A Guide to More Responsible Shopping

With so many companies touting their products’ environmental benefits these days, it can be difficult to separate facts from hype and to understand a product or a brand’s true impact. That’s why we thought it’d be helpful to assemble some tips we use to make better informed, “lighter” impact purchases. Some of these reflect what we’ve learned from the challenges we face communicating accurately about our own products, too.

  1. Know Your Stuff. You might be surprised to learn that conventional cotton, which is grown with harmful pesticides, is one of the worst polluters on the planet, while some synthetics, such as polyester, are increasingly made from recycled materials, making them less detrimental than virgin conventional cotton. A good rule of thumb is to look for materials that are certified organic or recycled. Here’s a guide to help you do your homework.

  2. Check the Recycling Math. When it comes to recycled goods, keep your eye out for misleading percentages. “50% more recycled material,” sounds great until you find out the product only contained 1% recycled material in the first place.

  3. Consider Total Impact. While greater recycled content is positive—a sign that impact is getting reduced—it doesn’t account for the entire manufacturing process, like dyeing and sewing, and things like water usage and greenhouse gas emissions. Once you’ve considered the entire process, says Steph Karba, an environmental researcher at Patagonia, “you might be left with only a 5 or 6% reduction in total impact.” That’s why Steph and our team are working on overall reduction numbers to report and share.

  4. Are They Certifiable? If a brand is making claims about its sustainability and social impact, certifications are a powerful tool to substantiate those claims. Certifications involve third-party organizations and provide an external assessment of particular aspects of a company’s supply chain. Look for certification seals on product labels or for commitments to source certified material in advertising or on a company’s online store. Here are some that Patagonia recognizes:

    NSF Global Traceable Down Standard
    Organic Content Standard
    Regenerative Organic Certified™
    Fair Trade USA
    Fair Labor Association
    Sustainable Apparel Coalition
    bluesign® technologies
    Forest Stewardship Council
    Responsible Wool Standard

  5. Stay Grounded. All those next-day deliveries come with carbon emissions and social impacts. Given the option, select slower, ground delivery methods to reduce emissions from air freight in particular.

  6. Beware Rock-Bottom Prices. While a bargain is always appealing, cut-rate new products often come with ethical issues, like poor working conditions and environmental hazards, as companies cut corners to preserve profit margins. While a higher price doesn’t always mean higher quality, cost can be a useful data point in your purchasing decision. And you can also limit your ecological footprint without spending too much by buying used. Used clothing can often be found at lower pricing than the same new product. Plus, buying used extends the life of clothing and keeps gear out of landfills.

  7. Watch for the “Halo” Effect. A big brand showcasing an “eco-friendly” collection could be a sign that the company is piloting new programs to reduce its environmental impact—or it could simply be a ploy to attract customers that will buy its regular line of products imagining everything they make is on a better path. Some call this the “halo” effect—one limited style changing the perception of a company’s values and processes. While even a limited line of sustainably made goods from a global brand can have benefits all the way down the supply chain (due to their ability to buy materials at scale), keep an eye out to see if the company builds on its “eco-friendly” lines.

  8. Photos Are Cool. Data Is Cooler. “Transparency” has become a buzzword in its own right, with many brands sharing locations and imagery of the factories where their products are made. But factory photos don’t guarantee healthy working conditions or fair wages for workers any more than images of cotton fields guarantee responsible material sourcing. Look for a section on their website (usually called “sustainability” or “corporate social responsibility”) detailing how they are improving environmental and social metrics within their business. Check if they are sharing impact data around their carbon emissions or water usage. If you don’t find this kind of information, ask the company for it. If the information is there, does it match how the brand advertises itself or its products?

  9. “Do I Really Need This?” According to a 2019 McKinsey report, apparel purchases have increased by 60% over the past 15 years, while the average lifespan of each garment decreased by half. One way to reduce the fashion churn? Slow down and think before you buy. To rein in impulse buys, Steph Karba takes herself through a decision tree. “First, I ask myself, ‘Do I need this?’” she says. “I constantly have to stop and remind myself that although I might want an item, I don’t need it. Once I decide I do actually need something, then I look at factors like what materials it’s made of, whether it has certifications, and whether there’s brand integrity behind it that I can trust.”

  10. Use Your Voice. Companies pay close attention to both overall brand sentiment and individual customer feedback. In other words, they care what you think. So tell them! Use social media or email to contact companies whose practices don't meet your ethical standards and let them know what they could be doing better. You have the power to change the way clothes are made.
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