How to Find Ethical Clothing Manufacturers: Complete Guide

How to Find Ethical Clothing Manufacturers: Complete Guide

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Dennis Kamprad

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Whether you’re looking to make clothes or buy them, finding ethical manufacturers is important. It takes time, research, networking–and, of course, a focus on what’s most important to you in terms of how you define ethical manufacturing. Typically, priorities are categorized into the three P’s: How manufacturing affects people, the planet, and–if you’re a fashion business–profit. (Although, as consumers, we often like to be budget-conscious as well.)

To find ethical clothing manufacturers, you should research the company ethics, both on their homepage and through customer reviews, check whether they are listed as an ethical company (on places such as Shop Ethical! and The Honest Consumer), and double-check the certification labels they provide.

In this article, we give you a complete guide on finding ethical clothing manufacturers–as either a consumer or entrepreneur–to help you make a more impactful contribution towards the ethical and sustainable fashion industry. But first, let’s remind ourselves why supporting ethical manufacturing, particularly in the fashion industry, is so greatly important.

Why You Should Care About Ethical Manufacturing 

The fashion industry is one of the least sustainable industries in operation today. Much of what is produced is often consumed and made into landfill waste rather quickly after that, whether due to poor quality, a shift in trend, or what have you. Furthermore, many manufacturing processes and materials can be quite harmful to the environment.

In addition to this, it has prominently come to our attention these days that much of what is manufactured in mass production by several big companies is the result of various forms of labor exploitation and/ or other incredibly unethical business practices. By purchasing from these manufacturers and suppliers, you support the exploitation, ill-compensation, or otherwise demoralizing and degrading practices against your fellow human beings worldwide.

How to Find Ethical Clothing Manufacturers as a Consumer

Decide What You Care About Most

Many factors go into ethical manufacturing. It can be not easy to check-off every single box you’d like–or to even a manufacturer who has done so successfully. Take the time to consider what is of most concern to you and focus on fewer, select aspects. 

Business Ethics: People and Working Conditions

A big player in ethical manufacturing is human and workers’ rights. It includes fair trade and wage compensation, healthy work environments, and forced or child labor.  

Sustainability: Environmentally-Friendly and Eco-Conscious Operations

The environment can be affected in multiple ways by clothing manufacturers anywhere throughout the process. One key thing to look for is a manufacturer that uses sustainable materials and non-toxic dyes/chemicals. How energy-efficient the process is and how much waste is produced are also important factors to consider.  

You may also wish to consider cruelty-free and vegan clothing. This is a side of ethical manufacturing that is easily forgotten, as some think faux materials would be the norm. But animal products like fur and leather–still used very prominently in the fashion world–are not always sourced ethically. Keep this in mind when sourcing garments with such materials.

Know What You Want and What You Need

It’s one thing to find an ethical clothing manufacturer you like, and it’s another to like the clothes they make. If you don’t like how the clothing feels or enjoy its style, you aren’t going to wear it, and buying it would be a waste–of clothing and money. 

As part of your ethical and sustainable responsibility, you should aim to buy only the clothes you need and only when you need them. The over-consumption by consumers of non-essentials has contributed greatly to the unsustainable and unethical practices used today. 

One of the best sustainability mantras you can embrace as a consumer is “Buy Less Stuff & Use Stuff More.” In general, embracing a higher quality product that will last longer will be more sustainable than buying a lesser quality that becomes waste more quickly. 

Research Company Ethics and Customer Reviews

Once you know what you are looking for in an ethical manufacturer, it will be much easier to find one suitable for you. There are good resources available (we included, of course!) that offer information on ethical and eco-friendly clothing brands, such as Shop Ethical! and The Honest Consumer, that can get you started and help take some of the research-load off your hands. 

You can also read up on company operation policies; search for certification labels and accreditations; and don’t forget to consider what other customers, ethical-reviewers, or people you know may have said about the company. Such reviews can offer some good insight into product quality, functionality, etc., or even reveal how genuine a company is (or is not) by promoting its ethical practices.

Always Double-Check the Certification Labels

Sustainability labels can be a misleading way to validate ethical manufacturing, mainly because there are too many certification organizations. Believe it or not, some are created for the sole purpose of capitalizing on the eco-trend, and their labels are worth less than the ink used to print them. Here’s a list of some of the main certification labels to look out for, as they are generally well-respected and trusted by many:

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
  • Better Cotton Initiative
  • Oeko-Tex
  • Cradle to Cradle
  • bluesign
  • Fair Trade
  • USDA Certified Organic
  • World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO)
  • Responsible Wool Standard

Use Your Prefered Method of Shopping to Your Advantage

Shopping comes down to two basic methods these days: URL or IRL. In other words: online shopping or in-person retailers. And certain benefits come with each.

