How to Know if a Company Is Ethical: 7 Signs to Look For

Finding companies to support that align with your personal values can be frustrating and time-intensive. And sometimes, it’s hard to know what you should even be looking for or what different claims and certifications actually mean.

Wondering how to know if a company is ethical or not? Here are seven factors to consider.

1. Sustainability & Environmental Impact

Unfortunately, clothing companies are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to industrial waste and environmental impact. Globally, we throw away 92 million tons of clothing every year.

The good news is that there are steps garment companies can take to reduce their negative impact and become more sustainable, including:

  • Using organic, recycled fabrics and non-toxic dyes and detergents
  • Partnering with suppliers who work within responsible supply chains
  • Using sustainably-sourced clothing and materials that require less water, land, and energy use
  • Disposing of fabrics and inks responsibly and properly
  • Reducing waste by selling imperfect or unpopular garments at a reduced price instead of throwing them out
  • Utilizing renewable energy where possible
  • Creating quality garments that are made to last

When starting Foxduck, we were determined to develop a responsible clothing company that would minimize our impact on the environment. By following many of the guidelines above, we have created a local alternative to fast fashion that slows down the pace of our clothing waste.

2. Labor Practices

When learning how to know if a company is ethical, looking at labor practices, conditions, and wages is key. