When someone asks, “is that ethically-made?”, the only possible answer is yes. I can only hope this little post does some unraveling to that question.
Asking if something is ethical or not is about the same as asking, "is that new restaurant good?" What makes it good? The atmosphere? The culinary style? The price point? The answer is of course subjective, dependent on your personal understanding of a good restaurant. It's the same with ethics. There is a subset of ethics behind everything - some you will align with, some not so much. And in that very real sense, everything is ethical. The term “ethical” is so broad that it can mean anything and thus usually nothing (as used by marketers). This is why I consider ethical marketing a kind of "greenwashing" – using undefined eco-buzzwords to appear environmentally and socially conscious. Commonwealth is not an ethical clothing company because the term has no singular meaning. Commonwealth operates by its own set of ethics, just like every other company. Instead, we market as transparent, something much less vague. In that case, whether its ethical or not, is up to you.
I suppose the term has survived on the assumption that most companies mean more or less the same thing by marketing as ethical - be good to the environment, be good to people. This is not the case. For the seventh year in a row, H&M has been named “one of the worlds most ethical companies” by the Ethisphere Institute (1) . If you feel like you've heard of H&M being in the hot seat for sweatshop allegations in recent history, you're correct. They have been in the spotlight for labour violations in Cambodia, Uzbekistan, and Bangladesh, underpaying workers and utilizing factories that lock sewers inside until allowed to return home (2). This is a move that has claimed lives in third world factory fires. They’ve also been accused of excessive pollution and utilizing cotton harvested by child labourers in Uzbekistan (3) . So why the praise from Ethisphere? Either these violations are either outside their ethical scope or not acknowledged. It seems they rate more on having a detailed corporate ethical protocol than a clean track record. The point is, “ethical” is a pretty slippery term.
Case and point – economist Jeffrey Sachs. Speaking at a debate in 1997, he said, “My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few” This stream of thought comes from the idea that low wage jobs are the first rung on the economic ladder out of poverty, a mentality that has a strong following. It is true that countries have risen/are rising from poverty this way; South Korea, Hong Kong, Columbia, Brazil, and China are good examples. But this process is slow and not guaranteed. Bangladesh has been stuck in entry level tee shirt production for forty years and has only inched its way up to $68 USD/month living wage.
H&M, Ethisphere and Jeffrey Sachs are all being ethical, even though their ethics may not resonate with all. Ethics are subjective, but transparency is not. Either a company discloses real information or they do not. Commonwealth is fully transparent about cost, raw materials, suppliers and production methods (5). We have our own ethical code that inspires us, despite its limitations, we feel proud to produce in this way.
Progressive organizations like Bead & Reel and Well Made Clothes have figured out a more nuanced approach to transparency. They offer different ethical categories that consumers can shop by – Made in USA, Vegan, Gender Neutral, Non-profit company, Organic, Female Founder, Fair Trade, etc (6) . In this way a consumer can be guided by their own values rather than swallowing whole some big wig corporate jargon.
So in short, everything is ethical. We don't define ethics for anybody, but we are happy to lay ours out there.