When it comes to sustainability, the fashion industry does not have a single watchdog.  Depending on where a brand or retailer is headquartered, and where they source, their operations are subject to different rules and regulations.  And depending on how highly they prioritise sustainability, the public declarations they make and the codes of practice they enforce will vary.

This makes it tricky for shoppers to stack brands side-by-side and to shop with their conscience, with confidence that the choices they’re making are backed up by reliable data that can be compared directly between one brand and another.

This is where Good On You steps in.  At once a tool for holding brands and retailers to account, with easy-to-understand ratings, and a discoverability platform for emerging, mission-led brands, Good On You evaluates fashion businesses based on their real sustainability credentials – empowering consumers to make informed decisions.

We spent some time talking to Good On You Co-Founder Sandra Capponi about why fashion needs an independent sustainability monitor, and how rapidly consumer attitudes are changing.

The Interline: Good On You has become a prominent voice and discovery platform in pretty short order, but can you tell us where it started?

Sandra Capponi: I actually started my career in the operations and supply chain management side of banking, and it was there that I realised the power that businesses wield in addressing and engaging with social and environmental issues.  Capital can be a real force for good, but only when it’s being directed in the right ways, and over time I became frustrated by how slow the pace of change was, and how much resistance there was.  It quickly became apparent to me that more and more consumers were wanting to make values-based buying decisions, and that businesses were not keeping up.  That outside pressure from consumers was so much more powerful than internal policies and initiatives, that I wanted to work to enable it, rather than remaining on the inside and trying to effect change that was hard to get off the ground.

The Interline: To that point, we hear a lot about the consumer appetite for change, and how shoppers want to reward brands that share their values, but that’s not very often attached to specifics.  Can you quantify just how many consumers do shop with their conscience, and how that prevalence has changed over the last few years?

Sandra Capponi:  There’s a recent paper by Accenture showing that more than 50% of people are willing to pay more for sustainable products, which is important not just because it’s a majority, but because it represents an increase from something like 10% just five years ago.  I also really love the report from Lyst where they delved into their search data and found that sustainability searches on their platform increased by 75% in 2019, and then again by 37% since the start of this year.

That shows that customers are likely to be putting their money where their mouth is, but it’s still been difficult to prove evidence of that behaviour.  I think the sheer volume of activity we’ve seen through the Good On You community can provide some of that evidence, though.  These are people who are actively seeking to understand the sustainability impacts of the brands they’re interested in, and then also following through and making purchases based on those insights.

Like everyone, we were worried that COVID was going to set the sustainability agenda back, but the opposite has actually been true: since April we’ve seen huge growth in sessions across our mobile and web apps, and a double of click-through conversions to sustainable brands.  And that all points, again, to that shift in consumer sentiment – showing that it’s only intensifying because of the pandemic, not back-pedalling.

The Interline: And do you have insights into what the most important criteria are for people who are evaluating brands to engage with based on their sustainability credentials?

 Sandra Capponi: We know it’s different for different people.  Sustainability, ethics, and environmentalism are all such broad terms, and different parts of them matter more to some people than others.  In our early research we landed on three categories of impact that covered the important bases: impacts on people, the planet, and animals.  Those were, broadly speaking, the three things that most people cared about, but even within those categories we’d see changes from one user to the next, and even from the same user over time as to which was the most important.  Our system currently gives equal weight to all three, but users can filter results by the criteria that matter the most to them.

It’s interesting how this has evolved over time, too, and how quickly consumers’ priorities change as a result of current events.  A couple of years ago we saw a rise in people’s interest in animal rights, and veganism.  When we first started out, in 2015, labour rights were top of mind because the Rana Plaza collapse, killing thousands of garment factory workers, had recently hit the headlines.  More recently, climate change activism and a recognition of the need for near-term action brought sustainability issues to the fore.  And to bring things right up to date, the pandemic has shone a light on the protection of supply chain workers and made ethical treatment upstream into a primary concern. So too has the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Interline: COVID is an interesting example, because the degree to which consumers care about the treatment of factory workers, and the cancelling or partial payment of orders, means that a lot of them have quite a keen awareness of how the commercial parts of fashion actually work.  Is that something you believe people have become more cognisant of?

