Sustainable Shopping for the 21st Century

Sustainability expert Lisa Heinze reviews two systems which help consumers make better fashion choices

Demand for sustainably produced clothing is on the rise as more people become aware of fashion’s impact on the planet and the people who make our clothes. And the question on the lips of these conscious fashion consumers is, “So what brands can I buy?”

It’s a valid question, of course, but given the complexity of the fashion supply chain and the multiple steps from raw materials to finished garments, it can be hard to provide a straightforward answer.

On the one hand, it is easier than ever to buy sustainable fashion. There are a number of sustainable fashion labels creating clothing with care of the planet and its inhabitants built into their business plans from day one. There are also many well-established fashion labels adjusting their practices to lighten their environmental footprint and ensure safe and fair working conditions for garment labourers.

On the other hand, information about these labels can be hard to find, and even harder to decipher for the average fashion shopper. At this time there is no widely accepted certification system that ‘approves’ brands as being completely environmentally and socially sustainable, though there are systems for approving ethical labour, Fairtrade practices and organic cotton, among others. In addition, many brands privilege one ethical characteristic over the other – for example, focusing on environmental standards by switching to organic cotton and toxin-free dyes or prioritising labour conditions by committing to paying a living wage to overseas garment workers. This is particularly true for large brands transitioning to sustainable practices.

In this complex and ever-changing fashion industry, the answer to “So, what brands can I buy?” often boils down to the shopper’s personal values.

Thanks to improved technologies (and some dedicated sustainable fashion advocates) there are now multiple online tools to help the conscious fashion consumer decide what brands to buy. Below are reviews of two systems that each take into account the complexity of the fashion supply chain, provide details on well-known fashion brands and start-up sustainable fashion labels, and arm consumers with information to make better fashion choices.

Good On You shopping app

Developed by Ethical Consumers Australia, the Good On You shopping app rates fashion brands on three categories: Environment, Labour, and Animal Welfare practices. Brands are given a rating from 1 (We Avoid) to 5 (Great) that are determined following a detailed review of a variety of certification schemes, independent rating bodies and information provided by the fashion brands themselves.

“We created the app because it was too hard for consumers to make good purchasing decisions,” says Gordon Renouf, CEO and co-founder of Good On You.

“We also felt it was important to be an independent voice, separate from retailers, and one that can tell consumers not just what brands are doing well, but what brands are not doing so well in terms of ethical practices.”

The free app – available in the Apple app store and Google Play – currently provides ratings for over 1,000 fashion and accessories brands sold in Australia, enabling shoppers to easily find information on brands while they shop. In addition to the numbered rating, users can read more detail about how the brand performs in each of the three categories.

Users of the app can specify preferences for style and ethics, with sliding scales for each category, enabling the app to recommend the best brands for each user. In addition, the app advises the nearest retailer to buy each brand.

An additional feature of the app helps users to send messages directly to fashion brands to either congratulate them for taking positive action, or to ask them to improve their sustainability standards. With this feature, Good On You enables its users to “vote with their wallets” and also participate in collective action, joining together with other users to actively ask brands to do better.

Top Features: More than 1,000 brands rated and more being added all the time; information at your fingertips while you shop.

Project JUST website

Launched by fashion lovers and social development experts Natalie Grillon and Shahd AlShehail in 2015, Project JUST provides details on over 60 global fashion brands’ business models and ethics to empower shoppers with information. What the site lacks in numbers of brands, it makes up for in depth of knowledge about each brand on the site.

As explained by co-founder Natalie Grillon, “Our mission is to transform the fashion industry into a transparent, accountable and sustainable system that celebrates the stories, the people and the resources behind the clothing. We know that if shoppers are empowered with information, they will buy better fashion. After the Rana Plaza disaster, we realised there were negative stories that needed to be told, too.”

Committed to making information accessible and transparent, Project JUST shares details such as business size and model, transparency, intention, innovation as well as the ‘expected’ environment and labour conditions categories. Information on the website is continually enhanced through a Wiki/user-generated platform where consumers, researchers and industry professionals can add additional information or suggest changes to the details about the brands.

Grillon says, “We think everyone has a role to play – it’s not the sole responsibility of consumers or of brands. We all need to work together to improve the fashion industry.”

Another core aim of Project JUST is to and avoid demonising the fashion industry and to work with it ‘offline’ towards positive and sustainable solutions.

Though Project JUST does not provide ratings for brands, in April they will launch the #JustApproved awards to celebrate ‘All Star’ brands that are practicing sustainable and transparent business practices, as well as to recognise brands that may not be perfect, but are taking steps that have the potential to transform the industry.

Top Features: Incredible depth of detail about fashion brands; user-generated data enables more nimble and up-to-date data on each brand.

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Images supplied from the Kowtow brand (They are a super-sustainable brand out of NZ and are rated a 5 on the Good On You app)

Lisa Heinze is currently a PhD candidate in the department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, and her research focus is fashion and sustainability, with particular emphasis on the consumer experience of fashion. She is the author of Sustainability with Style, an eco-memoir designed to help others live their most sustainable lives without giving up their own sense of style. She is also a co-founder of Clean Cut, Australia’s sustainable fashion advocacy group, and presents and consults on issues of sustainable living and environmental communications.

Lisa has a background in marketing and consumer behaviour, having worked across a range of iconic global consumer brands, and her Masters research focused on sustainable consumption and barriers to climate change action. Some of her experience with environmental organisations includes leading the marketing team for the Green Building Council of Australia and sitting on the organising committee for Australia’s annual Green Cities conference.

Images: Kowtow brand