It would be highly unlikely that with today’s techniques, the production of clothing, jewelry, or accessories would have zero deleterious impacts. However, vast improvements have been made in our current practices regarding raw materials, manufacturing, and transportation toward a more sustainable and ethical world. Many companies are improving their practices and working towards finding ways to address the remaining problems.
Consumers can support these efforts by, whenever possible, purchasing the merchandise that is the most sustainable and ethically made. The move towards sustainability and ethics is about making choices that reduce the negative impacts on our planet, the people who produce these items, and humanity as a whole. These are challenges companies and consumers must take seriously: to operate and purchase with a commitment to sustainable and ethical goals.
Below, we outline a compendium of issues that have been raised, broken into two categories: sustainable issues which are focused on the impacts on our planet, and ethical issues which highlight the impacts on humanity.
What are Sustainable Use Practices?
We are all familiar with the discussions about how using non-renewable resources (like fossil fuels), depleting native vegetation, and endangering animal populations affects our planet. These decisions worsen climate change through emissions and deforestation and have a devastating impact on biological diversity. Even harvesting abundant resources, for example from farm-raised animals or tree plantations can be unsustainable if not properly implemented.
One of the most prevalent non-renewable resources is crude oil from which plastics, synthetic fabrics, gasoline, and petrochemical feedstocks are made. For retail products, some of the largest problematic energy uses are for synthetic fabrics, metal mining, and smelting, and for transporting raw materials and retail goods.
Synthetic fabrics, while perhaps once considered much less desirable than all-natural fibers like cotton and wool, have become foremost in activewear, high-performance clothing, and fast fashion. Studies have shown that the total energy used to make new synthetic fabrics is notably greater than cotton or wool. Additionally, synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable and, once they end up in landfills, their chemicals can leach out into the environment. Some manufacturers seek to lessen the environmental impact of synthetics by using a percentage of recycled plastics (like reclaimed ocean plastics) in their garments.
Whatever the source of the plastics (new or recycled), the man-made microfibers in synthetic fabrics will continually shed during washing and end up in wastewater. Depending upon the wastewater treatment plant, up to 20% of these fibers end up flowing into rivers, lakes, and oceans, while the remainder ends up in biosolids. These synthetic fibers are the most common anthropogenic particles in all oceans, at all depths. Microplastics and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) are also now being detected in human blood samples.
Even natural products like cotton can be considered unsustainable and may have a negative impact on our environment. Traditionally, cotton growing uses a high concentration of pesticides and fertilizers made from fossil fuels. Not only are these pesticides harmful to the planet, but exposing employees to these on a daily basis is not safe. Growing cotton also uses large amounts of water. Organically grown cotton uses fewer petrochemical-based pesticides or fertilizers, thus having less of a negative impact on the environment.
Once the cotton is harvested and processed, it is usually dyed. Chemical dyes that use heavy metals, amines, and inorganic salts are not sustainable because of their impacts on groundwater during processing and in their leaching from landfills. Natural dyes made from fruit, plants, fungi, algae, and bacteria are an alternative to chemical dyes and they have much less of an environmental impact.
Transportation is often a significant factor in sustainability. An item or its components that are shipped across the world multiple times before sale cannot be considered best practices for sustainability. The two biggest variables are the distances from harvesting to processing and then from the location of final production to point of sale. Using locally sourced materials for manufacturing eliminates the need to move raw materials long distances. For instance, the US is the third-largest cotton grower worldwide but exports about two-thirds of that production for manufacturing overseas before re-importation. Therefore, many cotton products made in China or South Asia, organic or not, have an extra energy consumption because the material is shipped twice around the world before sale. The same is true for precious metals such as gold and silver. In our global economy, many products are simply not made locally but generally speaking, the closer the raw material is to its manufacturing site, the less of a negative impact the item is likely to have on the planet.
In the US, recent laws have mostly prohibited and eliminated the use of endangered species in new retail products, with one notable exception: endangered corals of several varieties are still allowed to be imported to be used in jewelry or home décor items. Harvesting coral can have a huge impact on coastlines as coral reefs are very important for protecting coastlines from erosion and providing habitats for fish that are eaten locally.
Deforestation has been going on for centuries and more than half of the natural forests in the US have been cut down since the arrival of Europeans. Many other countries have had large percentages of their forests cut such as Honduras, Nigeria, and The Philippines. Current large-scale cuttings are also occurring in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. These forests are removed to create farmland for producing beef, soy, palm oil, and other agricultural products, and some retail wood products also come from these areas. Brazil is a significant exporter of hardwood flooring, for example. Large-scale tree farms can have negative impacts like increasing the risk of forest fires, and clear-cutting forests can have a devastating impact on soils and runoff.
Mining for ores and gems also has a huge environmental impact. Mines are infamous for being operated in ways that don’t take fair labor practices into consideration and miners often work in unsafe conditions and are not fairly compensated. In addition, mining creates a lot of sustainability issues such as energy consumption and other environmental impacts such as deforestation, groundwater, slag, erosion, sinkholes, etc. Coal mines are especially notorious for their harmful impacts. Most of the mining that relates to retail is for iron (steel), bauxite (aluminum), copper (brass), gold, and silver.
Most of these metals have profitable recycling markets that encourage reuse again and again. Scrap metal recycling has been going on in the US for centuries and recently even electronic devices are being “mined” for their precious metals. A very high percentage of the metals can be reclaimed during reprocessing with energy costs at a fraction of new production and without the other deleterious environmental impacts mentioned above. Unfortunately, not everything that can be recycled is. For example, only about half of all aluminum cans in the US are recycled.
