Behind the Ratings: Apparel

Today, we launched a new category of ratings – apparel. I spoke with Rhonda and Dave, GoodGuide Science Team members, to get some insider dirt on how the ratings work.

Building the design for the apparel ratings took about eight months. During that time, GoodGuide’s Science team reviewed life-cycle assessments, spoke with clothing industry experts, and checked out industry-developed frameworks (such as Eco Index). Our research culminated with the publishing of 118 apparel brands, scored on the dimensions of environmental and social impact. GoodGuide’s ratings help put numbers to these issues that are often forgotten and challenging to measure.

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The environmental score is made up of our standard company scoring attributes (50%) as well as attributes that are specific to apparel (50%). Suffice to say a lot of information went into the category-specific ratings. Below, in order of importance, is a simple breakdown of what was considered.

1. Consumer education. Our scientists discovered that much of the environmental impact of a piece of clothing depends on how we, the wearers, use the clothing. As a result, we credit companies that are actively educating the public about how to care for their clothing purchases to get the most out of each piece of fabric.

2. Green production practices. There are two ways the ratings incorporate green production practices. First, we look at whether or not a company abides by and discloses a Restricted Substance List, which specifies the hazardous chemicals a manufacturer avoids using when clothing is made. Second, we rewarded brands that incorporate sustainable fiber into their wares. There’s no official definition for “sustainable fiber,” so our assessment relied upon corporate commitments to one or more of 10 organizations that know this area in and out (examples include Fair Trade, Organic, Oeko-Tex).

3. Sustainable product design. We characterized sustainable product design with two overarching measures, life cycle assessment (LCA) informed design and sustainable supply chain support. LCA informed design, an emerging practice in the apparel industry, encourages thinking about creating clothing that requires less energy to maintain over its lifetime (for example, blending in fibers that don’t need to be ironed). It was also important to us to capture a broader perspective, which is challenging given the complexities of apparel supply chains. However, with the help of 15 industry-wide organizations that consider various environmental impacts of the apparel industry, we developed a measure for overall supply chain sustainability. Companies that demonstrate commitment to sustainable product design in these two ways are rewarded in our ratings.

4. Commitment to transparency. Apparel brands that score well on GoodGuide tend to shed more light on how they do business compared to brands that don’t score well. This openness is captured in two ways. First, we determined whether product or brand level life cycle assessments (LCA) were carried out by the company. Conducting an LCA is no easy task, and is a clear sign that the company is cognizant of the range of impacts associated with its operations.  Second, we looked at whether companies publicly disclosed their suppliers. Sharing supplier information is at the heart of transparency, particularly in the apparel industry.

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Social scores for the apparel ratings are derived partially from our standard company scoring methods (50%) and partially from apparel-specific indicators of social performance (50%). Four major points sum up the apparel-specific indicators.

1. Fair pay for workers. Providing a living wage to factory workers that make clothing is an essential for companies to receive a high social score. Sometimes, figuring out what constitutes fair pay can be complicated. Our approach was to determine whether a detailed living wage or social premium mandate was explicitly established in a company’s supply chain manifesto.

2. Decent working conditions. The most publicized flaws in the apparel industry revolve around poor treatment of workers. Allegations and evidence of factory worker abuse are unfortunately rampant and so as a first step, we reward companies that employ best auditing practices to keep themselves honest when it comes to working conditions. Such practices include off-site worker interviews, unannounced visits, and local consultation with non-profits and other organizations that have insight into conditions for workers. As a second step, when possible, we’ve ascertained how constructively companies have responded to violations in the factories they use. By engaging with factories, companies can leverage their power to improve both short-term and long-term conditions for workers.

3. Commitment to transparency. Similar to the environmental score, the social score is influenced by whether or not a company discloses its suppliers. Without this information, it is impossible to verify labor compliance claims. Additionally, as part of audit systems already in place, companies should be reporting labor violations; those that provide actionable details on these violations are considered more transparent than those that don’t.

4. Responsible purchasing policies. Companies have the ability to set purchasing policies that can positively or negatively impact workers down the chain of command. As a very simple example, making frequent changes to a clothing line can result in factory workers toiling for excessive hours. Some companies have begun to realize that establishing operational practices that minimize hardship to workers can be good for society and business. These companies are positively credited in their social scores.

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So what really distinguishes good brands from bad brands? In general, brands with higher GoodGuide ratings disclose information about their supply chains, audit their performance on labor issues, design their products using life cycle principles, and educate consumers about how to reduce impacts. Being so removed from how and where our clothing is made makes it extremely easy to forget about the people behind what we wear. Ultimately, we hope the apparel ratings will get you to think a little more about the clothing you buy.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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One Response to Behind the Ratings: Apparel

  1. Pingback: GoodGuide Gives Great Grade to Levi's Green and Social Practices

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