Online Shopping: The Internet of Buying Things

The internet offers you access to ethical manufactures from all over the world, easily giving the most opportunity to find a company worth supporting. This includes many direct-to-consumer retailers that only sell online. A manufacturer can often offer products at a lower cost or to a wider range of consumers by doing business this way.

Shopping in Person: Face to Face With Sustainability

Depending on where you live, you may have specialty boutiques or designers in your area that specialize in ethical and sustainable clothing. Most often, these will be the most ethical choices around. Support these small businesses and local manufacturers whenever possible.

Plus, the people working in these places are more than happy to share with you how they contribute to ethical manufacturing, so you can often learn exactly where your garments came from and who made them. For this reason, you should also consider going to craft and farmers markets. Usually, these types of retailers will even offer to tailor items and take custom orders!

Consider Second-Hand as a First-Option

Of course, second-hand clothing is arguably the most sustainable choice in clothing that you can always consider. From places like thrift shops and charity houses to vintage stores or consignment businesses, there’s plenty of places to source a garment that will fit your needs. 

How to Find Ethical Clothing Manufacturers for Your Brand

Consider Your Ethics and How You’re Going to Balance Your Business

We mentioned the three P’s at the beginning of this article, and they are indeed the “triple-bottom-line” when it comes to ethical and sustainable clothing manufacturing. You will need to balance all these considerations to find a good fit for you.

  • People: Workers’ Rights and Quality of Life Concerns. This part of ethical manufacturing focuses on how workers are impacted. Are they being compensated fairly? Do they have good, comfortable living and working conditions? Are they offered the chance for social mobility?
  • Planet: Eco-Conscious Operations. This questions how the environment is affected by the manufacturer. Do they pollute or dump waste? Are they engaging in closed-loop systems to minimize and/or reduce their environmental impact (such as regenerative farming)? 
  • Profit: Sustaining Your Business. At the end of the day, business only works when you’re making money. If implementing ethical and sustainable practices is too costly, a company will quickly lose money and go out of business–ultimately costing jobs. You may have to make some pertinent choices to create a balance between your bottom line and investing in the future.

Research Manufacturers via Credible Online Resources and Sample Product to Inspect Quality

A great way to improve your prospects of finding the right manufacturer for you is by utilizing the many online resources available. Oftentimes, you will be able to connect with companies you may have never found physically–say, for instance, when they are based in another country.

One popular resource for clothing manufacturing is Sewport. This platform is designed to connect fashion brands and designers with all the best clothing manufacturers to collaborate with one other globally. And while this certainly isn’t the only platform of its kind, it is among the most effective and comprehensive tools for choosing among several ethical clothing manufacturers.

Keep in mind, while these platforms do what they can to ensure everyone is well-vetted, you should do your own fair share of research also. And be sure to request samples of materials you’re interested in. As the saying goes: “Trust but verify.”

Visit Fashion Trade Shows to Network and Inspect Material Quality

With sustainability and ethical products being all the buzz these days, eco-friendly fashion shows have grown to be more of the norm. Nearly every trade show worldwide offers representation for ethical clothing manufacturers looking to bring their products to designers and retailers. 

This also affords you something that online research cannot, and that is the personal interaction you can get with fabric and materials. You can see and experience–up close and in-person–exactly what a bolt of fabric feels like or how it looks in a particular light.

Also, you can speak one-on-one directly with the manufacturers (or their representatives). You can ask specific questions and get answers straight from a person’s mouth–not an automated text on your computer screen. This is also a great time to try to sell your own brand ideals to them and attempt to contract a special deal in support of one another.

Validate Your Selection by Verifying With Personal Visits to the Manufacturers

Even after extensive research, once you find the manufacturer you think is best for you, the only real way to find out is to visit them, especially if you found them online and have only communicated via email or phone. 

If you can’t get out there, find someone who can. Virtue + Vice is a “full-package” ethical and sustainable resource with agents you can hire on your behalf. This is a great way to see how things run truly, get a feel for who the company and its employees are, and judge the overall vibe of everything right at the source. 

Always Certify the Certification Labels

Sustainability labels can be a misleading way to validate ethical manufacturing, mainly because there are too many certification organizations. Believe it or not, some are created for the sole purpose of capitalizing on the eco-trend, and their labels are worth less than the ink used to print them. Here’s a list of some of the main certification labels to look out for, as they are generally well-respected and trusted by many:

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
  • Better Cotton Initiative
  • Oeko-Tex
  • Cradle to Cradle
  • bluesign
  • Fair Trade
  • USDA Certified Organic
  • World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO)
  • Responsible Wool Standard

Understanding Factory Standards and Certifications: How Some May Be Using Good Ethics Against You

Many tend to lean on green labels and certified approvals from respected organizations to assure them that the clothing they are buying has been made ethically and sustainably. Unfortunately, there is a truth behind some certification labels that not everyone is aware of, which is the blatant manipulation of the system in one unethical way or another.

