Ethically-made or Sustainable–Which One Is Better?

There is often confusion between sustainably-produced and ethically-made goods.  Is there a difference? Which one is better–ethical or sustainable?  Let’s take a look at each one…

 We hear sustainably mentioned everywhere, it seems, along with fair trade and ethical, and an increasingly greater stream of companies are announcing their efforts to become more sustainable and engage in ethical production.  Is there a difference?  And how can you tell what’s what? 

Ethically made

Let’s start with ethical production.  Ethical production and fair trade have been around for a while now, we’ve all heard about ‘fair-trade coffee’ by now… Ethical sourcing is all about ensuring that our products are being sourced or produced in a responsible way, that the workers involved in producing them have safe working conditions and are fairly treated and paid, and that environmental and social impacts are taken into consideration during this sourcing process, throughout the company’s supply chain.  According to Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, ethical sourcing also means that the procurement processes also respect international standards against criminal conduct and human rights abuses, and that the company immediately responds to any of these issues as soon as they’re identified. 

For many companies and supply-chain businesses, sustainability and ethical production efforts are often associated to activities such as reducing costs, improving working conditions, brand relations, and giving back to society. 

Sustainable production

Whereas ethical production is more focused on responsible production and fair treatment of the workers, sustainable production is much more all-encompassing and far-reaching, taking into account the company’s impact on the environment and society, and examining all its practices, more than just saving energy, recycling, and managing waste/pollution:  sustainability looks at ways to reduce material waste (such as the zero-waste process), minimize impact on resources as well as other population groups, like the indigenous people (who may not be involved in production, but who may be affected by natural resource depletion of their habitats).  

To standardize practices and ensure there is some uniformity, various organizations have created sustainability certifications and guidelines:  the United Nations has set 17 sustainable development goals, and there are a few other well-known certification companies, such as Certified B Corp, Blue Sign, Fair-Trade Certified, Eco-Tex, and others.  All sustainability certifications cover the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability:  Environment, Economic, and Social Development. 

Whereas ethical production where everything is sourced ethically and people are fairly treated may still have some resource waste (and/or simply use up resources), a company that is truly sustainable has rigorously examined all its practices and operations and made adjustments to ensure that resources are not depleted and that any negative direct or indirect impacts upon people, businesses and the environment are considered and mitigated.   

Being truly sustainable requires a much more in-depth approach with complex considerations: for example, which one is ultimately better for the environment as a whole – organic leather of poly/faux leather.

Sustainability considerations may include circularity of the resource cycle, as well as social and economic impacts. In many situations, achieving sustainability is a multi-step process, where the company has to make a series of re-adjustments over a number of years, to achieve 100% sustainability

In some situations, the costs of greater sustainability may have to be weighed against a higher end product cost that may be less desirable to the consumer. 

So are sustainable goods ‘better’ than ethically-made goods? Not really.  Sustainable production is generally more all-encompassing than ethical production and takes into account all aspects and details of a company’s operations, values, and practices.  You can have a company that has ethical production and is not 100% sustainable, but it would be hard to have a sustainable brand that’s also not ethical — that’s built into the sustainable model. 

Ethical and sustainable practices can be applied regardless of the size of the company – from single artisans working alone, to large factories.   

What ultimately matters, is the level of transparency of the company’s production and sourcing processes at every step, and their ability to answer all these questions:

  • Who makes the products and in what conditions? How are they treated?
  • How were the raw materials sourced?
  • How are the intermediary products created?
  • What other groups, resources, and/or ecosystems are impacted by the company’s practices and/or products?
  • Does the company also make efforts to give back to the environment and/or society?
  • What processes does the company have in place to limit waste in all its operations and processes and offset their resource use? 
  • Does the company and product ultimately benefit humanity and our planet in the long term?   

All brands participating in O2 Show events have to demonstrate ethical production practices at a minimum, even if their operations may not be entirely sustainable.  All brands complete a Brand Declaration Form as part of their application process, which covers all the UN Sustainable development goals, as well as other considerations, depending on the product.