Ethical and Social Sustainability: Fashion’s Other Ugly Secret (3/4)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about sustainable fashion in regards to the environment and how we as consumers need to take charge in understanding our duty in being mindful of our fashion purchases. The other portion of sustainability deals with ethical and social responsibility. Everyone can probably recall the massive backlash Nike faced when it came out that the brand was using sweatshops in Indonesia and Vietnam to produce their goods, followed by a fire and many deaths at one of their Bangladesh factories, where there were unsafe working conditions and unethical labor practices. Here we see fashion’s other ugly secret: unfair and unsafe labor conditions within garment manufacturing that have been outsourced to developing countries in Asia for cheaper labor and faster to market capabilities.

Not all in China

Many consumers have this notion that anything ‘Made in China’ was made by a child  who was getting roughly $0.01 for a 12 hour day’s work. I have actually seen people scoff at a ‘Made in China’ label as if the garment was toxic poison. The thing is, yes, this scenario of unfair child labor can happen even in today’s modern world, but it’s far less likely that it would happen in China, versus say, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. China has come a long way and is more industrialized than say, 15 years ago. Like the US’s own industrial timeline, there are now labor unions, growing government regulations and workers are starting to demand more from the factory owners, in terms of pay and benefits. Countries like Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, on the other hand, are still in the early stages of their industrial revolution; therefore, their workers are uneducated and don’t necessarily know any better, or they do know better but are desperate for the job and its pay so they can’t do anything. To workers in those countries, having a job that pays any amount of money (sometimes pennies in US dollars) is often worth it in order to provide for families.  Here is where it is more likely for us to see factory owners taking advantage of their workers.


It’s been awhile since Nike was exposed, but brands are still being called out today for utilizing unfair labor practices. But just because something  says ‘Made in USA’ doesn’t mean anything. 20 minutes away from me, in Downtown LA, are our nation’s own sweatshops that employ mostly immigrants and have been found to pay under minimum wage.  Recently, the brand Fashion Nova was revealed to have been utilizing these garment factories to produce their own, ‘Made in America’ clothing line. Syama Meagher of Forbes describes the issue of DTLA garment factories in her article, ‘The Not-So-Hidden Ethical Cost Of Fast Fashion: Sneaky Sweatshops In Our Own Backyard’; here she says,

“In fact, the Department of Labor (DOL) investigated garment factories in Los Angeles and found that 85 percent of them have wage violations. The fact that many of these workers are undocumented may make it easier, subconsciously, to let it slide when its happening on own soil.”

It seems that once again, brands are driven to make unethical decisions, in part because of consumer demand for fast and cheap fashion, but also because most brands have high mark-ups or margins that help them turn profit.

Margin and Profit and Sales, Oh My!

What is a margin? Let’s look at a baseball cap. You might have purchased it for $24, it cost the brand around $4-6 to make and get that cap into your hands. Materials (fabric and threads) were around $2.00, trims and packaging will be around $1.00. Factory profit might be around $0.80 to $1.00 and boat shipment will be around $0.20. Labor will also be around $0.80 to $1.00, give or take. At a $6.00 cost, the brand is making 75% margin on you purchasing that cap at $24.00. Now, brands do this because we live in a sale-heavy capitalist culture where most companies 1. need to make money and 2. hold 25% or 50% off sales which cut down on margin or how much they’re making. Because of this, they gauge what the highest reasonable cost a consumer will pay for an item and ticket it there, knowing the average customer will ultimately end up paying less. It’s kind of horrible and why I cannot purchase anything at full price, but hey, it’s a business that has to make money in our capitalistic culture, right?

I mentioned the brand, Everlane, last week, but on almost every product page they have, they tell consumers exactly how much it cost them to make that item. Per below, they’re still making a 67% margin on this pair of shorts, which is actually pretty high, but labor is about 40% of the item’s cost, which is really great comparatively. I do have to assume though that part of that  $6.28 is going to factory profit and not true labor, but this is a better effort than most brands to be transparent about their cost of goods (COGS).


