These days it seems like everyone and their veterinarian has an ethical product company. We are bombarded with new Kickstarter campaigns for the latest organic hamster shawls or Made in the USA artisanal chamber pots. If the Internet was real life, every time we went outside we’d be surrounded by a swarm of suspendered newsies shouting “Eco-friendly! Get ya eco-friendly here!” “Fair Trade for your old maid!” “100% ethical or your money back!”
It’s at once parody á la Portlandia and a genuine sign of the times: we, the children of globalization and overinflated self-esteems, decided we would be the ones to finally stop sweatshops after hundreds of years, and then preach the gospel of conscious consumerism from the mountaintops. We might not be doing it perfectly right, but it’s definitely progress in the right direction.
But as the market for ethically produced and sustainable goods continues to grow, the number of posers, phonies and fakers will grow too.
Back when there weren’t a lot of suitors, we didn’t have the luxury of being choosy. But just like the girl that grew gigantic knockers over summer vacation, now every brand at school wants to take us to prom. And with all the newfound attention, we’d better raise our standards and get smarter about their promises of sustainably ever after. We’ll never know exactly what is happening behind a factory’s closed doors, but we can be more savvy about who we trust with our support. The goal of this article is to give you some tools to tell the fake from the real, the snake oil from the Dr. Bronner’s.
Note: I use a handful of real companies as examples in this article. I am not categorizing some some as saints and others as evil, no business is perfect. However, I do think that some brands have more work to do than others to live up to their marketing. And as consumers, we need to stop being afraid of criticizing “ethical” companies just because they mean well. Let’s all do better so that the real changemakers can rise to the top. I welcome any feedback, disagreement, questions, etc. Leave a note!
1. Photos & Language
How are the people or projects that are “benefitting” represented on the website and in other promotional material?
Whether it’s a seamstress or a poor kid who gets a free pair of shoes, these are the faces of a company’s ethical program. Pay very close attention to how they are discussed.
- In photos, are the “beneficiaries” dressed in a way they would be proud of? As in, would they upload that picture to their own Facebook profile or send it to a friend?
- Do the women have their hair done?
- Are people fully clothed?
- How do these photos compare to the photos of the models or of the company’s staff?
- Are they always pictured receiving or in other passive poses?
Example #1: “Buy A Bag, Give A Bag”
I am not here to bash anyone else’s company, but this graphic makes my skin crawl and I really want you guys to understand why.
The young, slim white people are posed in color with neutral backgrounds. The black woman and her kids are not posed (are they cheering for the charity they’re receiving?), they are in black and white (either they’re so poor they can’t even afford color or it’s just really important that you don’t confuse them with the models), and we are meant to observe the “squalid” living conditions in the background. The main message here is: this single mother and her kids are so lucky that your shopping helps them.
I emailed this company and talked to a genuinely nice and well-intentioned person. I doubt he made any of these choices consciously or sees anything wrong when he looks at his website. But if you want the title of ethical/sustainable/fair trade company and the benefits that come along with it (higher price tags, warm and fuzzies), you have to actually earn it.Being nice isn’t good enough, you have to think about the impact of your work. If you don’t want the extra responsibility of thinking critically about how your “help” is paternalistic or offensive or ineffective, then don’t try to give “aid” along with your products. Some of these unexamined efforts do more harm than good.
I never did understand how giving away a bag was helpful either. Is there a purse drought somewhere that I haven’t heard about?
Example #2: Nisolo
I don’t know anything about this company and have never met these people in my life. But this photo suggests that they are more likely to treat all the people who work for them — whether in the front office or in the factory — like human beings. Same color photos, same style, same format. It’s a basic message, but one that is extremely powerful in an industry characterized by routine abuse, low pay, extremely long hours, harassment, and terrible working conditions.
I am much more likely to trust a company that represents the “beneficiaries” of their work in a way that honors their humanity, instead of opening my wallet to help because I feel bad for some poor pitiful soul in some faraway country. It seems simple, but it’s pretty hard to find a factory where a workers’ dignity is truly respected — if it was that easy, sweatshops would have been eradicated long ago.
In fact, we don’t really need companies to give away free purses at all. They would be revolutionizing the world enough by paying employees fairly and treating them well, managing their environmental impact, and planning for the end-of-life of their products.
Don’t be fooled by nice graphics or beautiful photos: pay close attention to the actual solution a company is offering. Look for details that explain how and why.
A lot of companies will say things like, “we support local artisans” but don’t say how. Or, “we use 100% natural materials” but don’t say what those are (arsenic is natural but it will still kill you). And, “we provide stable employment for [xyz vulnerable population]” but don’t talk about the pay or benefits or working hours. If we are meant to believe that simply providing jobs (even shitty, low-paying ones) is enough, we might as well just shop at the mall. That is the exact same argument Wal-Mart has always made and their products will save you a lot of money.
Other brands (and these ones can be even harder to spot) give TONS of details about their ethical program, but none of it has anything to do with what they are selling. Beware of a sneaky ethical brand!
