At SPUNJ we use two main criteria to evaluate products and brands. The first is their environmental impact and the second is social responsibility.
We believe that the goal of any company should be to create a product that can be manufactured and consumed without waste or harmful effect on the planet. This can be accomplished it two ways: materials and production.
Use of Materials
The most sustainable products are biodegradable- a product that is made out of natural fibers that can be reabsorbed by the earth at the end of it’s life cycle. Implied is the absence of harmful chemicals or dyes that would poison the air, earth or surrounding ground water. Un-dyed or naturally dyed organic cotton, wool, linen, hemp, silk, leather, cork, bamboo, sand, and wood are all biodegradable.
Up-cycled and recycled materials are the next best alternative. Up-cycling is taking an item that already exits and making it into something new and useful. Say you have an old coat or piece of jewelry that you no longer wear. Remaking it into something new, usable and keeping it out of a landfill is up-cycling. Recycling is the same. Separating the materials from existing items, reusing them and making them into something new is recycling. The only drawback is that not all fibers are easy to recycle. Cotton, wool, glass, metal and aluminum are perfect for recycling because the process is nontoxic.
Recycling plastic is good in that stays out of the ocean, off beaches and from harming sea animals but plastic can be recycled only 2-3 times before the quality is so deteriorated that it is no longer usable. Every time a piece of plastic is recycled the quality erodes so new, virgin plastic must be added. That means that, ultimately, all plastic will end up in a landfill. Furthermore, not all types of plastic are recyclable (plastic bags, straws, coffee cups) and not every city has a recycling program. To make matters worse, if someone throws it away without washing it, it cannot be processed. About 25 percent of what ends up in recycling bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association (1). The most current available statistics are for 2017 but, according to several sources, approximately 90% of plastic waste is not recycled in the US (2). Some countries, like Taiwan where recycling is government subsidized they have created industries out of removing plastic from the ocean and turning it into reusable material.
Even biodegradable plastics (PLA) made from sugars in corn and plant starches like cassava will only biodegrade under controlled conditions determined by temperature and humidity.
Microfibers or microplastics are another problem. Regardless of whether you are using single use or recycled plastic, microfibers from synthetic materials like polyester and fleece leach into water when they are washed. Plastic microbeads used in exfoliating facial cleansers and toothpastes pass through water filtration systems and end up in lakes and oceans (3). Researchers at the Ocean University of China found that microplastics reduced the growth of microalgae and the efficiency of photosynthesis. So producing more microplastics could degrade plankton’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (3)
Oil, gas, and coal are the fossil-fuel building blocks of plastics and they emit greenhouse gases from the time they are extracted from the earth, transported, refined, and manufactured to the time they are disposed of. Research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that only 2% of plastics are recycled into products with the same function. Another 8% are “downcycled” to something of lower quality. The rest is landfilled, leaked into the environment, or incinerated. (4)
Work has been done to reduce the amount of chemicals and dyes used and to dispose of them in responsible ways which is great but it does nothing to solve the underlying problem. What is an acceptable amount of toxins in your drinking water or contaminants in the air you breath?
We believe that more time and money should be put into innovating new renewable materials. Some companies are creating products made out of mushrooms and plants. Some are manufacturing things made out of natural waste or food by-products like fish skins, lobster shells, pineapple leaves, and grape waste from the wine industry. These products don’t require synthetic or toxic additives, they reduce waste and will biodegrade.
Every step along the way, from sourcing, to manufacturing, distribution, sales and the end life of a product should be minimizing the use of natural resources and reducing carbon emissions.
Energy use is one of the biggest issues. Manufacturing takes an enormous amount of energy but there are stores and factories who are committed to reducing their energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Brands who say their factories, stores or headquarters are LEED Certified are structurally reducing their carbon emissions.
Some companies offset their carbon emissions by planting a tree for every purchase. Some support organizations that clean up the oceans or charities that help people in need.
Sourcing things locally minimizes emissions from travel and buying locally cuts down on emissions that are produced from shipping.
Natural resources are minerals, plants, trees, land, and animals that are used in making a product. We need to come up with easily renewable resources to avoid depleting forests and aquifers and polluting the air. Using solar and wind energy are good ways to reduce our use of natural resources.
Water use is another huge issue. Water feels abundant because it covers nearly 75 percent of the planet but only 2.5 percent of the world's water is freshwater the rest is salt water. According to the United States Geological Survey, water is used for fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, and transporting products. Water is also used by smelting facilities, petroleum refineries, and industries producing chemical products, food, and paper products. (5)
The fashion industry is another large consumer of water.
Up to 5,283 gallons of water is needed to produce 2 pounds of cotton — with it taking up to 713 gallons of water to produce a single cotton T-shirt. (6)The 2019 Ethical Fashion Report
Some brands are making efforts to reduce their water consumption and using organic cotton is proof of that commitment.
Even if a brand is doing everything right to make a sustainable product, if they are taking advantage of their workers we cannot support them.
Companies can prove their commitment to social responsibility by paying their employees a fair, living wage. A living wage is a wage that is sufficient for workers to be able to afford the basics (food, water, housing, healthcare, clothing, electricity, transportation and education) for themselves and their dependents. According to The 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, of the 200 companies they surveyed, just 5% could demonstrate that they were paying a living wage to all workers at their final stage of production (factories).
In Bangladesh, living wage estimates are 2.8 times its current minimum wage and in Vietnam, the current minimum wage is half of the estimated living wage. (7)
It’s also important to consider if workers have healthcare, childcare, paid sick leave, paid overtime, breaks, and a safe working environment. Are they able to unionize or bargain collectively without blowback? We assume that since the majority of our products are made in China, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Turkey and Vietnam- all countries where human and workers rights are suspect, abuses just happen there but they exist in the United States and Europe as well.
The problem is that lots of large corporations have no idea who is actually making their products. “A brand might place an order with one supplier, who in turn subcontracts the work to another facility if they need to meet a short deadline or require a special process to be done.” This happens regularly across all industries and makes it extremely difficult to monitor human rights abuses. (9)
A lot of large corporations who are investing in sustainable practices still fail to empower their employees and contractors.
According to the Fashion Transparency Index 2019 report, “around 70-80% of the world’s millions of garment workers are female, yet major brands don’t seem to be doing all that much to address gender inequality and empower women across the fashion value chain.”2019 Fashion Transparency Index Report
One way to ensure that a brand is socially responsible is through third party auditing. Fair Trade Certification, Certified B Corporations, and SA8000 are all independent organizations that analyze a brands performance and ensure that they are putting people ahead of profit.
As much as we wish we had one, we do not have a crystal ball. We are a small company and cannot audit every company out there to see exactly what they are doing. Until regulations are passed we must rely on third party organizations and sometimes the brand themselves to give us information about their practices. We believe that demanding transparency and putting the information out there will make a difference. Transparency forces companies to look at and disclose their practices which will, hopefully, force them to clean up their act.
- The 2019 Ethical Fashion Report
- 2019 Fashion Transparency Index Report