Almost any retail business will have at least 50% margin; that’s not necessarily an accusation, like I said, it’s a business that needs to generate profit. Stores that do not frequently hold sales, I would bet a lot of money they have lower margins, whereas brand with big sales every weekend? I guarantee you their margins are in the high 70’s, possibly even 80’s.

Find The Culprit

Social and ethical sustainability is something more top of mind for brands as compared to environmental sustainability; if you investigate, many brands have web pages dedicated to how their company is committed to utilizing manufacturers that employ fair labor practices (here is one example, and another). Brands boast factory certifications and metrics as proof that they care, making it easy for consumers to know how a garment is being made. Some companies, like West Elm, are even putting the information directly on the product page itself (see Fair Trade and Sustainably sourced icons at top of page). On this front, it’s harder for consumers to claim ‘out of sight out of mind’ since information on social sustainability is more readily available and more widely known.

As consumers, we need to be doing a bit of research on the companies we shop at. Just start with one, maybe the brand you automatically go to when you need to shop for a new outfit. Dig around their website and try to see what they are committed to doing for social sustainability. If you can’t find anything, I would even encourage you to reach out to customer service. If it turns out that brand isn’t doing anything or has a vague, ‘we’re committed to fair labor practices,’ well, I know I would think twice before shopping there again. Like environmental sustainability, brands who actually have plans will have numbers, certifications, and data to back up the claims.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I would really recommend watching The True Cost, free on Tubi. It’s easy to read about, but it’s a lot more heart wrenching to see footage of people working in factories in such low working conditions. Research the brands you shop at, get to know where you give your money and if you should continue to support those companies. With Google, it’s so easy to find news articles about various brands and how they are or aren’t being sustainable. I do want to warn you; however, even the factories with certifications or fair working conditions, are still, well, factories. They’re dirty, with materials lying about, some even having dirt floors. Good conditions for us in America aren’t always feasible in a third world country, so their best conditions are still equivalent to our poor conditions.

It’s also easy to blame brands for having corporate greed and not caring enough about workers thousands of miles away, but at the end of the day, these brands were driven to the fast fashion model because of consumerism and the customers need for newer, cheaper fashion NOW. Again, we as consumers really need to rethink our values and stop  succumbing to materialistic ideals and shift more into a minimalistic way of thinking. I’m not saying you should shift into only owning 5 pieces of clothing, but I would encourage you to think when you’re out shopping about whether you need a new top, adding to the 25 tops already hanging in your closet. It’s a way of life that we all need to embrace if we want to see change in both social and environmental sustainability.


Sara Ann



personal: 4+ years in apparel and home goods production internationally

The Not-So-Hidden Ethical Cost Of Fast Fashion: Sneaky Sweatshops In Our Own Backyard


Sustainable Fashion: What You Can Do

Last week, I wrote about how the fashion industry is hurting our planet through its toxic chemical water, high use of electricity and resources, and the overall large carbon footprint it has (you can read about it here). As a consumer, you might be thinking, ‘well what do I do now? How can I shop smarter?’ If you are needing to shop for any reason, I want to encourage thrifting, but also outline some brands who do sustainability right. But first, let’s look at some brands who use greenwashing to trick customers into thinking they’re being sustainable so you know what to avoid.


H&M and Zara are two of the biggest players in the fast fashion game so they benefit immensely from fast to market strategies, allowing customers repeatedly buying cheap and affordable trends straight from the runway. They get a lot of backlash for this; hence, both have sustainable clothing lines that tout words like ‘green’ and ‘eco friendly’ but you really look at it, how green are they? Take this pair of H&M Conscious jeans, it says, ‘cotton content is partly recycled.‘ What does “partly recycled” even mean? Here we see greenwashing, where a company claims to be sustainable in its manufacturing within product marketing, but in fact, are very general or vague in their statements, leading consumers into thinking they’re making a smart choice. In reality, these jeans are probably made from less than 5% recycled cotton.


Brands know that ‘sustainability’ is the new buzz word so they all want to hop on the bandwagon and make it seem like they’re doing their part; however, the easiest way to find out which brands are good and which aren’t is to pay attention to their marketing. Do they use vague terms, like H&M above, or do they come right out and say, ‘Made from 50% recycled cotton?’ Do they have an eco-friendly specific line or collection, separate from the rest of their products? If so, they are greenwashing. Brands whose main product collections, or entire product collection that endorse eco friendly claims usually have a thorough sustainability page on their website outlining their responsible methods, and are usually better options for shopping.

