How to be a fashion detective 🕵 – Part 1: What questions should I ask?

Ethical fashion type people (including us) are always telling you to ask questions about where your clothes come from. We’re rather bossy like that. We say that asking questions lets the brands know that you care about the who and the how behind the clothes and it helps you to decide whether or not you want to shop their wares. When you go into a shop, you should ask the shop assistant questions, you should email the brand and ask questions, you should go to the website and ask questions. So many shoulds. Ick.

That’s where we tend to end the conversation. Just ask questions we say. But what questions should you be asking? What is the best way to get in contact with a brand? And how do you navigate the greenwashing and interpret the answers if you get a response?

I love asking questions, discovering more about brands and decoding their answers. Yes, I am a nerd. As someone who has A LOT of experience communicating and attempting to communicate with brands in my past life as Head of Research at Project JUST, I figured I should share what has worked best for me.

In the first part of this two part series (using the word ‘series’ makes it sound fancy and legitimate), I’m going to share some of the best questions to ask to help you differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. Don your detective hat, I currently only have access to my light blue Patagonia hat, and get ready to investigate rookies.  

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Regardless of whether the brand purports to be ethical or not, there are two ways you can open an investigation. You can ask questions about the brand’s practices more broadly or you can ask about a specific product, I describe both methods below. I’ve also written notes throughout to help you decipher answers if you’re lucky enough to get some.

Tell us your movements and whereabouts…

Open ended questions are a good place to start. This allows the brand to give you as much detail as possible about their practices, which in some cases is a lot and in others very little. You can then ask further questions as you deem necessary. Let your conscience be your guide or something like that. Below are some of the best open ended questions you’re ever likely to see in your whole gosh darn life. Or maybe just that you’re likely to see today. Or this hour.

Can you tell me about your supply chain?

This one is a good one but it’s very broad. Keep in mind that there are a whole lot of people and processes involved in the creation of the fabric before it gets to the manufacturer. If a brand doesn’t reply with information about how the fabric was made, probe further.

Can you tell me how you ensure safe, healthy and decent working conditions for the people that make your clothes and what these conditions are?

If a brand palms off responsibility to somebody else, eg. “we don’t own our factories”, “we only make up a small percentage of the factory’s production”, then that’s a fail. Sorry. Brands should know that the people that make their clothes are well looked after. It should just be a thing.

If they send you a copy of their code of conduct, maybe ask how they go about enforcing it. It’s very impressive to send you a nicely formatted document with all the rules and regulations but another thing to describe how they put those words into action. The old cliche, actions speak louder than words, is very apt here.    

Can you tell me more about the people that make your clothes?

Ooo some of the bigger brands are going to squirm at this one. Some of the smaller brands are going to be more than happy to share. 

Can you tell me about what you are doing to manage your brand’s impact on the environment?

Look for actions that are being taken in the supply chain rather than the head offices. Recycling and energy efficient appliances in those head offices are lovely things but the brand is having a bigger and potentially more damaging impact on the communities that make their clothes. Look for attempts made by the brand to save water and energy, policies to reduce harmful chemicals and waste and any mention of sustainable materials.

Can you tell me about any goals you have for the future that seek to improve your brand’s social and environmental impact?

This one is important. Nobody’s perfect. How the brand answers this question will show you how committed they are to improving in the future. If they describe in detail how and when they want to achieve their goals then you know you’re onto a winner. If they fluff on about really vague ideas or pat themselves on the back for setting goals like recycling paper and installing dual flush toilets, they’re pulling your leg. This is where you have to get serious about your detective hat. I like my detective hat. It looks good on me.

Examples of good goals:

  • We want to reduce the amount of water used to dye our fabrics by 20% by July 2018.
  • By January 2018, 80% of our garment workers will have had the opportunity to undertake financial management training.
  • By March 2018, all of our workers will be paid a living wage.

Examples of fluffy rubbish goals:

  • In the future we want to help the community.
  • We want to use sustainable fabrics (doesn’t go on to describe these fabrics).
  • We are implementing a paper recycling program in our offices.

Tell me more about this purple dress…

You may be thinking about buying or have already bought a purple dress from a brand and want to know more about it. Excellent. There are a few questions you can ask. NOTE: If the item in question is not a purple dress, these questions may still apply.

Can you tell me more about how and where this purple dress was made and the people that made it?

This three pronged open ended question is a great starting point. It covers everything. Just know that the answer you receive may be a bit vague. Ask more questions if you have them.

Can you tell me about where and how the fabric was made?

The fabric in the clothing didn’t magic itself out of thin air. There was a whole magical process before it got to the factory to be cut and sewn together. A brand that knows the answer to this question is a brand that had got it together.

Can you tell me where the purple dress was made?

Should be a no brainer for every brand ever. Of course if it already says on the care label this question is moot.

Can you tell me how this purple dress was dyed and what chemicals were used to make it?

If you get an answer to this question, again you’re onto a winner. Look for an answer that mentions natural or certified dyes.

Can you tell me how you ensure safe, healthy and decent working conditions for the people that made this purple dress and what these conditions are?

This is just a more specific version (because it’s about the purple dress) of the same question as above. Look for the same clues.

Can you trace the entire supply chain of this purple dress?

This one is a tricky one. The entire supply chain means everything from how the fabric was created right through to how it got to the store. From experience, most brands are not going to like this question and will avoid answering it. Only the greatest of all the great brands will be able to tell you.  

More hints on how to be a super ace brand investigator and decipher answers:

  • Pay attention to details. The more details a brand provides the better. Lots of brands couldn’t tell you the specifics even if they wanted to.
  • Make sure the brand has actually answered the questions you’ve asked. In a lot of cases brands will avoid answering a question if they don’t have a great answer. They’ll attempt to divert your attention to something they’d rather have you focus on. Don’t be distracted.
  • If a brand says they don’t have the answers, give them points for honesty and transparency. Nobody is perfect.
  • Trust your gut. If you feel like you’re being taken for a ride, ask more questions and get to the bottom of things.
  • Question everything. Leave no stone unturned.

The detective training continues in the second part of this series (fancy) where I’ll share my secrets on how to approach a brand with these most excellent questions. Spoiler alert, I tend to play good cop.


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