Frustrated with the lack of information around ethical fashion brands? Or the fact that you have to scour the internet with a list of your favourite brands and then delve into their credentials? You’re not the only ones. Compare Ethics reckons they’ve got the answer.
2018 might just be the year that ethical fashion shakes off its hempy hippy image, dusts off the lentils and finds a whole new audience of people who want to ‘shop their values’. The number of ethical fashion brands has rocketed, especially amongst younger designers who want to create something beautiful that does better.
We are turning away from our ‘hauls’ on the high street and investing in quality, mending, upcycling and more but for even the most savvy shopper, buying from ethical brands online can be time consuming and inconvenient. For independent Individual ethical fashion brands it’s an ongoing battle to compete on convenience and price.
Abbie Morris and James Omisakin have spent the past year trying to come up with a solution.
Compare Ethics launched this month and comprises a digital platform where you can shop in line with the values that matter most to you. Search for Animal Cruelty Free or Social Good and Compare Ethics gives you a list of the brands that align with the products you want at the price you want.
But it’s not just another shopping platform. The impressive team at Compare Ethics have looked to big data, clever algorithms and old fashioned due diligence to create an entire methodology where they can compare ethical fashion brands, both big and small. This is then communicated to the users with clear symbols and ratings.
I met the pair at their launch pop up shop in Brick Lane earlier this month to find out more.
Abbie: My background was in sustainability and I worked with big corporates to develop sustainable policies and then communicated them globally. I worked with the UN and the World Economic Forum to see how sustainable companies can operate at the highest level. I also worked in the policy sphere, creating manifestos and presidential campaigns in Africa. I got great experience seeing the beneficiaries of good practice and also the people who lose out the most in exploitation of workers’ rights.
James: I was in experimentation. I studied chemistry and did a lot of data analysis, and then moved to China and taught chemistry there. It was there I got an understanding how fashion manufacturing works and saw firsthand a lot of what was going on, which was pretty scary. I returned to the UK and pivoted into marketing and tech and tried to build solutions.
I was actually looking into starting my own ethical fashion line as that’s something I’ve always been interested in.
Abbie: We kind of met in the middle to build Compare Ethics.
It actually started with James’s jeans because he gets the weirdest holes in his jeans and wanted to get them repaired. We found that the high street’s jeans aren’t good enough quality to be mended and we wanted to shop in alignment with our values. The platform came about because it was so difficult to both find ethical brands and really have the knowledge and transparency about what they’re doing.
We started to talking a lot of people in the ethical fashion industry and started going to events and realised that lots of people are having the same problem, it takes so much time, you have to translate complicated accreditation and acronyms...so we thought we’d try and change that.
James: Everyone has the same experience we found. People want to shop ethically but it takes hours to go through all the information and people give up because it’s too difficult or takes too long.
James: We had to start from scratch and create an entire methodology that underpins how we assess every brand. For example you get one point for a commitment to reducing carbon emissions but three points if you’re carbon neutral. We do a lot of research into a lot of the different categories and how they’re scored.
We knew we then had to communicate those points and messages quickly and visually to consumers so that it was easy to understand. We built a seamless solution for the users who can then purchase the search results that match the categories they’re shopping for.
Abbie: It’s split into three main categories: Planet Friendly; Socially Good and Animal Cruelty Free. Then within each category there are ethical tags that can be rated that signpost what the brand focuses on and you can choose to search by these.
We looked at best practice across the board, did a lot of research and we also looked at what people are talking about and searching for. The tags will evolve as we do, we’ll be adding more to reflect how the industry and brands change, for example we’re trying to work out how to rate and assess microplastics.
As we can find more things to analyse we will and there’s a feedback site on our website for people to tell us about the issues they’re concerned about.
Abbie: The whole methodology is about best practice.
The highest rank on the site is for a circular product, i.e. fashion that is produced that aligns to the circular economy model but we don’t have any clients yet that hit all those boxes.
It doesn’t mean we won’t promote companies that aren’t circular but this is what the next generation is striving for so we want to flag it up as best practice. Cariki are a great example. They are committed to fair wages and organic T-shirts and are in a constant improvement process. It is great to be on this shared journey with them.
When I was working at the global level there were a lot of conversations happening around concepts like the circular economy but there was no way for shoppers to actually engage with them. Hopefully with Compare Ethics shoppers don’t have to do anything different - they just have to browse and purchase as they would normally.
Abbie: We know that whether the fashion is ethical or not, product and price is key. So if we are going to bring ethical fashion into the mainstream (and not call it ethical anymore, which is our aim), it should be a value add. We want to get people appreciating how beautiful the brands and the products are and then we can tell them how they’re good for the planet. The style, price and ethics you want should come as standard.
James: It’s meeting consumers in a place where they understand. People know fashion is a visual item so you need it first to have a pleasing product and then add the ethical story on. The other side is content, i.e. providing the information to shoppers that is easy to understand and digestible.
How do you do your due diligence on each brand so people can trust your assessments?
Abbie: It starts with an onboarding form which tells us what they do differently, how they’re currently working and we do an initial assessment. Then they have a timeframe to improve things. They can send us redacted supplier info, certifications and we also accept photo and video evidence of changes they’ve made or interviews with their manufacturers.
For example, one of our brands, Wynad went and met all of their suppliers in their supply chain in Asia and documented it all with video which is a really lovely way to be completely transparent and authentic. You can communicate what you’re about really quickly without being boring.
We’re keen to not discriminate from emerging brands and those companies run by one person who is doing as much as they can, from pattern cutting to marketing. They can also explain to us in writing how they’re working step by step so that we get an understanding of their thought process.
A lot of the smaller companies are more ethically run because they work with small batch production, or are made to order, or they work only with local materials so they have a lot going for them. We want to support all sizes and not just promote all certifications.
Abbie: Yes definitely, it’s the one category approach. For example a brand could be focused on political issues and has made an organic T-shirt to promote them. So that would be the lowest ranking but most of our brands are eligible for more than one category.
We also will review once a year so that we’re keeping up to date with the brands and also a lot can happen in a year. A brand could move to manufacturing in a different country, use a more ethically sourced material or have achieved a certification.
How do you do due diligence for global brands’ products like a recycled plastic trainer from adidas?
James: We review it on a product by product basis and we make it very clear that it’s just that one product. Some global brands are working on products that align to the circular economy but they don't across the entire company. We don’t want to leave them out but we’d have to be very proactive in viewing the manufacturing and assess it for ourselves.
How are you going to scale the number of brands you assess?
Abbie: Over the long term, working with big brands, we will need to finesse that approach with a larger team of people because if we are to be the authority in this space then we have to invest in a team who just focus on due diligence.
In the future there will be an innovation team lead by James and the sustainable and corporate side under me. We also want to meet people who are experts in different fashion industries and experts in their local area.
James: The development of the tool is continuous and we’re trying to make the tool as impactful as possible and it may become an app in the future but for the moment we’re focusing on our launch.
Who does due diligence over Compare Ethics?
We are in the process of getting our B Corp accreditation and we’re going to work with the UN Global Compact to make sure we’re doing the same things as the brands. We want to have an external audit of the company so we can make sure we’re doing everything we can and see how we can improve - basically it’s a constant circle of feedback and adapting.
Discover Compare Ethics for yourself here and watch out for more pop up shops.
written by Georgina Wilson-Powell