The Cat Is Out the Hand-Bag

Corrupt practices have been uncovered among certain certification organizations, including those who fail to meet certification standards being approved by “paying some additional fees,” and companies caught creating smaller factories to simulate a production that passes certification. After such, manufacturing is conducted in non-certified sites elsewhere.

Then there is the outright lie and cheaper short-cut for manipulating customers known as greenwashing.

We even have evidence of such fraud occurring surrounding PPE production for the COVID-19 response–including masks and gowns. This suggests the fraud may not only be occurring wherever clothing and various garments are being manufactured but potentially anywhere anything is being manufactured.

The System Isn’t Perfect

Even the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), one of the highest-respected accreditations one can receive, recently discovered “gigantic-scale” organic-cotton fraud in India. A product was labeled organic, but it had been supplemented with genetically modified cotton. 

GOTS’ investigation is what ultimately uncovered this; however, due to the commonly long gaps in time between audits and re-certification assessments, it appears this fraud was able to occur undetected for several years. All the while, the company was able to falsely claim the benefits of the organic certification label–fooling manufacturers and consumers alike.

Essentially, some companies use these certifications as mere virtue-signaling to their customers to promote that they are ethical and sustainable–even if they aren’t–to attract more customers. And that’s a whole tier in itself of bad ethics. 

Labels Are Not the End-All Be-All of Ethical Manufacturing

Around 30 years ago, using a label on your product to signify ethical supply-chain standards was revolutionary. Today, it has become commonplace. To build on what we were saying about pay-to-play certification and virtue signaling, many companies use the label because it’s one of many consumer demands–and they sell more products that way.

Furthermore, certification doesn’t mean all problems are solved, and you shouldn’t assume as such. Many expect certification to mean that farming practices are sustainable, but supply chains are complicated. Certification alone won’t perform miracles, and the little information offered on a label cannot express the complexity of what it does and does not do. Again, it’s all about thorough research.

There Are More Important Things

We understand that many companies will want these labels to signify easily to consumers that they are sustainable–this may be important and useful for you and your product. But even as consumers, we must remember to consider the balance. 

If you want to debate what’s more ethical, a company with the money to pay the fees and invest in accreditation could always use such expenditure to increase workers’ wages instead of giving themselves a documented pat on the back. What’s more important to you? Is this a matter of fair compensation? In what ways is the company benefiting by having certification? These are the kinds of questions to ask yourself when considering ethics.

Don’t get us wrong–certification and promotional labeling is a good thing… it’s just not the only thing. And suppose you want to operate as a sustainable company. In that case, certification may help you be successful in promoting yourself, but it’s more important to work with regulators and partners on the ground level. 

A great example of this, though it’s not a clothing manufacturer, is The Body Shop, which has been successful for decades with their Community Fair Trade practices. They set up their direct relationships with suppliers worldwide. Only some of their products carry a FairTrade label–even though virtually every product they sell is sustainably sourced and ethically produced.

Going Beyond Ethical Practices: Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Materials to Consider

Want to take the next step? Consider your materials as well! And when it comes to material, the options you have are numerous. But here is a quick list of sustainable fabrics that contribute to more ethical manufacturing.

Natural and Organic Fabrics

  • Organic fabrics, such as organic cotton 
  • Regenerative cotton
  • Linen
  • Certified wool
  • Hemp
  • Silk
  • Peace silk (silkworms are not killed for harvesting)
  • Lotus (natural, from the plant–not viscose)

Regenerated or Semi-Synthetic Fabrics

  • Viscose
  • Modal
  • Rayon, all types (bamboo fabric, eucalyptus fiber, orange fiber, etc.)
  • Tencel
  • Soy cashmere
  • Soy silk
  • Food-waste plastics (corn rubber, piñatex, appletex, milk silk, etc.)

Recycled and Synthetic Fabrics

  • Nylon made from recycled materials
  • Recycled polyester

Trim and Materials Beyond the Fabric

Don’t forget; sustainable material means more than just fabric. Items like buttons, zippers, etc., ideally, would all be sustainable materials as well. Consider recycled paper or zero-waste scrap-materials for tags and labeling if you’re a designer and learn the source for everything.

Final Thoughts

We all should be concerned about ethical manufacturing in one way or another, and only as a collective can we hold each other accountable and positively impact ethical and sustainable practices. Do your due diligence to research vendors and manufacturers before purchasing products or signing business deals. More importantly, network and share information with others; this way, we can all move forward together. 

Stay impactful,



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