By Alex Berryman
“Their advertising said they are ethical, but there was something about them that didn’t seem right.” Have you ever said these words when talking about your manufacturer?
The truth is manufacturers can claim to be ethical as a means to drive more sales and ride the wave of popular demand for increased sustainability and care for workers in the garment industry. The practice of making illegitimate or exaggerated claims of sustainable or ethical practices has come to be known as "greenwashing." Greenwashing can be dangerous not only because it supports an exploitative manufacturing system, but also subjects your brand to the risk of having unrecognized, unethical practices in your supply chain. So, how can a brand really know they are producing with an ethical business?
We have created a list of ways to identify an ethical manufacturer, that way you can mitigate potential risk and establish a strong relationship with a manufacturer that shares your values.
Do they have a certification?
Certifications are the #1 way to establish if a manufacturer is ethical, primarily because it shows that they have been reviewed by a third party and meet their stated standards of ethical production. But, not all certifications are created equal. There are many certifications and they have different focuses. Some, such as WRAP and SA 8000, are known as social compliance certifications and focus on working conditions. Some, like GOTS and OEKOTex. focus on environmental sustainability and mostly audit the processing of raw material. Finally, some like WFTO try to holistically cover environmental sustainability, ethical trade practices, and care for workers. You can check out our guide to certifications for more information.
While certifications are a great starting point, they are not a silver bullet. They can lack nuance and do not explain how the manufacturer is ethical or sustainable. As an example, Purnaa is a member of the WFTO and receives periodic audits to ensure we uphold the 10 principles of Fair Trade. Each audit states we have met minimum expectations, but there may also be "improvement areas" that we need to work on before the next audit. It does not give nuanced information about how we have surpassed many of the requirements. Examples of this include paying staff above a living wage, providing zero-interest loans to break cyclical poverty, providing scholarships for the children of staff, etc. We put the principles of fair trade into practice not only because the certification builds trust with our customers - but also because it is the right thing to do.
Best Practice - Know which certifications matter most to you and ask your manufacturer how they meet or surpass the certification’s requirements.
Do they offer sustainable alternatives?
At the end of the day, the brand determines how a product is made - but, a manufacturer that truly cares about ethical production will have the expertise to coach the brands to reduce their overall impact. These practices can include having a strong selection of sustainable materials; expertise on how to reduce wastage in production; recycling programs for what is wasted in production; and many more. When a producer really operates sustainably, they will have the expertise to back it up.
As an example, Purnaa recognizes that our knowledge of sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices is a part of our service to our customers. To optimize the sustainability of our customer’s products, we maintain strong relationships with sustainable fabric and trim manufacturers from across Asia; we proactively seek out new and more sustainable materials that could be used by our customers; our sampling and project management staff provide consultations to help reduce material wastage. All of these practices are ways that Purnaa lives out its values of protecting people and the planet through production while also helping the customer to create a beautiful product.
Best Practice - ask your supplier in what ways you can optimize sustainability in your next production run. If they offer concrete alternatives or even proactively suggest alternatives, this is a good indication they are ethical and sustainable. If they don’t, this could be an indication they use ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ as a buzzword to drive sales.
Do they welcome visitors?
If your manufacturer is truly ethical - then they have nothing to hide! Ethical manufacturers will be eager to show you the ways in which they manufacture ethically, while non-ethical manufacturers will be more fearful about what you can find out.
Visiting the production facilities not only establishes if a manufacturer is ethical or not but also builds trust between you and the manufacturer. Customers that have visited Purnaa have testified to the power of meeting the people that make their products - increasing not only a personal connection to their producers but also understanding the culture and the context of their production. This establishes a stronger, trust-based relationship with our customers - which is a true win-win.
Best Practice: At the very least, ask your manufacturer if they are open to tours and visits. Even if you are not able to travel to their location, their answer will show you their level of transparency and their attitude toward building a trust-based relationship.
Do they communicate openly about cost and pricing?
Have you ever had a production run go unexpectedly over budget? While this can occur for many reasons, quickly consider how your manufacturer communicated this. Did they anticipate the issue? Did they provide context as to why it is going over budget? Or did they notify you and expect you to pay?
Clear pricing with clear, upfront terms and conditions are a necessary part of transparency. Additionally, there can be a lot of pressure for manufacturers to provide trade terms that put them at a disadvantage. Generally, the standard for fair trade purchasing terms is for the buyer to provide 50% downpayment to confirm and order and the balance at shipment. This is because the buyer is often from a developed country and has easier access to financing, usually sells the product for much better margins than the manufacturer, and probably comes from a stronger financial position than the manufacturers in a developing country. Don't be surprised if your ethical manufacturer insists on these terms, but do ask your manufacturer if they offer the same 50% downpayment, balance at shipping terms with their suppliers.
At Purnaa, we understand that transparent pricing is integral to the health of our customers’ businesses. For this reason, we take pricing very seriously, sharing per-unit price estimates for both materials and labor, pricing terms, and all of our terms and conditions before we will accept payment.
Best Practice - if you are beginning a new relationship with a manufacturer, ask about their payment terms and what is included. The fair trade standard is 50% upfront/ 50% at delivery.
Do they share your patterns at the end of sampling?
Very often, a brand's special intellectual property is in the design of a product. They expend lots of time and effort in the design process. But then, when they go to find a manufacturer, they pay sampling charges to develop the final product but do not receive the specifications or patterns back from the manufacturer once it's completed. This can be a tactic for manufacturers to keep customers from making that product somewhere else. If a manufacturer is open to sending you the patterns and tech-packs once sampling is completed, then it is a good indication that they respect your rights and intellectual property as a customer and is also a good indication that they will not copy or share your design in the future.
At Purnaa, we respect and actively protect the intellectual ownership of our customer's products. We will never copy or share a customer's design. We keep customer patterns on file so that we can reproduce previously ordered products, but we will gladly send them to our customers whenever requested.
Best Practice: ask your manufacturer about their policies to protect your designs and if they will provide you with patterns or tech packs once sampling is finished, and ask to see these policies in their terms and conditions.
Building Win-Win-Win Manufacturing
Ethical manufacturing is about building win-win-win relationships. First, you win because you are limiting your risk by working with someone you trust, you receive a quality product and you can be confident the manufacturer aligns with your values. Secondly, your manufacturer wins because they are increasing sales based on a system they believe in, there is a consistent and clear understanding on the terms and deliverables and the production run is actively bettering the lives of their employees. And finally, the members of the supply chain win because ethical practices are used throughout the process.