Lessons in garment ethics

Ethical Evaluation

Rick Roth is president of Pawtucket, R.I.-based Mirror Image. In recent years, his business has taken home numerous Golden Image awards in various categories, as well as top honors in the industry media's various printing competitions.

Making ethical decisions in the screen printing business has many facets. A previous article discussed ethical issues surrounding the environmental impacts of consumables and methods used in actual printing, as well as issues regarding worker health and safety in the shop. Here, we turn to the ethical decisions in the selection of garments, both in terms of labor and of their impact on the environment.

There are many terms and certifications that help to describe what we should look for in ethically-produced garments. Don’t accept platitudes or buzzwords like “green” or “sweatshop free.” Ask for as much information as you can get and to see certifications. Look for independent verifications. The terms on these certifications and verifications could include organic, recycled, transitional, carbon neutral, bamboo, fair trade and union.


“Organic” is the bedrock of considerations in determining what is an ethically produced garment. It isn’t a vague term like “natural” that can mean nothing; it is a legal term with clear, strict standards.

For a shirt to say organic on it, it has to meet very clear legal standards. It must be grown in fields that have been free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (which often are as poisonous as pesticides) for a minimum of three years. It can’t be mingled with non-organic sources. There must be a paper trail of documentation that can be audited and the USDA (United State Department of Agriculture), NOP (National Organic Program) or one of the organizations it designates must certify the item as organic. When purchasing organic apparel, look for documentation. Suppliers should have a certificate they can show for any certified organic garment (see examples). There are no ifs, ands or buts about this. 

So why is “organic” an ethical choice? Growing conventional (non-organic) cotton uses the most pesticides of all crops grown in the world. Use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers can poison the land and the water. If you think that doesn’t affect you, think again. Contaminated cottonseed by-products can be fed to dairy cows to increase milk fat, so your choice of garment may also be influencing the food you and your children are eating. 

In addition to its environmental implications, organic is also about labor issues. Farming is done by real live human beings who can be exposed to pesticides and fertilizers compromising their health and often the health of their children as well.


There are an increasing number of garments that use recycled fibers, particularly polyester from soda bottles and the like. There are also options in recycled cotton, whether post-consumer or from manufacturing (think cotton scraps from making shirts). Unlike organic products, there are not clear standards for recycled garments. It’s best to ask for as much information as possible on how such shirts are manufactured.


There is a three year period during which a field goes from producing non-organic crops until it is certified as organic. This is when transitional cotton is produced. There are no pesticides or chemical fertilizers being actively used during that time. 

The stage that farmers go through to transition to organic cotton is a difficult time. They may be adjusting to new methods and therefore have higher costs, but without the certification, the farmer cannot yet charge the premium price that organic cotton usually receives so buying transitional garments is generally a positive move. 

Carbon neutral

Some shirt companies are looking hard at how much energy is used in the manufacture of their garments. These calculations along with the shipping information go into establishing the “carbon footprint” of a shirt. Once this is established, some garment companies are helping buyers offset that energy use by buying “carbon offsets.” Such offsets can typically be purchased for $0.05 to $0.10 per shirt. This money is used to build geothermal or wind turbines or other sources of renewable energy. Certain manufacturers have gone as far as lowering the energy use in creating their garments to the point that they have earned an “Energy Star” rating. 

Most estimates put the energy expended in the lifecycle of a T-shirt as more than 60 percent, most of which is accounted for in the laundering process. For customers genuinely interested in carbon footprint, tell them to wash their garments in cold water and hang them to dry. Do what you can when you can, and here that would include buying a bag of wooden clothespins for yourself. 


Bamboo is sometimes touted as a “green” alternative fiber. It really sounds appealing to use a plant that grows incredibly fast and is even considered a weed in most places. However, almost all processing of bamboo to make yarn involves pernicious chemicals and a great deal of energy. It is also currently very difficult to establish if the bamboo in a garment was harvested as a weed, or if some old growth forest was clear-cut to then grow bamboo. Unless the entire process is documented as being environmentally responsible and transparent, stay away from bamboo as an eco-friendly choice.