Where to Shop Responsibly

Now, I’m not saying you should all go out right now and buy products from these brands. That’s kind of the opposite of what I’m saying, actually. You should be striving to consume less overall; however, we all know things do get worn and torn and eventually need replaced. If you do need to replace and buy something, I would encourage thrifting as a priority but these brands are also doing well to provide customers with sustainable pieces.

1. Girlfriend Collective


I cannot say how much I love my Girlfriend Collective activewear. Every piece is well made, durable and made from yarns spun out of recycled plastic. I love my Paloma bra and wear it weekly. My only issue with this brand is that they’re almost always sold out!


PUMA is a great company to look at and understand how apparel companies should be looking at sustainability as a responsibility. They have really taken it to the core of their business model, striving to create a better world and minimize their impact not only through manufacturing, but also at their offices and warehouses. PUMA Forever Better also gives great background!

3. Alternative Apparel

Alternative Apparel is a brand I’ve been watching for awhile; they use low impact dyes, organic cotton and ensure packaging is eco-friendly. The also only use WRAP-certified factories, which is a social compliance certification dedicated to promoting  safe, lawful humane and ethical manufacturing standards.

4. Rothy’s


I do not own Rothy’s but everyone I know who has them talks about how comfortable and durable they are. Made from yarns spun out of recycled water bottles, Rothy’s are also crafted in an efficient way that create minimum waste.

5. Parade

Parade is a brand I found recently and am planning on shopping when I need to refresh my undie drawer; the materials are all made from 85% recycled polyamide (like nylon) that are Oeko-Tex certified. They also donate 1% of sales to Planned Parenthood if you’re into supporting sexual education and women’s reproductive rights.

6. Allbirds

I have not personally worn these, but I’m thinking about getting a pair. My boyfriend owns about six pairs and he swears by them in terms of comfort. They have shoes made from wool, tree fiber, sugarcane, recycled bottles and recycled nylon. Allbirds sneakers also have one of the lowest carbon footprints of most footwear products (7.6 kg CO2e compared to 12.5 kg CO2e).

7. Patagonia

Another pioneering brand in social and environmental activism in the fashion industry, Patagonia has been striving to better the planet for years. They have a self imposed ‘Earth Tax’  that helps to support environmental non-profits fighting climate change. They also have a ‘Worn Wear’ shop where you can purchased used Patagonia clothing items that are still functional.

8. Everlane


I personally love Everlane; they are transparent with their factories and their costs, striving to use the best materials for overall great quality. I have a few basic staples from them and I know I will have those pieces for awhile. While Everlane isn’t necessarily striving for environmental sustainability, they do heavily push social sustainability, which I will touch on next week.

Thrift It If You Can + Rental Services

While these brands are doing great on the responsible fashion front, consumers also need to go about purchasing new clothing less frequently, and wearing their current garments for a longer period of time. Since the average American person gets rids if 82 pounds of clothing per year(!!), consumers should really consider buying secondhand from Poshmark, ThredUp and other local consignment stores before shopping ‘new.’ It can be a great thing to do to ensure we’re keeping less textile waste out of landfills. Thrifting is usually looked down upon, but consumers need to relook at the need to be ‘trendy’ and prioritize the need to save the planet. Unwanted clothing from thrift stores often ends up in landfills and is eventually burned, creating more toxic fumes in our atmosphere, adding onto the already toxic footprint.

While not solving the problem entirely, I do want to touch on companies like Rent the Runway and Nuuly, clothing rental services that provide cute on-trend clothes for a specific amount of time, before the customers returns and get several new items. It’s a nice wardrobe refresh and a great way not to waste clothing, but these services are still feeding into consumerism, just in a less sneaky way. Also, think of all the back and forth shipping to consumers, and then dry cleaning of said garments, which further increases the carbon footprint of a garment. These types of services are still being studied as they are fairly new, but initial outlook doesn’t seem to be helping the environment much. On the other hand, I had a friend who used RTR’s maternity option during her last pregnancy so she did not have to purchase new clothing that she would wear a handful of times. I think if the customer uses these companies mindfully, they aren’t a bad idea but shouldn’t be used frequently.

