This Fashion Revolution Week we had the pleasure of interviewing Abbie Morris, the CEO and co-founder of the website Compare Ethics – a website designed to make it as easy as possible for consumers to find information on ethical fashion and brands. We talked with Abbie about ethics in the fashion industry, sustainability goals, greenwashing and the challenges ahead for companies like hers.
Hi Abbie, thank you very much for accepting and taking time for this interview with me. First of all, what made you decide to get involved in a project like this?
“I have a background in consulting, so I’ve travelled the world with big businesses and helped them to develop their sustainability policies in the areas where they operate. It may involve working with mining companies in, say, Sierra Leone and then communicating those policies abroad, at the United Nations or the World Economic Forum where we’d showcase what responsible business looked like. When I came back home, I had a lot of fun talking to my friends about how exciting the work was that I was doing, but a lot of my friends didn’t quite understand what sustainability was or, if they knew what it was, wondered why sustainability was sometimes left out of the conversation. So, I had a bit of a light bulb moment then and said; ‘ok, if we are going to create a lot of real change then we really need to change the conversation’. I teamed up with my co-founder James who was actually looking for sustainable fashion at the time and this led us to create something firstly for ourselves. It took hours and hours to find sustainable fashion for James, so we realised there must be a much easier way. All of those items combined led to Compare Ethics, which is a platform that connects you to sustainable products that have been verified and certified. That’s how we got into it!”
What does a brand need to be doing to be included on your website?
“Every brand has to meet a minimum on our criteria. Our criteria is based on 3 categories: animal cruelty-free, planet friendly and social good, and within each of those categories there are ethical tags. It is quite a simple points system, so, for instance, in the planet friend category, there is the carbon tag, so if you are a company and you have a commitment to carbon reduction then that’s one point, but if you are a company which is carbon neutral that is 3 points. At the end, we add up all the points and every product is given a certain score. Based on that overall score, that’s how highly it would rank on our website. To get on the website, every single product has to meet a minimum of 40% of one of those categories. We try to make it as transparent as possible and put our methodology up on our website. We iterate our methodology monthly and we are always on the lookout for new innovations, new approaches to analysing sustainability and it is something that we will be continually developing over time.”
“Ok, if we are going to create a lot of real change then we really need to change the conversation.”
Regarding the section ‘social good’, I wondered what exactly that means for you?
“‘Social Good’ is a combination of multiple things, I believe at a minimum it means providing a living wage. Depending on the market that a person is making a product for, it is not enough just to survive, but to thrive. What that means is that someone can potentially save a little for a rainy day, put their children through school, and have the means to meet the standard of healthy living that we all strive force. I think that’s first, and that’s relative to every country. Then, there is also a whole section around safety and a very strong clean working environment. But it can also go as far as fair-trade principles of human rights and ensuring that at the very core there is no child or slave labour, which is a prevalent issue. That is a very whistle-stop tour of part of what we assess, but I think that there are some key themes that consistently come up. I reckon one thing that really good brands do is transparency. Transparency is something that we will see more and more of in the coming years. Brands like ‘Know The Origin’ or ‘People Tree’ are really great at this. It is really about showcasing who made their clothes, best business practices and getting to know the people behind their products. Years ago, we always knew our tailor or whoever made our products and now we have just kind of fast forwarded to never knowing, and even the companies themselves never find out the exact people that made their products, which is a really dangerous place to be.”
Something that is not very common to see on a fashion website is a section for clothing rental. That was one of the things that struck me the most when I first visited your page. Could you explain a little bit more about this?
“The reason why we focused on rental is because we feel that there is so much said when you need to buy new clothes you should buy sustainably and ethically, but if you are going to a wedding or you are going somewhere where you are going to wear a piece of clothing only once or twice, whatever it may be, you only need to borrow. I borrowed my sister’s dress for a wedding this weekend for example, it doesn’t need to always be brand new. Years ago, there were so many times when I’d buy an outfit, wore it to a certain event and then it just sat there for ages! Now, I am not saying everyone is like that, but I think rental really provides us with a clear opportunity to create a shared economy around our clothes in which we can truly start to value them. That piece of clothing would potentially have a much longer life in the sense that it could be repaired and used again and again. It would be consistently in use! That means less of that product needs to be made and that has a whole other impact on the environment. It really aids a kind of a move towards a more circular economy in the coming years, where we relook at waste as value, relook at products as value and look at their whole life cycle as they go so that’s really where it all came in. It was a natural fit to add to the website for us because we see it ourselves as very much a centralised platform where you can touch sustainable ethical fashion at any point. That’s what we are trying to achieve.”
“Years ago, we always knew our tailor or whoever made our products and now we have just kind of fast forwarded to never knowing, and even the companies themselves never find out the exact people that made their products, which is a really dangerous place to be.”
What challenges does a company like yours, that tries to promote ethical and sustainable fashion, encounter?
“One thing is being able to consistently tell new people about the importance and the value of sustainable fashion. As much as ethical fashion grew by, I think it was 19.9% in the last year or so, one of the challenges we face is that fast fashion is not necessarily slowing down. Having those conversations in our communities, you know, where we work and day to day, is a constant challenge and one which I actually really enjoy. When you’ve been talking to someone for a really long time, they just know you as this person that’s really into sustainability and then the next thing you know is that they are quite interested themselves! It’s great! We always need to broaden our audience and be able to bring everyone along with us at the same time. I believe that’s really important.
The second really big challenge is greenwashing. At the moment, there are a lot of brands out there that are authentically engaging with sustainability and striving to be better. We have a whole bunch of brands that have sustainability at their core and would never dream of anything else but to build their products in a sustainable and ethical way. And then you have a whole group of people that are capitalizing on what is perceived to be a kind of desire for people to have sustainable products but not necessarily put their money where their mouth is. One of the challenges we are trying to overcome is actually opening that conversation up and say: ‘ok where are we at? Let’s get proof of where everyone is at, where we need to go and let’s all go on that journey together’.”
“Rental – It really aids a kind of a move towards a more circular economy in the coming years, where we relook at waste as value, relook at products as value and look at their whole life cycle as they go so that’s really where it all came in.”
What plans do you have for the future of the company?
“Our plan now is to continue with what we are doing and continue our progress. This year we are really focusing on the ease of being sustainable and having access to sustainable products. We really want to make it as easy as possible for people to find products that are relevant for them and it needs to be as easy as any other platform or any other way of buying clothes online. We are really committed to making sure we achieve that this year.”