Textile and natural fiber “recycling” reduces energy usage compared to new production. When natural fiber clothing (or scraps, sheets, towels, upholstery, etc.) can’t be re-used, it can be recycled like other renewable materials. Wool and cotton are the most commonly recycled natural fibers. The second-hand clothing market gives used clothing a second or third life and it only requires energy for collection and redistribution. Perhaps best of all is a well-made piece of “slow” clothing that is made from high-quality recycled or sustainable materials that will last much longer than a “fast” fashion item.
There are many other natural fibers used in clothing and retail products such as sisal, hemp, jute, seagrass, arrowroot grass, bamboo, and raffia that can have smaller environmental impacts. However, as with any natural product, the amount of damage caused varies depending on the agriculture practices.
Leather is a natural product made from animal hides, but its environmental impact ranges widely. The issues are complicated and varied, but they include: where the animals are from (farmed or wild), the habitat they were raised in, the amount of food and water they require, whether or not the hides are a byproduct of meat production or raised solely for leather, the distance from where the animals were raised to the tanneries, the dyes and water recycling procedures used by tanneries, and so much more.
Brazilian leather has been the target of boycotts because leather production in Brazil has had a lot of negative press for its poor practices in almost every category mentioned above. A lot of cattle in Brazil are raised on ranches that were created by cutting down forests, and tanneries that don’t meet the best environmental or ethical practices.
Some luxury bag makers use calfskin or other animals raised specifically for their hide. Often, these animals are raised in a pen, so their skin is blemish-free. While there are no official statistics, it is generally acknowledged that most of the leather used in retail is from animals raised for both their meat and hides. Currently, in the US given the large meat demand, hide prices are very depressed and represent only a small fraction of the animal’s total value.
At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, are South African ostrich farms. These farms exist in arid regions of the country where other animals couldn’t survive and, because ostriches are indigenous to these arid environments, they have minimal water needs. The animals are raised both for their hides and meat, but even their eggs and feathers are used in numerous retail products, but the hides represent the vast majority of the animal’s value.
Other important practices for leather production include vegetable tanning (turning hides into leather without the use of harsh chemicals), and the use of off-cuts for smaller products. Working in small production batches is another sustainable practice that can help avoid waste. Mass production may reduce labor costs and offer a more inexpensive product, but it often increases the environmental impact with material wastage or product seconds.
To lessen the environmental impact of your purchases, look for renewable, recycled, byproduct, low impact, locally sourced products that are made in small batches and that are well-made for a long life. A sustainable material that lasts many years will have less environmental impact than a fast fashion item replaced every season or year that ends up in a landfill and does not biodegrade.
What are Ethically Made Practices?
“Ethically made” is about how the people and communities involved in every step of production (raising, growing, harvesting, designing, or making the product) are treated.
The two most basic pillars of ethical production are the proper treatment and fair pay of everyone involved in the supply chain. This includes making sure that working conditions are safe and clean for their employees, but also taking into consideration the impacts of production on the surrounding communities. A fully ethical production would not just reduce the harmful impacts but also benefit the people and the communities involved.
Fairtrade International is likely the largest organization addressing ethical standards for trade. Their focus is mostly on prices paid for food-related commodities, hired labor rates and working conditions. For the most part, Fairtrade International and organizations like them do not yet focus on retail products or the broader impacts on communities.
Some US states are attempting to address these important issues using various statutory approaches. For instance, new and proposed laws have been introduced to address sustainability and ethical issues in retail.
California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act aims to highlight and safeguard against slavery and human trafficking. Companies with annual worldwide gross receipts of more than $100 million are required to disclose on their websites their “efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from [their] direct supply chain for tangible goods offered for sale.”
New York’s proposed Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act would require companies with $100 million in revenue to disclose information (but only on 50%) of their supply chain of raw materials, factories, shipping, wages, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, water, and chemical management. They would be required to make plans to meet the targets set by the Paris Climate Accords.
These laws are certainly a step in the right direction but have obvious exclusions regarding scale, the amount of disclosure, and the lack of “teeth” but are an indication of the path forward.
Some manufacturers and retailers are voluntarily disclosing the details about the materials in their products, how they were grown or collected, their processing, and the people involved in these steps. These disclosures also sometimes include those involved in the product's design and the larger community impacts.
Since there is no overarching certification for ethical supply chains, look for brands that adhere to Fairtrade principles when those are applicable and disclose where and how their products were made, by whom, and how they were treated. Brands who voluntarily share information about their workers, designers, suppliers, and the communities are showing that they care and are trying. The more straightforward information they share, the better.
Our planet and humanity are at a pivotal moment in history and facing some dire consequences if we don’t change our ways. We need to work to address the effects that destructive consumption and unsustainable and unethical business practices have on our environment and on our fellow humans. Many steps have been taken to move businesses and individuals towards more sustainable and ethical practices, but much more progress is needed.
Our current situation can seem overwhelming and it’s difficult to see how we, as individuals, can have an impact. However, there’s power in numbers and we can vote with our dollars by choosing to support companies who strive to be better and refuse to buy from others who have done little to change. We can also examine our own consumerist practices and be more conscious about where we shop, what we buy, and how much we consume.
Moving towards a more sustainable and ethical world won’t be easy and it will take a lot of sacrifices, but it’s essential we all do better for the sake of our planet.