What’s It Made Of?

Finally, if you take nothing else from this post, please try to be mindful of material content. Avoid Viscose, Rayon and Polyurethane materials when shopping. Viscose is made from tree wood pulp or bamboo and its production is not environmentally friendly whatsoever. Since it comes from wood, large areas of forests are wiped out in the harvesting process, while many chemicals and large amounts of water are used in the processing of the wood into yarns which end up affecting local ecosystems. Rayon is basically the same as Viscose but is made from plants, rather than wood. Polyurethane, or PU, often used as fake leather, is arguably one of the worst for the environment. In the article, ‘The Leather Debate: Is Vegan Leather A Sustainable Alternative To The Real Thing?,’ Ellie Pithers states,

“Both polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride must undergo chemical processes to make them flexible enough to mimic leather….involves painting liquified polyurethane onto a fabric backing, which requires a toxic solvent to render it fluid… Both derive from fossil fuels which, when burnt, release materials such as ash, nitrogen and carbon into the atmosphere, which contribute to acid rain (as well as lots of other horrible things). And both take hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfill.”

…Do you still want to buy that fake leather jacket? When shopping, look for recycled cotton, recycled polyester and polyester made from recycled water bottles, and so on. If you want a leather type item, but are vegan or an animal lover, there are dozens of kinds of innovative leathers, including cactus leather, popping up every day.

If you’ve made it this far in this post, then I really appreciate your effort and I think you’re a noble land mermaid (where my P&R fans at?). Next week I’m going to get into social and ethical sustainability within the fashion industry, but I hope this post was informative so you can shop smarter in the future.


Sara Ann


How Sustainable is Renting Your Clothes, Really?

Sustainable Style: The Truth Behind the Marketing of H&M’s Conscious Collection

What is Viscose? 

The Leather Debate: Is Vegan Leather A Sustainable Alternative To The Real Thing?

Fashion’s Hazardous Footprint

Have you ever thought much about the process that goes into making your clothes? Or what happens to them once you’ve given them away? How about what both of those things are doing to the environment? The fashion industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of pollution and waste today. I personally work in sourcing and production so I have a front row seat in seeing how these things are hurting our world. For a long time, I was ignorant; however, as I’ve been learning, it’s getting harder and harder to look the other way. So where do you, as a consumer, start in understanding sustainable clothing?


If you are curious, you’re not alone. Many consumers have started caring more about these things; in recent years, searching for the words ‘sustainable fashion’ has tripled online, but many people still remain largely uneducated about how important sustainable fashion is, in a world that is being destroyed by the current fashion industry. There are reasons why countries like China and India are some of the highest polluted nations in the world. Water and electrical waste, along with fashion’s large carbon footprint are the biggest reasons why sustainable fashion is a must if we ever want to save the planet.

Let’s take the shirt you’re wearing right now; it started as millions of fibers that were spun into yarns and those yarns were woven or knit into a material. That material, and in some case the yarns before the material, were dyed in chemicals and water that is often left untreated, being disposed of in local rivers which can create a toxic environment for locals and wildfire in major manufacturing areas. Some dye houses, especially in the world of denim (which use one of the highest amounts of water and dyes), are trying to implement utilizing filtration systems to recycle water that is being used within the dyeing process, but many dye houses still have work to do in making a more sustainable process. New filtration systems are not cheap and take up space, both using resources that could be put towards more machinery that would increase working capacity, lower garment lead times, and increase orders and profit overall.


The other problem here is that once dyed, materials and garments often are put through multiple washes with softeners or treatments, which as you can guess, use gallons and gallons of water and chemicals, which again, often goes untreated. Some brands are now pushing recycled materials like poly spun yarns from recycled water bottles, which is a great step forward in the industry; however, once those recycled materials go through the normal dyeing and wash processes, how much are they really helping the environment?

