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Is My Manufacturer Ethical?

By Alex Berryman

Sustainablility and ethical manufacturing certifications: WFTO, OEKO-TEX, Fair Trade USA

“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.