How to Evaluate a Company’s Ethical and Sustainable Impact

Businesses hold a great deal of power and influence in our society, and how they choose to operate has significant consequences, positive or negative. Some, like Seventh Generation and UPS harness their influence to do good. Others, less so.

You may remember the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza building that killed more than 1,000 garment workers back in 2013, or the huge Walmart bribery scandal in 2012. See, big business has a habit of wreaking havoc as it drives for profit (often over people and the environment). We have to decide, as consumers, what we are willing to support.

So here’s the question: How do you tell if a brand deserves your business? And how do you tell if they’re operating in an ethical and sustainable way?

Familiarize Yourself with the Issues in the Industry

In order to make informed decisions about what you buy and from whom, you’ll need to learn about the many potential moral issues involved in the process of making and selling goods.

Here are some great places to begin your research:

  • Company Transparency – Reporting methods, audits, openness.
  • Environmental Impact – Use of raw materials, carbon footprint, sustainability.
  • Labor Rights – Ethical working conditions, fair pay, fair trade.
  • Women’s Rights – Prevention of sexual harassment, equal pay.
  • Social Impact – Doing good beyond the minimum, corporate social responsibility.
  • Chemical Use – Organic material, pesticides, chemical dyes, preservatives.
  • Waste – Discarded material, recycling programs, landfill, chemical run-off.
  • Natural Resources – Water conservation, forest preservation.

Use these keywords as guidelines to help you research online. Take a look at the industries from every angle: What’s the state of labor rights in the garment industry? What’s the difference between organic and non-organic fibers? How do most companies handle chemical run-off?

Do whatever you can to understand the status quo.

Check In with Brand-Ranking Organizations

There are a variety of organizations that are entirely dedicated to helping consumers like you make an informed decision. They use complex systems to rank how a brand scores on a variety of issues. Some even feature barcode scanners that will give you product ratings on the go!

I highly recommend you check out:

Ethical Consumer
GoodGuide
Rank a Brand
Free 2 Work

Keep in mind that each organization has a unique ranking approach, so cross-reference if you can!

Dig Around Media Coverage & Company Policy

Google something like “Walmart Ethics” and you’ll be inundated with coverage that may help you get a fuller picture of a company’s track record. If you come across anything sketchy or that signals wrongdoing, be wary.

It’s important to note that while some brands work hard to clean up their act, poor policy enforcement in the past is often a sign that ethical concerns weren’t (and still may not be) important to company leadership.

No matter how air tight a company’s policies may be, unethical behavior can still slip through; so take everything a company publishes with a grain of salt. Remember: image is everything, but it’s not always the truth.

Familiarize yourself “greenwashing” if you don’t know what I mean.

Shop According to Your Values

Now that you have a clear idea of the many pitfalls of modern industry, have resources that will help you get high-quality information on brands and have scoped out what people have to say, it’s time to move from education to action.

If you discover that a brand is not meeting your standards, express your concerns through social media. Share your thoughts with friends, encourage them to shop elsewhere and redirect your spending to more ethical, sustainable brands.

Remember: your purchases have power! Vote with your dollar for what you believe in. It’s up to you to change the story.