The case of TOMS Shoes is instructive: They skyrocketed to the top of everyone’s list of feel-good brands with their buy-one-give-one model, all while providing zero information about how their products were made or about the impact of their shoe giveaways. During the height of the TOMS craze, Nike would probably have been a better ethical choice for buying shoes (at least they publish a list of all their factories!). After years ofcriticism about the model, they have become slightly more transparent about their work. However, it is important to note that their rise to success as a brand was due almost entirely to excellent diversionary marketing and not a strong ethical backbone.
Keep in mind:
- Do they tell you exactly where items are produced? (Country, city, factory name?)
- How specific are they about the “sticky” things: wages, working hours, health and safety, inspections? Do workers have a union?
- Do they own the factory where they produce or is it outsourced?
- Is it clear how their ethical program is really helping the world?
- Are they partnering with NGOs or other folks on the ground who actually know what they’re doing to implement their ethical project?
- Are they honest about what they’re doing well and what they want to improve on?
Example #1: “Buy a pair of shoes, plant a tree”
Uhhh…. *Blank stare*
What exactly is the connection between selling shoes and planting trees? Was this a deliberate choice based on deep knowledge of the industry and the impact of shoe manufacturing on the planet? Or is it just easier to plant a tree than to make your supply chain more sustainable? Or even worse, are you just trying to distract us from the fact that there are no details on your website about how your shoes are made?
This company could be run by a bunch of vegan blind nuns for all I know. But it seemed weak enough that I just closed the tab and kept it moving….
Example #2: Alta Gracia Apparel
In comparison, Alta Gracia Apparel is extremely specific about the solution they propose: they pay workers a living wage. There are no frills, no bells and whistles, no fanfare. You might think this is kind of boring or uninteresting, but I challenge you to find many brands that specify exactly how much workers in their factories are being paid (and how it compares to the local minimum wage). No greenwashing here!
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent 10 months in the Dominican Republic researching this factory and several others in the area. I wasn’t compensated by them, but I did come to be truly impressed with the work they are doing. You can read the very long, dry academic paper here.)
Call, email or go to the store and talk to a real human being. It takes a little extra work, but it is the easiest way to gauge how much a company actually gives a shit.
If a company is truly cause-driven, or has a deep seated commitment to improving the world, you will probably know as soon as you talk to them. Usually the folks working in customer service or the cash register weren’t in the meetings with the PR firm or marketing team when the ethical “strategy” was being created. But if the ethics of a company are a crucial part of a company’s juju, even entry-level employees will talk about it openly and proudly and consistently.
I worked for a company called Holstee for years, and I spent all of my time making decisions that had a social and environmental impact but weren’t always sexy enough to make it on the website (for example, whether or not to use plastic sleeves for our greeting cards). I loved it when people were curious about our products and how they were made, because it meant all the time and energy I spent mattered to someone else. A company that cares will want to talk about it!
Example #1: Nasty Gal
Here is a real-life correspondence between myself and now fashion giant Nasty Gal (link to the article I mention is here).
By that point, I’d been shopping from Nasty Gal since before they were huge and I really wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she misunderstood and thought “sweatshops” was a style of crop top? It was almost as if she was telling me that they were discontinuing that particular style of sweatshop, but was I interested in another color perhaps? I pushed for clarity:
I was really disappointed with this response. It just felt so fluffy and evasive. To be fair, Nasty Gal never claimed it was an “ethical” brand, but they were pushing the Made in LA angle pretty heavily at the time. I decided, sadly, that Nasty Gal didn’t really care about how their products were made so I wouldn’t really care about shopping from them. Since then, I’ve purchased one hat and one pair of sunglasses but otherwise I’ve stopped buying from them based on this conversation.
Example #2: Warby Parker
In comparison, here is an email communication with eyewear powerhouse, Warby Parker:
I thought this was a great response and here is why:
- She welcomed my inquiry, instead of getting defensive. Warby Parker understands that many of their customers are values-driven and they want to encourage conversation as much as possible. Also, it’s just good customer service not to act like I’m an idiot. Duh.
- She used the “C” word. When you work in the ethical product space, China is kind of a dirty word. This is unfair, but China has a really bad reputation with the Whole Foods demographic and it would have been easy for her to leave that detail out. I like that she didn’t. In an ideal world, companies would be transparent by publishing a complete list of factory names and locations, but this is a good start.
- Founders have personally visited. This is actually not a compelling piece of information, although the reverse would be: if a company hasnot visited the place where their goods are produced (like a million and one times), that is a HUGE red flag! That means they are trusting the factory’s word and then we are trusting the brand’s trust of the factory. You can pretty much guarantee that little game of telephone is not reliable.
- Third party verification. This is the most important takeaway I got from this email. The Warby Parker staff are experts in design and ecommerce, they are probably not experts in factory compliance. Some folks have (valid) criticism of Verité specifically or factory inspections more generally, but to me this communicates some valuable pieces of information: (1) we acknowledge that working conditions matter (2) because of that we’ve hired a professional to help (3) we get audit reports on a regular basis so we have at least some idea of what’s going on there. Not perfect, but again a good sign.
I have a lot more tips to share, but these three are a good foundation for now. I hope you find them useful!
I’d love to hear your reactions to this article. Disagree? Feedback? Questions? How do you spot fake ethical companies?