Interview by Serena Renner
In the lead-up to our next Film & Feast on 15 February 2018 – themed around the true cost of fashion – we caught up with our guest speaker Gordon Renouf, co-founder of the ethical shopping app Good On You, to learn how we can all be more conscious consumers.
What motivated you and the other founders to establish Good On You in 2015?
I have been a consumer advocate for a long time. I worked in legal aid, and I worked for Choice – a consumer advocacy organisation – as head of campaigns. That included thinking about consumers’ interest in the environmental and ethical impacts of what they bought. When I left Choice, I wanted to bring together my professional interest in consumers being able to more easily get what they want, act on what they believe, and get treated better in the market with my personal interest in the environmental and ethical issues that I share with 80 or 90 per cent of consumers. It’s not just about expecting consumers to do the right thing; it’s also about consumers having a right to do the right thing, which I call a right to responsible consumption. That can only be exercised if you have relevant and accurate information and also opportunities to act on that information, like having preferable products available in the market.
What’s the biggest challenge for consumers?
The information about a product’s impacts on the values you care about – whether that has to do with workers or the planet or animals – is hidden behind the price tag and product description. This takes us to a key understanding behind Good On You: whilst people say they want to act on their values, and many of them feel badly when they don’t, they have very important competing priorities, including time, money and the need to get a product of particular features or qualities. There’s only so much energy and time available to find information that is very hard to find. So, our basic premise is that first, we need to make it really easy for shoppers to find out information about the stuff they buy; and second, we understand that people have competing priorities. If you’re in a situation where you have to decide between cool shoes and ethical shoes, you have a problem. And if you don’t know which of the available shoes are ethical, you’re not fundamentally happy since you worry about the impacts of your choice.
Why did you choose to focus the company on fashion, rather than other types of goods or products?
Fashion has a very large impact. There are more than 80 million people employed in the fashion industry, the majority of whom are at the bottom of the supply chain in very poor working conditions. Fashion is also a huge user of resources. There’s this myth going around that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, whatever that means. But it has been calculated that fashion is around the fifth biggest user of carbon greenhouse gasses of all industries in the world, roughly equivalent to the livestock industry. Another reason is, unlike, say, food, there isn’t a lot of information available to consumers in very many parts of fashion. A small percentage of fashion has any sort of certification, whereas in food, at least in some categories – coffee, chocolate, tuna – you get information about how products are doing through certification schemes and other claims. We felt that the opportunity to make a difference was bigger in fashion than food. At the other end of the spectrum, there are industries in which it’s even harder to find information than in fashion. We chose not to focus on those industries for the opposite reason: it was going to be too hard.
What’s the hardest part about rating brands, and what’s that process like?
Our ratings are based on publicly available information. So, we are very much a part of the movement saying companies need to be transparent in what they’re doing so consumers can make informed decisions. People aren’t going to look up Good On You every time they buy something, but we expect companies to tell customers what they’re doing, and to do so in meaningful and accurate ways. What that means is we don’t give credit to companies who are doing good things but not telling anyone about them. That flows from the need to insist that companies are transparent, and so the much larger number of companies not doing anything can’t hide behind the assumption that they might be.
Our research process involves looking for any independent certifications and accreditations that companies have, of which there are just under 20 important ones in the fashion industry. These range from single issues like child labour to certifications like Fair Trade, which covers a broad range of labour and environmental concerns. Then you’ve got independent research applied to some companies – the most important one we work with is the Ethical Fashion Report published by Baptist World Aid. Lastly, it’s what companies publish themselves. Based on our research and expert advice, we think we add a more comprehensive understanding of what to look for, the issues that matter, and claims that look good but don’t actually make much difference. We have requirements about the information being concrete and specific and not just flab like ‘we do everything ethically,’ or ‘all our factories are up to standard.’ We ignore those sorts of statements.
What environmental and social issues are the biggest concerns?
We look at impacts on animals, the environment and people. Obviously, people who care about impacts on animals either expect no animal products to be used or expect animal products only to be used if there is no harm done to the animals. The use of fur and angora involve cruelty in their creation, particularly angora. Some wool involves a practice called mulesing, which is problematic and very painful for sheep. Leather of course involves the death of the animal as well as significant environmental impacts. And then there are some exotic fabrics like shearling and karakul, which involve killing a sheep just before or after it’s born to get the softest wool possible.