The other thing is, think about the energy needed to be generated for all of the above to take place, coupled with the fact that most factories are powered largely by fossil fuels. Some materials can go through three or four washes, after being dyed, all of which needs to run on energy. Not even to mention that after the material is turned into a garment on sewing machines, the final garment can often get additional washes, before going into dryers and getting a final steam or ironing. All before you as the consumer wash and dry the garment dozens of times over.

The final piece of this puzzle is the fashion industry’s carbon footprint. So you have found a clothing company who uses recycled yarns, filters and recycles their dye water, and use natural dyes. But where are they manufacturing their garments? If being made in Asia, the brand has to ship their goods on a large shipping freight which can take upwards of 40 days to sail halfway around the world. That means right now, a very large ship is generating energy through petroleum and emitting harmful gases into the air, all while carrying the shirt you’re going to buy in a few weeks time.

In an ideal world, companies would look for materials that are of recycled yarns, dye houses that filter and recycle water, plus use natural, chemical-free dyes,  and produce with manufacturers that are local so that shipping distance is cut down. All goods would be packaged up in recyclable packaging. So what’s the problem? To me, all that sounds very expensive.

Many material mills and garment manufacturers have left the US in favor of cheaper labor in Asia, driven by consumer demand for cheap, fast fashion. Even if a brand wants to produce domestically in the US or in close Central America, many factories still order fabric and trims from Asia, which again, impacts the carbon footprint. It’s almost next to impossible to find a rare unicorn brand that can meet all these requirements and if you do find one, I bet they’re out of your price range so you are discouraged from purchasing.

These sustainable clothes are expensive because recycled materials, like water bottles, have to go through multiple treatment processes before becoming yarns. Filtration systems and new machinery are expensive so dye houses and factories need to invest, and as a result, charge higher prices to pay off and make money from that investment. Local labor within America is expensive compared to less developed countries where labor might be a small fraction of our $7.25/hour minimum wage.

Beyond production, consumers are not properly recycling their clothing which is increasing the problem. Companies like ThredUp and Poshmark are helping mass consumers in recycling old garments and some brands have pledged to in store recycling programs. Some others, like Adidas, have pledged to 100% be using recycled materials by 2024. As consumers, we can take time to research brands who are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, with the understanding that no brand is going to be able to completely mass produce anything without some side effects.


As consumers, we need to fall less under the spell of consumerism, taking responsibility and demanding more from the fashion industry. The one industry that might be the most malleable of all, due to the changing trends and seasons. Brands will care if their consumers care. I was once in a meeting where sustainable garments were being discussed within a major clothing brand, and it was said that, ‘the customer doesn’t seem to have sustainability as a priority, nor will they pay more for it, so why should we invest in a collection that is sustainable?’ Consumers need to steer the brands towards sustainability, in the same way we steered fashion companies towards providing for our demand of fast fashion. Again, it seems while with most issues with sustainability, we are the problem, but we can also be the solution.


Sara Ann



personal: 4+ years in apparel and home goods production internationally

Sustainable Fashion: Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Explained

C&A Foundation

Adidas Challenges Fashion Industry

Sustainable Fashion Demand Provides New Opportunities In Material Science And Chemistry

A Day For Change

Happy Earth Day, everyone! Such a different Earth day this year; it’s hard not be able to celebrate by planting trees or protesting climate change, so we should at least be taking the time to educate ourselves for when we’re allowed back into society and can help make some change in this world.

Since we’re all watching TV anyway, why not watch a documentary? I put together a list of  (mostly free) documentaries that discuss sustainability, climate change and the planet’s health. I watched An Inconvenient Sequel (2017) last night, and it was very enlightening to say the least. I plan on watching The True Cost tonight.

  1. The Biggest Little Farm (2018)– on hulu, with subscription
  2. An Inconvenient Sequel (2017)– free on Crackle
  3. The True Cost (2015)–  free on tubi
  4. Chasing Coral (2017)– on Netflix, with subscription
  5. A Plastic Ocean (2016)– on Netflix, with subscription
  6. Blackfish (2013)– on hulu, with subscription
  7. Forks Over Knives— on Netflix, with subscription
  8. Cowspiracy (2014)– on Netflix, with subscription

What are your plans for Earth Day? Have you seen any of the films on my list and would recommend?


Sara Ann