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Climate action: 10 steps to choosing sustainable brands

Emissions from the consumer goods we buy are rising each year.

In this article, we look at one of the key ways we can reverse this trend: choosing sustainable brands.

When it comes to the environment, buying less is always the best option. But when we need to buy a new item, how do we know which brands are genuinely better?

Below, we discuss what to look for in each sector to avoid the greenwash and find lower-carbon options.

1. Buy second-hand

For many items, such as clothing, tech and furniture, buying second-hand is one of the best ways we can cut our carbon footprint. Luckily, lots of brands offer second-hand options, from Oxfam and Beyond Retro in the clothing sector, to Antiques Are Green and Preloved for second-hand furniture.

We have a separate guide to repairs and buying second-hand coming soon.

Clothing

2. Avoid fast fashion

Often, the first steps to buying more sustainable brands can be ruling out the worst culprits. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global emissions, much of which comes from fast fashion brands. Companies underpay workers, sell poorly made garments, and throw away whatever isn’t sold.

Many high street brands are selling fast fashion. Nonetheless there are a few standout worst culprits:

See how fast fashion brands rate in our high-street clothing guide or watch our video on five things to know about fast fashion.

3. Look for dedicated ethical clothing brands

Luckily, there are some brands with the primary purpose of providing an ethical alternative. If in doubt, look for companies where the entire business model, clothing design and message appears to be based around doing something better for the planet.

In our ethical clothing guide, we rate and rank 28 dedicated ethical brands. Eight of these received our best rating for their carbon management and reporting: Beyond Retro, Where Does It Come From?, Living Crafts, Rapanui, Kuyichi, THTC Clothing, Birdsong, and MUD Clothes.

Not only were their products offering an environmental alternative, but they had taken steps to actively reduce their carbon footprints. For example, MUD Jeans is striving to create a circular business model that sees its jeans made from 100% recycled materials. It has targets in place to decrease kgCO2e per pair of jeans by 80% by 2030.

4. Look for better fabrics

Most of the emissions for clothing come from the production of the fabric. The carbon cost of clothing can therefore vary greatly, depending on what fabric you choose. Wool has three times the footprint per kilo to flax linen (the best fabric when it comes to carbon).

Your best bet is opting for a brand that only uses more sustainable fabrics. Many of the best brands will be explaining how their fabrics are made and what that means in terms of carbon. Our guide to choosing the most sustainable fabrics outlines what to look out for.

As a rule of thumb, recycled fabrics will have a lower carbon footprint than their non-recycled counterparts.

Organic cotton is generally estimated to have about half the emissions of conventionally grown cotton, although it uses more land.

If you’re buying viscose, rayon or modal, look for brands that talk about ‘closed-loop’ processes, or are using Tencel, lyocell or Lenzing Modal.

Technology

Pair of hands holding tablet infront of laptop

5. Choose repairable tech

Every new laptop, mobile phone or tablet manufactured has a carbon footprint attached. In 2019, the EU published a report which compared the emissions of various technologies.

It compared the emissions that arose from their use to those from their ‘non-use phases’ i.e. the portion of their life related to manufacture and disposal. It found that these ‘non-use phases’ accounted for 40–64% for notebooks and 51–92% for smartphones.

Perhaps the most effective way to limit the climate impact of your gadgets is therefore by extending their life. Look for brands that are supporting this shift.

For phones: Look for a modular phone. Modular phones are made so that the user can easily repair any problems or broken parts.

For computers: Laptops are typically harder to repair or upgrade than desktop PCs. Look for a user-replaceable battery as an absolute minimum, and ideally replaceable storage drive and RAM as well.

Ifixit has ranked popular laptop models according to repairability: HP’s Elitebooks generally rank well; Macbooks rank very badly. When it comes to durability, lower prices often mean poorer build quality, so forking out for a ‘business class’ laptop can save money in the long run and help the planet.

6. Look for brands only offering ethical options

The tech world has a real lack of dedicated ethical brands – which makes supporting those which are even more worthwhile. Fairphone is by far the most ethical brand of mobile phones available, and offers modular phones.

In other tech markets, you may not be able to find a totally ethical option, but our various technology shopping guides will help you find the best of the bunch and look for the top options when it comes to carbon.

Health and beauty products

Three bars of soap with two cloths

7. Find dedicated ethical health and beauty brands

More and more brands are popping up specialising in ethical health and beauty products. In our guide to skincare, a whopping 14 brands received our best buy status for only selling ethical options. Brands like Odylique offer a big range of ethical products from make-up and sunscreen to soap and shampoo.

A good benchmark for whether a company is likely to be ethical is to check for key certification. For example, are all products certified organic? What is their policy on animal testing?

Our health and beauty guides rate and rank companies, including on their approach to cutting carbon.

8. Opt for brands using no or ethical palm oil

Palm oil and its derivatives are found in many health and beauty products. They are used for everything from increasing thickness or viscosity to helping skin to retain moisture, and providing a foaming agent to increasing shelf life. As a result they appear in skincare, shampoo, make-up, soap, sunscreen, perfume, toothpaste and deodorant.

Unfortunately, the palm oil industry has a significant carbon footprint. When peatlands are drained to grow palm, they become flammable, leading to serious fires. In the first 10 months of 2019, these fires released an amount of CO2 close to the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Palm oil and its derivatives can be hidden behind over 200 different names in ingredients lists. Looking for brands that don’t use any palm oil can be a great way to avoid its impacts.

Alternatively, you might want to look for brands only using sustainable palm. Unfortunately, we can’t always trust brands’ claims, because the main sustainability certification for palm oil (RSPO) isn’t all that strong. Ethical Consumer has therefore looked into what brands are actually doing when it comes to palm oil sourcing, and picked out the best of the bunch in our palm oil guides.

