Why Rating Systems Can Be Misleading

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'" - Lewis Carroll

From unsustainable materials to sketchy labor practices to downright exploitation of third-world workers, there is little ethical about modern "fast fashion." So imagine our surprise, then, when this little nugget wandered across our web browser this morning:

Wait, really? The Gap is on that list? The company that can barely be bothered to pay its retail employees a living wage? The company that sources clothes from sweatshops that make Triangle Shirtwaist look like an all-inclusive resort? That Gap? 

Something, somewhere is horribly wrong. As it turns out, it's an issue of miscommunication.

When we in the eco-fashion community think of the word "ethical," certain things come to mind. Environmental stewardship, for example. Non-exploitative business practices would be on that list too. One can call The Gap many things, but environmentally sustainable and non-exploitative would not be among those things.

But the Ethisphere Institute, who issues these ratings along with quite a few others, is concerned with a completely different aspect of corporate ethics. This becomes clear when we look at the scoring and methodology listed for the award at hand.

(Aside: I really hate the word "methodology". Method is what you're trying to say. Methodology is the study of methods. Argh. Anyway.)

To the Ethisphere Institute, environmental sustainability and labor practices take a back seat to issues of legal compliance, corporate reputation, and adherence to "widely accepted norms." Since there's nothing illegal about the fashion industry's unethical practices, legal compliance is of limited utility to us conscious consumers and designers. The widely accepted norm is, of course, the very thing we're trying to change with this whole eco-fashion movement. So while the environment and supply-chain oversight get minor shout-outs in the criteria, issues of corporate governance and compliance clearly dominate.

The disconnect between our expectations and the Ethisphere Institute's intentions becomes even clearer when we look at who, exactly, is writing the criteria for this award. The astute observer will note that the Ethisphere Institute's advisory panel contains nary a single person focused on environmental impact. Quick searches on the individuals on the panel didn't reveal any particular expertise on sweatshop usage either.

The point here is this: while there may be plenty of people interested in the arcana of corporate compliance, I seriously doubt that this is what the average conscious consumer is contemplating when they need a cute dress or a nice pair of slacks. There's nothing wrong with this rating system, of course - it's just not rating what we're after.

So what's the lesson? For one, don't trust lazy journalists who imply that one rating system or another is some sort of absolute arbiter of who is the most "ethical". The Telegraph really could have done a better job explaining what we just explained. Really, it took 20 minutes of combing through a website. Do better.

But there's a greater issue here, and it's the fact that there are a bunch of different organizations rating companies by their own criteria, and each of these organizations is going to advertise their rating as a highly respected seal of approval worthy of your attention. Which, unfortunately, means you're going to have to do a little extra work here to separate the useful ratings from the less-interesting ones.

  • First, we strongly suggest investigating the criteria of the rating system and seeing if those criteria mesh with what you're looking for. A rating system that focuses on chemical and pesticide use, for example, might not mean that much to someone who is laser-focused on labor issues.
  • Second, investigate how the decisions are made. Are there specific criteria that have to be met in order to achieve the rating? Does the rating system include any subjective decisions, and if it does, do you trust the people making those decisions? You wouldn't trust someone who knows next to nothing about environmental sustainability to decide whether a company is a good environmental steward - so make sure that the rating system isn't doing just that.
  • Third, make sure the rating system passes the smell test. If it's giving high marks to a company that you know is falling down on the ethical job (like, say, The Gap), there's probably something off with their ratings. If there's some doubt lingering, do a little extra research into the company.

Ratings systems are like any other tool: they can be useful, but you have to know how to use them. Within the fashion industry and the sustainable fashion movement, there are a lot of different systems out there, each with its perks and pitfalls. So if you see an article floating around on social media or some news aggregator or something purporting to solve the great question of which clothier is the "most ethical," look closer. "Ethical" means whatever the rating system chooses it to mean - it's up to you to determine if you agree.

Below are some rating systems that we feel pass the 'smell test', particularly for eco and social responsibility standards in fashion and textiles: