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It's not always easy to buy good and be good: the challenges of ethical shopping

Eco-conscious, green, organic, farm-to-table, locally grown, locally owned, fair trade, and sweatshop-free. These terms all sound good and make us feel good about our purchases. And yet as our world becomes more interconnected and more global, chances are that most of our food has traveled a long distance to reach us, and our clothes were stitched together in locales that we couldn't locate on a map. It’s become harder and harder to keep tabs on consumer goods on a global scale, and sometimes even much closer to home.

Take, for example, my Iowa-born mother, who spent her summers detasseling corn by hand. She once laughed at me, her city-born, Texan daughter, begging one summer to pick apples at the farm in Iowa. This was when I was 15. Some of you may be scratching your heads, and that’s fine. I didn’t see the problem at first either. With the ability to buy any fruit, grown anywhere in the world, at any time of the year, it’s easy to forget there’s a seasonality to it all. The apples, much to my disappointment, weren’t ready to be picked until the fall.

With the ability to buy any fruit, grown anywhere in the world, at any time of the year, it’s easy to forget there’s a seasonality to it all.

Even when we’re steeped in information, we can’t know everything. But we are actively making decisions about how and where to spend our money. From Millennials to Boomers, consumers are seeing their decisions sway how companies do business. With that ethical shopping power, consumers are demanding change and accountability.

According to a 2015 Nielsen study, 66 percent of global respondents say they’re willing to pay more for products and services that come from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. That’s up from 55 percent in 2014 and from 50 percent in 2013. There is a clear trend toward wanting more from companies than a product and a good deal. And companies are watching and learning—and sometimes looking for ways to exploit the trend to make more money. There’s always a dark side and in this case, it’s called greenwashing.

Don’t get duped by greenwashing

Brands that exaggerate their eco-friendliness and positive social practices are greenwashing, and to protect ourselves, we must all become conscious, wary consumers.

Big brands like Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond were all fined $1.3 million by the Federal Trade Commission after being charged for falsely labeling clothing made with rayon as made with bamboo.

And consider H&M, which began World Recycle Week in 2016 with the goal of collecting and recycling 1,000 tons of clothing. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, H&M produces 1,000 tons of clothing every 48 hours and it’s estimated that it takes 12 years to recycle that amount of goods. Ugh.

There are also the multitudes of beauty brands that have recolored their packaging in eco-friendly beiges, browns, and greens. But buyer-beware—beige packaging and a nice image of a leaf There’s minimal to no regulation policing these products.

Companies across many industries are guilty of greenwashing, from beauty to food to clothing. I'll admit that I’m not the most conscious clothing buyer and much of this information I didn’t know, but as conscious consumers, we can be better aware of the things we’re buying and the journey they take to reach our hands and our homes.

I'll admit that I’m not the most conscious clothing buyer and much of this information I didn’t know, but as conscious consumers, we can be better aware of the things we’re buying and the journey they take to reach our hands and our homes.

The conscious clothing questions to ask

Becoming a conscious clothing consumer means asking questions and seeking answers. Question everything from where the garment was made to the quality of the materials, and what else the company is doing to be eco-conscious and take care of its people.

Next time you consider buying a shirt from your favorite store, first ask:

  • What fabrics were used to produce this shirt?
  • Where did the fabric come from?
  • Where was the shirt put together?
  • What company produced the shirt?
  • Do they have any certifications?
  • How transparent are they? Look beyond the claims of “we’re transparent.”
  • Do they express intention for improvement or discuss where their weak points are?
  • Do they respond to customer questions on social media?
  • Are they using vague marketing language to describe their products?
  • Have they provided contact information to customers?

And if this process still sounds a little daunting, there are great resources that have already collected and categorized information

Don’t worry, there’s help

Check out these sites for information about brands and just how eco-friendly and socially-conscious they are:

What to look for on labels

The majority of consumers have become familiar with the terms used to signify eco-conscious and locally grown food, but we’re less familiar with those terms and regulations for clothing brands.

  • Fair Trade: According to Fair Trade Certified, “From production to purchase, Fair Trade is a model of sustainable, ethical trade that puts people and planet first. It’s the easiest way to do the most good, every day.” This is probably one of the more common terms you’ll find, so if you’re committed to buying consciously, this is a great place to start.
  • Organic cotton: Products that can be labelled with the term “organic” are regulated by the USDA and there are strict guidelines for how to receive accreditation to label your product as organic, including organic cotton.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard: Also known as GOTS, this international regulatory body has set down requirements that must be met by producers to be certified by their standards.
  • Sweatshop-free:As there is no certification or regulatory body for sweatshop-free, you often end up blindly trusting a brand that they aren’t greenwashing.
  • B Corporation: Certified by B Lab the for-profit companies that join the movement and receive a certification have met the standards set forth by this regulating body that they are doing good for the people and world around them.
  • Cruelty-free: This is another keyword you’ll find out there that denotes a socially conscious business, but has no regulatory standards. The term isn’t enough; make sure to research how the company defines cruelty-free and defends or explains how they meet those standards.

Many of these regulating bodies don’t lay out what guidelines must be met to receive a certification. There’s a lot that’s left up to the consumer to uncover. If a brand claims to have one of these certifications, you might want to dig into what it means to

How can I incorporate these ideas into my business?

Want to get on the bandwagon—but without greenwashing? There are models to learn from. Ethically conscious brands like Raven and Lily, PHLUR, Bloom + Grace each incorporate social good and eco-consciousness into their businesses.

From using artisan producers to qualifying as B Corp to investing in microenterprise training, these brands are striving to be a force of good for the world.

The takeaway? It’s as easy—or as hard—as redefining how your business does business. For fragrance-maker PHLUR, it wasn’t just about creating a great fragrance. Making conscious choices about every step of the process is core to who the company is and why it exists. Being “green” means examining your processes, supply chain, and where you buy your goods. Are there places where you can make improvements? Probably yes.

Being “green” means examining your processes, supply chain, and where you buy your goods. Are there places where you can make improvements? Probably yes.

By making socially conscious and eco-conscious decisions, you might miss out on some profit in the short-term, but you’ll be doing greater good for the world and the people who make your products. It’s up to you. Will your business join the movement of social change, eco-friendliness, and social good? If so, there's a merry band of conscious consumers rooting for you.

Page Grossman became an entrepreneur at 22, knowing that she never wanted to settle down in a cubicle. With a degree in journalism, some money in a savings account, and Millennial-spirit, Page founded her own freelance writing business. Page writes about creating an intentional lifestyle through travel, finances, entrepreneurship, health, fitness, and nutrition. Depending on the day, you can find her writing for various blogs, slaying SEO, researching grammar questions, banishing the Lorem Ipsum, fostering kittens, and traveling the world on Instagram.