magazine | Jul 31, 2019 |
A designer's guide to sustainable shopping: How to find brands that care

Navigating the nuances of so-called green products can be an intimidating task. First, there’s the sheer volume of goods making green claims—but just because it’s got a recycled-looking brown tag or is labeled “organic,” is it really sustainable? What do all of the stamps and certifications really mean? How much will your clients expect you to know about each product’s provenance if you’re touting its eco-conscious bona fides? And if something is made with recycled water bottles, how nice can it really be?

A few simple directives can simplify your shopping experience: Buy intentionally, get to know the brand you’re buying from, and shop with your values at the forefront. “Look at the DNA of the business itself rather than the words that describe the product,” advises Erinch Sahan, chief executive of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). “A mainstream brand can have one product that got a certification or one ingredient in one product that got a certification, but we need to ask about the business itself.”

How to sniff out the truly meaningful initiatives? Sahan suggests a few cursory questions: Does the company prioritize looking after the best interests of the people who make its products? How is its supply chain structured, and what is its actual impact? (Have they made sure that the people who make up the supply chain are treated well from start to finish? Do they get paid enough to live and work with basic human dignity?)

The environmental crisis we’re in is complex and multifarious. A lot of founders of companies are also learning about this as they go along, and they’re making the best decisions they can.
Elizabeth Segran

The tough questions matter: Especially as sustainability has become trendy, a suite of would-be do-gooders have sprung up with big claims—and little to back them up. “Brands on the more authentic end of the spectrum will always have to contend with greenwashing by some mainstream brands, because [as soon as] we come up with a description of who we are, someone will try to co-opt our language,” he says.

Sahan’s focus is on what he calls “mission-led enterprises,” or companies that ethically support the people who power every step of a brand’s supply chain, but there are many ways to approach sustainable shopping. Even at the most fastidious companies, it’s extremely rare to be completely sustainable, so a good strategy is to shop with the values that are most meaningful to you and your clients in mind. “There’s never a silver bullet solution,” says Elizabeth Segran, who writes about eco-conscious fashion for Fast Company. “I’m always thinking about beautiful things and materialism, and with my readers, I’m promoting consumption. But on the other hand, I think about the impact. If I need to buy something, the best thing to do is to buy something durable, well made and as ethical as possible.”

Segran chooses to focus on the positives of rampant greenwashing: “The environmental crisis we’re in is complex and multifarious. A lot of founders of companies are also learning about this as they go along, and they’re making the best decisions they can,” she says. “It shows they’re responding to the trend, and hopefully that means things are moving in the right direction.”

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Approaches to sustainable design range from ethical manufacturing to upcycled materials and transparent sourcing. BOH explored these and more in our first-ever green shopping guide—which is as much a compendium of companies making the effort to do the right thing as a primer in the kinds of questions you can ask any brand. Taking the first step toward shopping with sustainability in mind might be daunting, but these 63 brands make it easy to go green.

  • If you care about transparent sourcing, click here for 13 brands that raise the bar on material provenance.
  • If you care about ethical manufacturing, click here for 10 brands that put their workers first at every step of the supply chain.
  • If you care about low-impact production, click here for 12 brands that prioritize non-toxic materials, low-impact production—and your health and safety.
  • If you care about philanthropy, click here for 9 brands that have made giving back a key part of their business.
  • If you care about upcycled materials, click here for 19 brands that turn trash into treasure.
This article originally appeared in Summer 2019 issue of Business of Home, Issue 12. Subscribe for more.

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