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You have The Power To Create Real Change Every Time You Shop

Nov 16, 2018
Article by Gordon Renouf

We’ve all heard about the impacts of the fashion industry on the environment, on workers and on animals.

Dyes and pesticides destroy rivers and harm local communities, microplastics are destroying marine life and the fashion industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Sixty million people work in the fashion supply chain, a large number in unsafe conditions on poverty wages, and some in modern day slavery.

But as shoppers, we have the power to create positive change.

“Every time we make a purchase we vote for the kind of world we want,” says sustainability advocate Anna Lappé.

It’s a powerful idea whose time has come.

Consumers have been voting with their wallets for more than 200 years. At least 300,000 English consumers boycotted slave-grown sugar in the 1790s. This was a key part of the successful campaign to end the Atlantic slave trade.

Today, more and more people are moving on from valuing the things they buy to focusing on the way they live their lives. Many of us now prefer experience over ‘stuff’. We more frequently act on our values in all parts of our lives, including when we shop.

Household spending makes up well over 50 per cent of GDP – as shoppers we certainly have enough market power to create change if we choose to use it! Research by Mobium found that 50 per cent of shoppers either regularly make sustainable choices (14 per cent) or feel conflicted when they are not able to make choices that match their values.

The problem is that it’s hard to find information about which brands are doing better or worse on the things we care about – like worker safety, living wages, climate change, water pollution and treatment of animals.

And it’s not just about which is the most ethical brand. When we shop we make conscious and unconscious trade offs between performance, style, quality, features, and price, as well as wanting products that are consistent with our values. Note that’s an ‘also’ not an ‘instead’.

We’re not looking for products because they are sustainable. We’re usually looking for a product that meets specific needs – for example an outfit for a party or to wear to work. It’s no use that outfit being sustainable if it’s not our style or otherwise fit for the purpose we have in mind.

We’re not often faced with a simple choice between a responsibly made product and an equivalent one that is not. Instead we need access to a great range of products and information about them that allows us to weigh up the importance of different features like style, quality, price and impact on the things we care about.

Instead of framing sustainable and ethical consumption as a duty, a burdensome chore – something that consumers really ought to do – we should think about it as a consumer right. It’s something most of us want to do but it’s been made too hard.

It should be just as easy to find out how a product impacts on people, the planet and animals as how much it costs.

Robust certification and labelling schemes like Fair Trade and Organic certified cotton are one way we can find products more likely to be doing good.

But only a small percentage of fashion brands have taken up certifications. At Good On You, we’ve examined 1500 fashion brands and have only found 180 whose products are wholly or partly certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard, and many fewer that hold Fair Trade certification.

That’s why we need brands to be transparent. Fashion Revolution and other NGOs are calling on brands to disclose where and how brands make the clothes we buy. It’s also why we need tools like the Ethical Fashion Report (published each April) and the Good On You app to find out which brands are doing good.

The good news? Brands are starting to listen. Fashion Revolution reports that an increasing number of major brands are responding to consumer and NGO calls for more transparency. Some of the big brands are working hard to reduce water usage and/or their climate change impacts, and many are responding to calls to work towards paying living wages to the workers in their supply chain. Some of the larger retailers are increasing the number of smaller ethical brands that they stock.

That’s all a good start, but there’s a long way to go. The more of us who ask questions of brands and use the available tools to make better choices more often, the quicker things will change.

Gordon Renouf is the co-founder and CEO of Good On You, a free, ethical shopping app that empowers consumers to act on their values when they shop. Good On You provides ethical brands ratings for more than 1500 brands and enables shoppers to discover new brands that do better on the things they care about. Good On You also publishes a blog with tips, material guides and brand write-ups.

Illustration by Kevin Hetebry

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