Sustainable fashion. What does this term actually mean? And how can you get involved with shopping more sustainably and ethically? Sustainability is becoming increasingly popular with both customers and brands due to the ever-growing impact of clothing on our environment. In this edit of TALA TALKS, we’ll be unravelling some tips and tricks to implement when you’re on your next shop to help you shop more sustainably and ethically. It’s important to know whether a company is greenwashing, whether they act and perform according to their values.
Sustainability is a bit of a buzzword nowadays, with brands left, right and centre claiming to sell sustainable ranges or products, with little evidence to support their claims. Third party accreditations and reports are a great place to start when it comes to assessing whether a brand is sustainable and ethical, as they have no vested interest in a brand’s sustainability status, and require hard evidence of sustainable production to gain the seal of approval. Many brands will talk about sustainability, but far fewer will have the evidence to back it up. When this occurs, it is likely the company is greenwashing.
HOW TO SPOT GREENWASHERS
So what does greenwashing actually mean? Greenwashing is the term used to describe marketing language that makes a product or brand sound eco-friendly, when in reality that’s hugely exaggerated or far from the truth. ‘Eco-friendly’ can mean a lot of different things, and there are a few things you can do to tell if a company is greenwashing, or truly holds sustainability at its core.
The first thing you should look for is quantifiable evidence. Does the brand share its core values, and are sustainability and ethics part of those values? Are there quantifiable measures of the sustainability of the brand, such as percentage of recycled materials in their clothes (‘made with recycled fabrics’ doesn’t actually mean anything - as The Simpsons said, “zero is a percent”), and third party verification of those claims? Or is the language vague and waffly? Accreditations are a great way of comparing standards across brands and help provide an external verification of certain aspects of sustainability and/or ethics. There may be no such thing as perfection when it comes to sustainability, but at least you can have a clear understanding of what your favourite brands are doing to meet their goals.
Second, look at their prices. While an expensive item of clothing is no guarantee that it is ethically produced, if a brand is charging £8 for a new full-priced t-shirt, the chances are someone is losing out down the line. Paying workers fair wages has to be reflected in the full price of garments, whilst some sustainable brands will do what they can to compete with the prices of non-sustainable brands and remain accessible, there is a limit to how low they can go. These insanely cheap prices should not be seen as an ‘industry standard’ - it’ll take time, but it’s important to move away from the idea that clothes should always be as cheap as possible if you can afford to do so.
A good resource is GoodonYou.eco which gives an overview of the sustainability and ethical credentials of the brand. They research various elements, namely Planet, People and Animals, and give the brand a score out of 5 for each of those elements. Depending on your own values, you can decide whether the brand is in line with where you want to be spending your money.
And last but not least, search for transparency. Transparency is scary for brands, because it shows up any and all gaps in their production for all to see, and no brand is perfect, but it’s absolutely vital when it comes to creating fairer working conditions for all. Transparency can come in many forms, and some of their information may be commercially sensitive, but sharing the details of their factories and information about the workers is a good place to start. Check if they audit their factories, as this hints at their commitment to labour standards and working conditions. The same goes for their work culture - do they talk about this, promote diversity and inclusivity? Are their models diverse and do they practice the same inclusivity they preach? This is all food for thought when wanting to shop sustainably and ethically.
Assessing whether a brand is truly sustainable or simply greenwashing can be time consuming and complicated, especially where transparency is poor. It also requires the consumer to take responsibility for their own purchases and ensure they vote with their money: if a brand isn’t in line with your personal values, don’t buy from them.
HOLDING SUSTAINABLE COMPANIES TO A HIGHER STANDARD COMPARED TO FAST FASHION
As consumers, we should be holding all brands to higher standards. It’s no longer enough for a brand to nod at sustainability through the use of organic cotton in one t-shirt - we need to be asking for more, and celebrating brands that deliver.
It can take time for brands to become as sustainable as we would like - it’s been a huge journey for us and we still have areas we want to improve - understanding and disentangling supply chains can take time for any brand, but ensuring they have sustainability goals and stick to them shows real commitment to improvement.
It’s also important to note that while we enjoy classifying and categorising everything, there is no set measure for a ‘sustainable’ brand, and brands are not either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. - almost every production method or fabric has its issues, and the best we can do is support brands working to improve and only buy clothes when we need to.
HOW TO SHOP SMART
Clothes will always be produced - buying from any brand in excess, be it ‘sustainable’ or otherwise, is unsustainable, so while looking to brands to improve, we should also look at our own purchasing habits, too. The average item of clothing is worn just 7 times in the UK (WRAP), and billions of pounds of clothing are left unworn in wardrobes each year worldwide. Before shopping for a new item, ask yourself ‘does this fulfil a purpose not fulfilled by any other item in my wardrobe?’. ‘Will I wear it frequently and will it last?’.
Buying second hand is another great way to reduce your environmental footprint. If there is a particular item or brand you want to buy from, search secondhand sites such as Depop (you can find amazingly priced excess stock and one-of-a-kind pieces on our shop!) and Vinted.
If you want to buy a new item, do some research on the brand. Does it prioritise sustainability? Does it have third-party accreditations or certifications, such as GOTS and B Corp (certification varies depending on size, structure and years in business)? Then introspect a little - has your past self bought items you don’t really need, but been sucked in by powerful marketing? If so, maybe wait a little while. Have a look in your wardrobe to see if there’s anything in there that perhaps you’d forgotten about. After all, the most sustainable item of clothing is the one we already own.
If you still want to buy something after that, go for it. Sustainable brands wouldn’t exist or be able to compete with mainstream brands without your support, so put your money where your mouth is and buy what you need.
Accreditations are a great way of providing third-party proof that your product (be it clothing, a yarn or production process) is as ethical or sustainable as a brand or factory says it is. Each accreditation means and refers to a slightly different thing, and usually they are more stringent in their requirements than audits. Here are some that TALA uses for various ranges and what they mean.
Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) provides transparency across the supply chain for a fabric from farm gate to final supplier, meaning that if an item is GOTS certified, you know it’s organic, low toxin, GMO free, low waste, all the way through the supply chain. It also sets requirements for labour and social standards, based on the key norms of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The Global Recycling Standard (GRS) verifies the recycled content of a fabric, its chain of custody (i.e. where the materials that made it are from), as well as various social and environmental factors. This is an important accreditation, as many brands may shout about having ‘recycled clothing’, but not share how much recycled content is actually in their clothing - often it won’t be much at all! With GRS, you can verify the traceability and recycled content of any accredited item of clothing - which makes greenwashing much harder! TALA is proud to be a market leader in high-content recycled activewear, and GRS independently verifies this.
Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX focuses specifically on chemical usage, testing for harmful substances often used in clothing production. If an item of clothing carries the OEKO-TEX label, you can be certain no chemicals harmful for human health have been used in its production. This is important not just for the consumer, but also for the factory workers producing the clothing.
To find out more about which TALA factories and ranges carry which accreditations and audits, head to our recently updated factories page. Want to know more about TALA? We’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and ideas so drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.