4 Things That Sustainable, Ethical Brands Have in Common

CC BY 2.0. Francisco Osorio

Learn how to detect if a brand truly lives up to its green promise -- or if it's all greenwashing.

Whether you’re shopping for clothing or cosmetics, there are a few common traits that indicate if a brand is serious about sustainable and ethical production. By familiarizing yourself with these traits, it will become easier to pick out the authentically green companies from the greenwashed ones (of which, sadly, there are plenty). These are the things I look for, in this order, although not every criterion needs to be met for every purchase.

1. Short, clear ingredient list or good materials

If a cosmetic product catches your eye, check the ingredient list before anything else. It shouldn’t be too long, nor should there be a list of words you do not recognize and cannot pronounce. If that’s the case, put it down and move on. I like to think of makeup as being edible for my skin; if I wouldn’t ever put it in my mouth, then I don’t want it elsewhere. With more practice, you can learn the following list of 20 toxic ingredients to avoid when purchasing cosmetics.When it comes to clothing, check the label immediately. Prioritize natural fabrics, rather than synthetics that contain plastic-based polyesters; these will not biodegrade and they will release microplastics into the water every time you wash them. Here’s a list of the most sustainable fabrics.

2. Minimal packaging

Packaging matters a lot to me, as I try to live as zero-waste a life as possible. If a cosmetic product seems clean, and yet comes in excessive amounts of plastic, that strikes me as total hypocrisy on the part of the company and communicates that they don’t actually care that much. If something comes in paper, glass, or metal, however, it deserves a closer look. Leave all clothing hangers, tags, bags, and shoe boxes behind at the store; the more the retail and production industry has to deal with its own trash, the better.

3. Fair trade or direct trade

This question is tied intimately to where an item is made – something I observe initially, along with the ingredients or fabric. If it’s made in Canada (where I live), the United States, or Europe, where labor standards are highest relative to the rest of the world, an item is more likely to get my vote. If it’s made in Asia, Central America, or Africa, then I want to know more; I want the company to reassure me, via certification, that its laborers are paid fairly for their work. Look for Fairtrade labels or detailed explanations of direct trade arrangements.

4. Philanthropic heart

This is a bonus, though not a necessity. Some companies choose to donate a portion of their proceeds to other causes and organizations. I like the way it’s described by The Good Trade in an article about ethical brand values:

“Many brands give a decent percentage to Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Foundation, among other eco-groups. One of my favorite skincare companies uses organic honey in their formulas, and donates a percentage of sales to save the bees and teach classes about beekeeping.”

Keep in mind that if you’re purchasing fair trade, there will already be a premium paid to the artisan’s or farmer’s community to improve infrastructure, education, or other needs of their own choosing. This is a wonderful form of philanthropy that’s embedded in the purchase.

The important thing is not to give up hope. It’s almost impossible to find items that check all the sustainability/ethical boxes, but if more shoppers move toward considering these things and indicating to retailers and manufacturers that these things matter, then change is bound to occur.