We group important environmental issues into four categories: chemical use is very important – the chemical impacts on workers, rivers, and land around the factories. These come from dyeing but also processing natural fibres into fabrics. For example, turning wood or bamboo into a soft fabric requires a lot of chemicals. Some brands keep most of the chemicals out of the environment, but lots have poisonous discharge. There’s the climate impact, carbon, which we spoke about. Water use is very important as cotton production is highly water intensive. And it’s important to think about resource use generally: where the inputs come from. Polyester comes from oil, of course, and conventional cotton uses huge amounts of pesticides. On labour, we’re interested in key issues like worker safety, payment of living wages, the treatment of women, and freedom of association and collective bargaining for workers. Then we add to that a need to be transparent and the ability to trace the supply chain. You don’t know what labour abuses are in your supply chain if you don’t know all your suppliers.
I’m surprised by what you said about bamboo since that’s often promoted as a sustainable alternative?
An increasingly popular fabric viscose, made from trees, is also potentially a renewable resource. Trees – if they don’t come from virgin rainforest – are a fantastic material to use because they can be regrown in a plantation. But it’s got the same issue as bamboo in that it takes a lot of chemicals to turn it into a fabric, and there is an alternative process, lyocell, that is much more environmentally sustainable, though it’s also a bit more expensive. So, yeah, bamboo is great because it’s totally renewable, and so if you’re using a fabric called ‘raw bamboo silk,’ no problem; that doesn’t involve chemicals. But to get that smooth, sleek, sheer result, which is one of the attractive things about bamboo fabric, you have to process it. A few producers use an environmentally friendly process, but not all.
Could you tell us about a few brands that are really leading the way on these issues?
Probably the most globally famous one is People Tree. The founder, Safia Minney, has been working on these issues, particularly the labour side but also the environmental side, for quite a long time. (She’s in the film, The True Cost, that Transition Bondi is screening on 15 February). There are a few Australian brands, including A.BCH, which is aiming to be the most transparent brand in the world. They have a range of stylish organic cotton products, and they’ll tell you where every single part of the clothing, down to buttons, comes from. Etiko is another Australian leader that’s been forging the way for about 10 years. They make t-shirts, basics, and shoes, including a Converse-like shoe, made in better conditions.
Beyond using the app and shopping for the highest-rated brands, what else can we do to help change the industry for the better?
I think it’s about making conscious decisions about when you do and don’t need to buy things. There’s a lot of advice on our blog about shopping ethically on a budget, shopping like a stylist, 6 tips for removing stains, buying second-hand and going to clothes swaps. I guess that all falls under the rubric of avoiding shopping a lot and preferring brands that are mindful of resources. The next thing is speaking up. One of the features of the app is the ability to send a message to a brand telling them to do better on an issue you care about.
What impacts have you witnessed here in Australia or overseas since launching?
There has been a lot of activity from brands of all sizes. Some emerging brands are being created to be sustainable and ethical from the ground up rather than trying to add that on later, and there are conversations happening among a significant minority of the big brands about how they can do better on a range of issues. At the level of Good On You, we’ve had brands get in touch and say that they’ve recently made a positive change, so we’ll update their rating. We see a number of brands conscious about how they’re being portrayed and taking action to do better.
How many users does Good On You currently have, and in how many countries?
We’ve had about 110,000 people download the app. Most users are in Australia, New Zealand and the US. Users in other countries are getting on board as well; we’re working hard to increase the number of brands available to create an even better user experience.
What’s the biggest focus for Good On You in 2018?
We currently have just under 1,300 brands listed in the app, and our goal is to get to 10,000 in next six months or so. We’re working hard on sophisticated computer systems and manual-rating processes to make that possible. Users say they really like what we’re doing but certain brands they’re interested in are simply not in there.
What sort of help do you need?
Obviously spreading the word doesn’t hurt. We can also use volunteer and pro-bono assistance at different levels. Some of the initial data collection is done by volunteers that we call ‘ethical detectives.’ People with strong sustainability credentials or who prove to be excellent ethical detectives can help with some of the checking. And then the other big area we could do with help in is making our product better, so that’s design and IT skills. Finally, we’re also looking for people who want to invest in our social-impact business – investors who want to make a positive social difference.
Visit goodonyou.eco to learn more, and download the app, available for Android and iOS. And don’t forget to book your tickets for our Film & Feast on 15 February, where we’ll screen The True Cost and get more helpful insights and tips from Gordon Renouf.