQ Merino), Better Cotton (BCI)||⚠️ Beware||1.25 points|
|Sustainable||Organic Cotton / Hemp / Linen, Recycled Polyester / Nylon / Wool, TENCEL, ECOVERO, etc.||✅ Go Ahead||2.5 points|
Certifications are a great way to verify the claims that brands often make about their products and fabrics. A number of legitimate organizations periodically audit and certify various parts of the supply chain in accordance with their standards. While it's true that certifications show a certain level of commitment to sustainable development, we also acknowledge that they can be costly and may not be easily available to smaller businesses. With that said, they form 25% of our product rating, or 1.25 points out of 5.
Additionally, some standards are known to be stricter and more comprehensive than others so there is a degree to which they influence the rating. In our research, we look for coverage of 5 essential criteria - emission reduction, resource efficiency, worker health and safety, fair labor, consumer safety.
|Certificate||Emission Reduction||Resource Efficiency||Worker Health||Fair Labor||Consumer Safety|
|Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)||✅||✅||✅||➖||✅|
|Fair Trade USA||➖||➖||✅||✅||➖|
|Int. Fair Trade||➖||➖||✅||✅||➖|
|OEKO-TEX Made In Green||✅||✅||✅||➖||✅|
We consider all 5 criteria equally important and so is their contribution to the score. It's clear that some of the standards can complement each other to yield a higher score or overlap in which case they will not be stacked.
Apart from the already mentioned, there is another set of certifications that mitigate some of the issues associated with the conventional raw materials but are just not enough to prove them sustainable. They are the foundation of the
Enhanced materials. Such examples are the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), etc. They provide guidance on good agricultural practices and animal welfare respectively but are neither strict nor they audit farmers frequently enough. These certifications affect the product rating only through
This part of the rating is dedicated to the afterlife of the clothes that we have already put through wear and tear to the point they can no longer serve us. For reference, less than 15% of all textile is recycled, the rest is being sent to landfills, incinerated for energy, or remains in the ecosystem. The statistics are disappointing because we are firm believers that achieving a circular economy in fashion is the only way to keep it sustainable on a large scale.
While much of it depends on the consumer disposal habits, it is important to note that not all garments have the same end-of-life potential. In our rating system, we favor those that are:
- or can be recycled
That gives natural fibers a slight edge over synthetics in that they break down much quicker in the right conditions, returning the nutrients back to nature and thus closing the loop. For synthetic fibers, however, recycling is critical as it is the only way to reduce waste. Limited by the mechanical technology only fabrics that consist of a single fiber type are considered eligible - e.g. 100% nylon is good, while 50% polyester 50% cotton blend is not. Even if the fabric is not blended, finishes such as buttons, zippers, dyes, labels, prints can further complicate the process.
The final 10% of the product rating goes to the business that made it. We know it doesn't look like much, especially in times when fast fashion brands launch sustainable lines just to boost their PR. But we are fully committed to only feature brands that are true to their values and meet a high ethical bar. This way the rating system makes it easier to discover the best fashion pieces from the best companies.
To establish the authority of a brand we examine:
- The entire product catalog
- Materials and 3rd party certifications invested in the manufacturing
- Evidence for efficient use of resources and reducing waste in production facilities
- Worker rights and payment of living wage
- Corporate commitment - certified b corp., 1% for the planet, etc.
The complete guide to brand assessment is coming soon, watch this space!
Other Impact Indicators
The rating is a good metric for a quick comparison of products' overall sustainability. But because it's so simple, it not as transparent and informative. For this reason next to every listing, we display extra visual information that allows us to understand the impact of a garment in detail. Two widgets are there for you to fill in the gaps - Impact Tips and MSI Charts.
Impact tips are indicators showing the good and bad sides of a product. Based on research about materials, processes, and the industry, they are the foundation of our rating system. Each tip is backed by quantitative LCA or industry data and contains short text explanation aiming to educate and raise awareness.
MSI stands for Material Sustainability Index, a tool developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and available at the Higg Index portal. In their own words, it is created to empower brands, retailers, and manufacturers to select more sustainable materials in the products they design and manufacture. In our opinion, it can be just as useful to consumers who want to shop more sustainably.
The Higg MSI uses cradle-to-gate data submitted from the industry and life cycle assessment databases to calculate environmental impacts and translate them into comparable scores. It is limited to 5 essential impacts of material production:
- Global warming
- Nutrient pollution in water (eutrophication)
- Water scarcity
- Fossil fuel depletion
Note: Due to MSI's limited scope we don't recommend using it for direct product comparison.
The MSI widget renders interactive charts for both the total MSI score, as well as the score broken down by individual impacts. Below is a sample widget for a 50% cotton, 50% polyester t-shirt showing cotton's negative impact on water availability.