9. Choose reusable brands

For lots of health and beauty products, making the shift to reusable items can help to cut carbon.

For example, Merkur offers reusable, traditional, safety razors. For menstrual products, Moodcup, Organicups, Fair Squared, Kind Organic, Totm all offer reusable menstrual cups; Lunapads offer washable pants and period pads and Isevimse offer organic washable pads and tampons.

Household appliances

Washing machine with towel inside and open door

10. Check the energy ratings

Energy efficiency is crucial when it comes to household appliances. For many of these items, a significant proportion of emissions arise during use (as opposed to manufacture or disposal). For example, 90% of emissions from fridges come from their use, and for dishwashers the figure may be even higher than that.

Luckily, the majority of household appliances have to come with energy efficiency labels, which tell you how much energy they use. This includes fridges and freezers, washing machines and washer-dryers, dishwashers, TVs and electronic displays and light-sources.

The label will give you a rating from A to G, with A being the best performing. In some markets A rated products are not yet available, as the recently revised grading scheme is designed to leave room for future innovation. Our article on revised energy labels has more information.

Get inspired: Hear how Giles and Tilly switched to more sustainable clothes brands

Giles

I started to question my clothes and trainers buying habits during the periods of lockdown in 2021. I used to buy things to cheer myself up, or because they were on sale, discounted or “too good to miss”. I was unsure of my own sense of style, and followed what others thought looked good. I used to buy vintage back in the late 80s and early 90s but had somehow lost my confidence I guess.
 
I realised that I had all this gear in my wardrobe that I wasn't wearing. It made me think about all the money I'd spent in sales, when I could have put it towards more ethical and sustainable items that could be repaired and last a lifetime.

I stopped buying more clothing, other than essentials like t-shirts and underwear, and made sure that those essentials were made from organic cotton or bamboo and were made ethically.
 
When I do buy new I look at what items are made from and do a bit of research to see if the brand is ethical and sustainable. I'm much better informed now, thanks to resources like Good On You and Ethical Made Easy. I have been able to source good quality clothing essentials relatively cheaply and easily, both online and on the high street. I pick up the occasional new purchase when I see things, but ideally those are vintage or second-hand.
 
You do pay a bit more for a t-shirt that is made in Portugal out of GOTS-certified Organic cotton. But they tend to wear and wash better, and so look good and last for longer. There are bargains to be found if you look hard enough and know what to look out for.
 
That said, even the most ethically- and sustainably-made garment or pair of shoes isn't all that sustainable if you only wear it once! I think about my likely Cost Per Wear ratio, and if I do only wear something once, I consider selling it on via Depop or ebay, swapping it with someone, gifting it to a charity shop, or even upcycling it or recycling it.

Tilly

For a long time I felt deeply fed up with myself for not having a better wardrobe. For someone who has worked in fashion all their life, and who regularly recognises and appreciates good style in others, I couldn’t seem to pull it off consistently for myself. I would often find myself leaving the house feeling apologetic for how I looked, and not at all like myself.

During the lockdown I decided enough was enough. I wanted out of this cycle of consumption.

I felt I could be more stylish and perhaps more comfortable in myself if I gave more priority to my own personal vision of style, beyond the basics, the norms and trends. I knew I would have to listen to my inner self very carefully to cultivate a visual identity more in keeping with…me.

My first move was to ban myself from any form of clothes shopping for a while. Then I started a detailed audit of my wardrobe, an excel chart with columns against which I listed every single item in my wardrobe. I was able to look at the data of my wardrobe in a more visual way. I could spot where I was going wrong, such as predominant colours or material types that I don’t actually identify with.

The data I found most interesting was that over 50% of my wardrobe made me feel ‘bad’ or ‘ok’ - which meant less than 50% I felt ‘good’ about. Over 50% was from charity shops, 30% new and the rest made by me.

I decided that in order to move forward in more alignment with my wardrobe I needed to slowly rebalance it in my favour - by only allowing purchases which fit into my material and colour preferences.

I have always preferred natural fabrics such as wool, linen, cotton (GOTS certified only) and silk. These align with my beliefs on sustainability, as they can biodegrade and are not created from fossil fuel feedstock. I also just prefer how they feel and look.

Despite my affinity with natural fabrics, my general rule of thumb is to choose the material most appropriate for the function, and if the product is too cheap something probably isn’t right in the material part of the supply chain as well as the underpaid garment factory workers.

Why is buying sustainable brands important?

Our consumer goods account for 10% of our total consumer emissions. But the carbon footprints of different brands will greatly vary depending on their practices.

Fast fashion brands sell £2 tops off the back of appalling production in the global South. Computer manufacturers design for obsolescence, meaning that your laptop will be unusable far before the end of its life. Health and beauty companies pump their products full of palm oil, irregardless of the impact on forests around the world.

By choosing more sustainable brands, we’re not only likely to lower our own carbon footprints, we’re voting with our wallets. We’re placing pressure on the worst companies to address their emissions.

Climate Gap Report

In October 2021, Ethical Consumer published the first annual Climate Gap Report looking at consumer action on climate change. It looked at ten key actions consumers must take for the UK to reach its emissions reductions goals, and how far we are from meeting them.

It found that without further action, we would miss all ten key consumer targets.

In fact, when it came to consumer goods, our emissions were increasing each year, pushing us in the wrong direction.

The report identified three key consumer actions to help reverse this trend:

  • Increase repair
  • Increase buying second-hand
  • Choose sustainable brands

Read more about the Climate Gap report and recommended actions >