Fair trade

The international anti-poverty organization Oxfam defines fair trade as “A trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.” That is a mouthful.

Basically, it means that workers making a product are compensated fairly. There are many definitions of what exactly constitutes fair trade in the case of T-shirts. There are a few organizations that are giving shirts some sort of fair trade label. A leader in the fair trade movement, Transfair, is coming out with a fair trade label. However, it does not allow for any fair trade certification of shirts made in the USA.

There are inherent problems with certifying T-shirts as “fairly traded.” For one, much of the work that has been done in the fair trade movement has stemmed from coffee production. Growing cotton, picking it, making fabric and sewing shirts is quite a different process from growing coffee and roasting it. Many of the methods used for certifying coffee just don’t fit well with the manufacture of shirts. 

The bulk of the labor extended in making shirts is in three main segments of production: by people growing and particularly picking the cotton, by the people sewing the shirts and by those printing them. 

Work is being done to identify cotton that has been grown under good labor conditions, but there is not a clear certifying or monitoring organization. There are not widespread accepted standards and, basically, you can’t easily get that information. In the current system, choosing to buy organic cotton is the easiest step to take to support people working on cotton farms (since you are protecting their health, at the very least).

Most of the work in certifying shirts as “sweatshop free” or created under good labor conditions has depended on monitoring and inspections. There also has been much work done on establishing standards that work in different countries—the idea of a living wage, for example, which considers the fact that it might take $12 an hour to live decently in Los Angeles but only $2 per hour in El Salvador. Some of the organizations that certify good labor conditions include the FLA, WRC, WRAP, SAI, ETI, GOTS and CCC. Besides the issues around establishing standards for what constitutes fair treatment of workers, there are inherent problems with certifying that wages, benefits and working conditions meet any standard of decency. It is difficult, time consuming and expensive to inspect factories independently. 


One way to certify that garments are sewn under decent conditions is to have proof of the shirt being made by members of a trade union, usually that proof is in the form of a “union label”. Only when workers are protected by collective bargaining agreements can fair labor standards really be effectively protected. Effectively, a worker can only speak up without fear of reprisal when that worker is protected by a contract and an independent union that stands behind the worker. It is the only way to ensure that a factory is in compliance all the time, not just the few hours that an inspector is occasionally around. Unfortunately there are not many garment choices with a union label.

The printing of shirts is backbreaking hard labor as well. Printers work in large numbers toiling as hard as cotton pickers and sewers. However, the part of the labor that goes into a decorated T-shirt seems to be overlooked in many cases. Again, a union shop that puts a union “bug” (a tiny union logo that can only be on a shirt if it was printed in a union shop) is one of the few trustworthy indications that the shirt was printed by workers that are treated decently.

So in the end, what should one look for in the marketplace to make an ethical choice as it relates to labor? Start by ruling out garments made in a few countries where it is virtually impossible to maintain good working conditions. At the top of that list would be Burma (now called Myanmar), where the government routinely abuses its own citizens, often enslaves them, and there are no protection of human rights possible there. Not all factories in China can be ruled out, but realize the country has no independent trade unions and it has been the case that poor working conditions there are routinely accepted.

Do what you can

In making ethical decisions we have thresholds and variable scales and we rarely approach perfection. A garment can be organic and have a small carbon footprint, but a perfect garment would be from cotton grown in your backyard, didn’t use any water or energy, and you only washed it in the rain and dried it in the sun. No garment is absolutely perfectly ethical in composition, delivery and production. The only perfect conditions would probably be to go naked and live in a cave. It might make a good start to a joke, or premise for a short story or film, but not really a reasonable goal. But one we can strive for is addressing the two main areas of concern—environmental and labor.