The fashion industry, right after the oil industry, is the second most polluting industry on the planet. From the materials, to the dyes and other chemicals used to treat our clothes, the supply chains and people involved in production, basically the entire process from creation to the subsequent disposal of clothes has a terrible effect on our planet. Luckily, there’s an increasing shift in awareness amongst consumers that have realised the importance of looking at the labels of the clothes they buy, many even possessing the ability to identify at least the most common sustainable certifications. We’re still far from sufficient consumer demand to bring about real change in the industry, but change does not happen overnight and with movements such as “Who made my clothes?” and the growth of new, smaller brands that take sustainability very seriously, the wheels of sustainable evolution have been set in motion.
Greenwashing by the fashion industry
Even with the best intentions, shoppers can get suckered in by bigger brands that might appear ethical, but don’t live up to their green image behind the scenes. With deep pockets it turns out that greenwashing is all too easy, and before you know it you’ve reached the online checkout of Zara, with 5 more items in your basket than you needed!
The problem is that the fashion industry has become expert at pulling the wool over our eyes, leading us to believe that all is fair, humane, and environmentally conscious. Many big brands know exactly what to say, and how to ‘dress up’ their products with sustainable messaging, whilst falling so far short on the fundamentals, such as supply chain transparency, fabric choice, build quality, human rights, and recycling.
The sustainable fashion industry with numerous certifications such as GOTS and OEKO-TEX that aim to provide tools for consumers to filter out brands that employ greenwashing techniques, and with increasing consumer awareness, smaller brands that have sustainability baked into their DNA are given a fighting chance.
Challenges faced by the sustainable clothing industry
One of the challenges that the sustainability clothing industry faces at this point is its fragmentation – specifically the difficulty for the average consumer attempting to move towards a more sustainable wardrobe to find these new brands producing sustainably, with a style and a price point that fits what they’re looking for.
The limited resources that smaller brands have make it difficult to shine through the advertisement noise funded by big pocketed brands to create the awareness required to build that initial momentum.
Introducing Ethical Clothing
This is the problem that entrepreneurs Ben Heinkel and Jack Hesketh took a stab at. Both environmentally conscious people that were looking for a way to integrate their experience building tech companies in the eCommerce space, and their love for nature and desire to focus their energy on a project that would make a difference, came up with a solution to both sides of the problem in early 2020. They hypothesised that a search engine that made the world’s sustainable fashion searchable and empowering consumers with tools to search by style, certifications, price and material, would be a solution appreciated by both sides.
What is Ethical Clothing?
A minimal version of the sustainable clothing search engine was launched in mid 2020, and by the end of the year the team had managed to index several hundred of the top ethical clothing brands in Europe, with a few thousand visitors per month that were discovering and purchasing sustainable clothing from across the continent through the site. Having proven the initial hypothesis in Europe, the team launched a North American version of their site in early 2022 with several hundred brands from the US and Canada.
The team behind the Ethical Clothing project is content with the initial progress they’ve made, the rising consumer demand and the positive reactions from the brands they are working with. However, they feel that there is still a long road ahead for them and that this is only the beginning.
“I think in a few months time we can be fairly certain of having comprehensive coverage of the sustainable fashion brands both in North America and in Europe, even though it is a movable goal post – and we’re ecstatic that it is. The challenges for us lie in improving the way our filters and searches work, to make it as easy as possible for consumers to find what they are looking for. With the millions of products we hope to have indexed this year, our search capabilities need to increase to continue to provide a valuable service to our customers,” says Ben Heinkel on the future challenges the team is gearing up to face.
Technology meets fashion
The use of AI and machine learning algorithms to better categorise and detect certain product characteristics which will help with improving the search experience is at the top of the team’s roadmap.
For later in this year, Ethical Fashion intends to spend significant time and resources on creating a rating system where characteristics of the manufacturing process, the type of material used, the brand’s certifications and the degree of transparency in the supply chains among many other variables will be used. The idea here is to enable their customers to define how strict they prefer to be in their criteria to what they consider sustainable and only buy from brands that match those values.
How to find sustainable fashion online
Educating consumers on the harm done by fast fashion and other fashion business models that have a complete disregard for sustainability is vital to keep growing the demand for ethical fashion. To this end, Ethical Clothing is more than just a search engine and also offers detailed blog posts with titles such as “Who’s to blame? How we feed the fast fashion machine” and “Is bamboo clothing sustainable, the hype and controversy”. Another fascinating tool launched by the team is their fashion footprint calculator that uses 12 questions related to your consumption and maintenance of your clothes to create an extensive report and a grade, with extensive tips on how to improve your fashion footprint.
With the recent news of a new rule proposed by the European Union seeking to put a halt to fast fashion, forcing fashion retailers to comply with environmental standards, as well as to “boost the market for sustainably made textiles”, we may be closer to the tipping point where sustainably produced fashion becomes the norm than we thought, placing the Ethical Clothing search engine in a perfect place and time to aid in this transition.