Sandra Capponi: Definitely.  And to use COVID as a further example, it’s really exposed just how closely environmental and ethical issues are linked to the financial performance of brands and retailers, and how much responsibility the traditional design and sourcing processes have for creating risk in the value chain.  The cancelling of orders, for instance, was a direct result of over-production and the ongoing squeezing of supplier capacity that’s characterised the way fashion has operated for decades.

But that doesn’t stop it from becoming an issue when a situation like COVID brings it to people’s attention.  From April onwards we heard people saying they wouldn’t support brands and retailers that were not protecting workers all the way up the chain, so we decided to tweak our labour ratings to reflect whether brands had implemented policies to protect workers during the pandemic, or whether they had cancelled orders and left vulnerable people exposed.

The Interline: The other side of equation, of course, is how brands’ and retailers’ own practices and priorities are evolving, and how far the market is prepared to reward those who take action.  With the current explosion of eCommerce, fast fashion businesses – which are not usually known as exemplars of sustainability – are in a strong position to capitalise on digital sales, so is there any sense that consumers are now migrating away from those high-volume, disposable models, or are fast fashion businesses going to continue to dominate as a function of already being big online?

Sandra Capponi: There are a few different facets to this.  Some of the same companies that are well-positioned to transition to an online-only model, or to scale the online reach they already have, are also the ones seeing huge consumer backlash around modern slavery and labour abuse allegations.  So they might be in a position to shift a lot of volume through eCommerce storefronts, but their record when it comes to human rights and the welfare of their workers is still going to hit their bottom line.

It’s also important to remember that it’s not just big businesses that are doing well online.  We see a lot of smaller, emerging, sustainable brands performing really strongly with a mainly or exclusively eCommerce model.  These were businesses that were already prioritising the protection of workers and minimising their environmental footprint, and quite a few of them have subsequently approached us looking for new ways to partner, which is another sign that they’re faring quite well and have money to spend on raising awareness.

The Interline: It’s common knowledge that platforms like Shopify have made the actual store-running portion of eCommerce accessible to anyone, but the discoverability angle doesn’t get discussed as often. It’s one thing to democratise the idea of selling online, but smaller, mission-led brands are going to be outspent at every juncture by big businesses when it comes to advertising.  How important do you see discoverability through platforms like Good On You as being to building a more sustainable model for fashion?

Sandra Capponi: I think it’s going to be essential.  Because a lot of people, when they first discover Good On You, use it to see how a big-name brand or retailer they’re already familiar with has scored.  But then they might click through to an alternative brand recommendation, or read an article where we celebrate a company that’s trying something different, and discover that there are a lot of companies out there that are doing much better than the major players when it comes to the issues that people actually care about.

And even more importantly, those smaller companies can still match the likes of Zara or Primark on trending, stylish, accessible fashion.  But they’re doing it without compromising on the sustainability issues that our users and, increasingly, mainstream shoppers are searching for.

The Interline:  That leads us on to the one thing we haven’t tackled: the reliability of first-party sustainability data.  It’s no secret that a lot of what happens in the supply chain – especially beyond the immediate factory level – is not very well monitored or quantified.  This leads to the situation where we have companies making quite sweeping sustainability statements based on quite limited insight into their suppliers’ operations.  Good On You casts its net a lot wider, of course, by blending first and third party information, like independent audits, but have you seen any improvement in brands’ ability and willingness to gather and open up that sort of data?

Sandra Capponi: I think we need to remember that sustainability issues are really complex, and it does place quite a burden on a brand to assess which pieces of information they need to obtain and present in order to determine their impact.  And at the same time, there are multiple tiers to every supply chain, and different certification standards, so there really is no consistent view on how information for the full suite of sustainability indicators should be shared and reported.

The way Good On You assesses a brand’s impact is based on their self-reported information and on credible information presented by third parties.  We’re not able to actually judge brands based on how they’re managing and collecting data.

That being said, though, we’ve seen vast improvements in the scope and the quality of information that brands release in their reports – most of which are originating from improved relationships between brands and their suppliers.  This is, as you know, something that the fashion industry has let escape it for some time, and it’s definitely still complicated by outsourcing of processes and responsibility, but generally speaking I think it’s improving.

It’s also critical to bear in mind that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with outsourcing, and it’s not a practice the fashion industry can just abandon.  It creates important economies in different countries, and it sustains livelihoods for communities that have no other lifelines.  But that shouldn’t mean that brands lose accountability. The real sustainability leaders are the ones who have strengthened those relationships, allowing them to ensure transparency and better outcomes all the way through the supply chain.