How to tell if a brand is ethical or not

finding ethical brands

Ethical fashion is getting a lot of awareness these days, which is a great thing! Unfortunately, it also means that some brands try to shortcut implementing ethical practices throughout their supply chain and simply tell consumers that they're operating "ethically" in hopes of gaining customers.

Some companies will make statements like, "We ensure the safety and fair pay of all of our workers..." which leads people to believe that they're ethical. However, most brands don't own the factories their clothes are made in. This means the factory workers aren't technically their employees and therefore aren't their responsibility. 

So, how do you tell if a brand is actually taking ensuring the safe and fair treatment of all workers in their supply chain? 

I'm glad you asked. 


1. Check out the brand's policy page, but don't entirely trust it.

When you're checking out a brand online, the quickest place to look for the ethical values is on their policy page. If a brand is ethical, they usually have extensive information available to the public. A good brand has nothing to hide. If the brand doesn't say anything about where clothes are made, that's a major red flag. Once you've found what the brand has to say about themselves, it's time to see if other sources will back their claims up.

Think of it like online dating. A guy will list all of his best qualities on his profile but that doesn't mean they're all true. Before you go out with him, you may want to ask around to see if anyone who knows him can vouch for his claim to be "strong but sensitive and handy in the kitchen." 

So, where can you go to check in on a brand's ethical claims?


2. Look for the brand's Certifications.

If brands have any of these little symbols somewhere on their site, you know they've earned some serious respect in the ethical world.

These symbols represent third-party organizations that hold companies to high standards of social accountability. If a brand becomes a certified member of one of these organizations, it means they have met the required ethical criteria. Additionally, when a brand becomes associated with these organizations, they are often allowing themselves to be randomly audited and checked in on by an external source to make sure they stay on track. Each of these organizations work a little differently, but all of them are very reliable and informative. 

I want to make it clear that a brand can be ethical without being certified fair trade or a B-corp.


3. Stalk the brand online.

Just like googling someone you have a crush on, asking the internet for some dirt on a brand can be very informative. Sometimes you won't find anything, but other times you can find a lot of research done by various bloggers or other news sources. This is especially helpful for bigger brands that tend to get more press. 


4. Email the brand directly. 

I email brands all the time. If I haven't found any red flags but am unsure about all of their practices, I shoot them a quick email with my questions. Sometimes they don't respond, but other times they provide helpful information and occasionally even tell me of third-party sources that I can use to check in on their "ranking" in ethics. Again, I don't usually trust what a brand says if they don't have any source of accountability or transparency to back it up. 

Here are some specific questions to ask a brand:

  • Where are your clothes made? (If they don't know, shame on them! If it's a developing country, ask follow up questions...)
  • What steps does your brand take to ensure the safety and fair pay of all workers in your supply chain?
  • Are there any organizations or sites that have third-party information about your brand?


5. Check out reliable sources. 

If you've found some ethical blogs or websites that you love, you can usually trust that they're putting in the time and energy to research any products they promote. One really helpful site is The Good Trade: I appreciate that they take the time to break down brands based on various ethical concerns (fair trade, organic, vegan, etc.) so you can shop based on your values. 

Some other really helpful sources for ethical fashion are Sutton + Grove, Conscious Shop Collective, Sustainably Chic, Simply Liv & Co, Styles For Thought, and Seasons + Salt. There are so many more out there, but these are some of my favorites! 


5. Be aware of these sneaky tactics.

I've come across a number of brands that may appear ethical at first glance, only to find that they aren't. Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • A brand may have a whole section about being fair trade on their website, but if you take the time to read it, you may find that they actually only carry a small line of fair trade items amidst a slew of fast fashion pieces. 
  • A brand that claims to be "Made in the USA" can identify that way when their items are sewn here, but they still might source all of their materials from sweatshops abroad. Look to see where materials are sourced, or ask the brand directly. 
  • A brand that is "for a good cause" may not actually be producing items ethically. This one is a huge bummer to me. Sometimes you'll see a brand that's donating profits to cancer research etc. but are producing all of their items under conditions that are harmful to people. 

I really hope this is helpful for you as you learn to discern where and how to shop ethically.

I wish I could give you a more clean-cut formula to follow, but it's so different depending on which kind of ethical brand you're looking at. Check out my explanation on the different types of ethical brands if you want to learn more about how doing good can look different on different brands. 

I realize that researching ethical companies can be daunting and time consuming, that's why I've compiled lists of vetted ethical apparel brands for men, women, and kids here on Selflessly Styled. I'm also happy to help you identify ethical brands that are a good fit for your style and budget when you book a consultation with me.

There are so many great brands out there! Trust me, you can do this!