Why actions speak louder than words when it comes to sustainability

I got in trouble with a brand I reviewed.

I am not going to name names, but needless to say they were less than pleased with my ‘below average’ rating.

We know we have a way to go’ they implored, ‘but we have to start somewhere!’.

I wholeheartedly agree.

I applaud any brand that has the balls to look honestly at where they are at in terms of sustainability and ethics, and to then put a plan in place to improve. It is wonderful to see stretching and aspirational goals and targets, and I wish brands who set these all the success in the world in achieving them.

If they do, it benefits us all.

But what I won’t do, is rate a brand based on how they aspire to be, compared to how they perform now.

Here’s why.

Some brands will set lofty goals and then reach them - often ahead of time. When they do, I update my review rating and shout about them from the rooftops.

Some brands will set lofty goals and then find that achieving them is harder than they think and is going to take them longer. That’s ok too, provided the brand is up front about what’s going on. We, as consumers, then have the information we need to make a call on whether this is the brand for us at any particular point in time.

Some brands will set lofty goals that they have no intention of ever achieving - they just want to make us feel better about shopping with them on the promise of being better in future.

I have no way of knowing what a brand is actually going to do when it creates a sustainability strategy or sets out its goals for the future. As such, I have to base my ratings on what is happening right here, right now.

Image credit: via Unsplash

Image credit: via Unsplash

It’s not easy being green

Here’s a case in point - according to Forbes, home decor and furniture giant West Elm has recently quietly admitted that it is going to fall short on its goal (set in 2014) to have 40 percent of its products fair trade certified by 2020.

West Elm partnered with Fair Trade USA, an Oakland-based nonprofit, to implement a set of environmentally friendly and socially responsible standards along its supply chain. It also began including a Fair Trade seal on certified products. However, after encountering a number of hurdles, West Elm looks set to have only 25 percent of its products fair trade certified by next year.

It has cited the difficulties inherent in being the first furniture manufacturer to work with Fair Trade USA, and the lengthy process (up to two years) involved in finding and certifying overseas factories, given the stringent requirements that must be met.

West Elm began its relationship with Fair Trade USA by certifying a single factory in India and commissioning it to make 38 different rugs. It now works with 15 certified factories in five countries (India, Vietnam, Nepal, Pakistan and China) to make 2,200 products across categories like furniture, bedding and rugs. Its popular Mid-Century furniture collection, for example, is made by a Fair Trade-certified factory in Vietnam.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. We think it’s important to be candid about where we met a goal and where we didn’t and why and the hard work along the path. This is a shift that the industry needs and that customers are demanding.
— Jennifer Gootman, Vice President of social consciousness and innovation, West Elm

Even brands that have set themselves up as ethical and sustainable from the outset can struggle to do all of the things they may genuinely want and intend to. Business is hard enough without adding in extra practices, materials or approaches that, while laudable, can push costs up beyond a sustainable level.

Image credit: via Unsplash

Image credit: via Unsplash


While it is up to brands themselves to make the ethical and sustainable changes they need, as consumers, we can help to nudge them in the right direction and encourage them to do better. Here are a few ways we could do this:

  • If a brand offers a ‘conscious’ range using more sustainable materials or a partnership with artisans, choose those products over the non-sustainable collection;

  • Write an online review championing the products and collections that are ethical and sustainable, highlighting why we chose them;

  • Call out brands on social media when we spot products or collections that go against the messaging the brand is putting out there, and ask them to do better. No brand wants negative Facebook or google reviews - it will give them pause for thought about their existing product lines.

  • Ask questions about products and ask brands when they are planning on switching to more sustainable materials. “Hey [brand], I love your bedlinen but I’m concerned about the environmental impact of conventional cotton. Are you planning on offering an organic cotton range anytime soon?'“ Brands respond to customer demand - if enough people ask for something, they’ll make more of an effort to make it!

  • Hold brands to account. If they publish sustainability goals or targets, keep an eye on how often they report on progress towards reaching them. If they’re genuinely committed to improving, they’ll be shouting about their progress from the rooftops!


One simple tip - Be honest.

If you’re serious about your sustainability journey, you have nothing to worry about. We will appreciate your transparency when you clearly state where you are at, where you want to be and the steps you’re going to take to get there.

Just don’t over-claim, over-promise or imply to us that you’re something you’re not.

We’ll have your back.

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Why actions speak louder than words when it comes to sustainability - and how we can help brands to improve