Over the years, I have seen many brands, not-for-profits, and activist groups sell fundraising merchandise without fully considering the impact of those products. For example, a wildlife conservationist group currently sells clothing made from recycled plastic bottles, despite plastic bottles being an environmental scourge and recycled polyester shedding micro-fibres when washed. Unfortunately, their quest for doing good comes with collateral damage. And it makes me ask the question: is it okay to cause harm in the name of doing good?
Let's consider some better-known examples.
Back in 2008, a good-hearted 19-year-old launched ThankYou Water in Australia and diverted profits to developing countries in the name of improving clean water access. A noble cause, yes, but fast forward to 2020, and ThankYou Water announced they would cease production of bottled water, citing environmental concerns they had carried since the company's inception but wilfully ignored for a period. By ceasing production, they hoped to send "a message to other consumers and other brands.”
Then, there's internationally well-known philanthropic shoe brand who, for legal reason we won’t mention by name . Like ThankYou, they've since adjusted their business model to better address their philanthropic goals, but initially, this company operated on a buy-one-give-one model. Meaning, for every pair of canvas shoes you purchased, they donated a second pair to a child in need. In their second year of production, the said shoe company gave away 200,000 shoes in places like Haiti & South Africa impacting local cobblers' livelihoods and failing to address the real problem of why those children had no shoes. As far as I'm aware, to this day the company still hasn't considered the impact of its manufacturing choices beyond what it gives away. They don't use organic materials (which benefit both farmers and their environment) or pay living wages to their garment workers. Their production process is still problematic to supply chain workers and the environment, despite adjusting their charitable goals.
I could name plenty more brands with similar misconstrued efforts who are failing to produce merchandise through ethical supply chains despite advocating for social or environmental justice. But I think you see my point: there are many examples of brands causing harm in the name of good.
As a business owner who is genuinely committed to minimising harm at every step of the manufacturing process, it's incredibly frustrating to witness these ethical blunders (or deliberate misdoings). It's frustrating because I have spent years creating products that empower cotton growers, rubber plantation workers and garment workers, and I know just how bad the alternative can be for those people. People like you and me. It's also frustrating because I know it is entirely possible to create ethical products with minimal harm to people or the planet, where the entire life cycle of a product is considered and accounted for. My brand, Etiko, is living proof of that. And if I, an ex-school teacher, with no background in fashion production, can run a holistically good business, why can't others?
Experience tells me a few factors contribute to a lack of uptake in the world of ethical merchandise. Firstly, it could be a lack of connection: those running the campaign don't connect their own choices with real outcomes regarding the "invisible" elements of procurement (like supply chain workers or environmental impact). In other cases, the turnaround time for ethically produced merchandise can be longer or cost more, so the cheapest and fastest option is prioritised. But, regardless of the reason, the result is the same: suffering is caused in the name of doing good, and to me, this is crazy.
To ensure I paint a realistic picture, please know some organisations do consider their procurement channels and strive for absolute excellence. And Etiko partners with those people and brands regularly because our track record in ethical and environmental excellence places us as industry leaders in the world of ethical garments. Our wholesale business has produced certified organic Fairtrade merchandise for fantastically committed activists like Sarah Wilson, March for Justice, Save the Children and more. By managing the ethics of their entire project, not just the end goal, these clients achieved a much more significant impact than they probably first imagined. But sadly, these examples are a minority — they are the rare bunch who lead by example.
The times are changing, though. Research shows us consumers are increasingly unwilling to accept greenwashing and ethical marketing jargon at face value. Millennials, in particular, are committed to making ethical consumer choices if they have the correct information available to do so. And policies are adapting to consumer demand and public outcry (think the UN's Sustainable Develop Goals or Australia's Modern Slavery Act).
As businesses, it is now more important than ever to ensure you thoroughly scrutinise your manufacturer's supply chains and consider what happens to your merchandise at the end of its life cycle. Your customers expect it of you, your reputation can depend on it, and policies may one day demand it.
As consumers, we must continue to question those who sell to us, highlighting their wrongdoings and sharing information. We have the power to vote with our dollars, and currency is a powerful bargaining chip in a world motivated by profit.
Ultimately, positive change-making relies on big picture thinking. Will you be part of the solution?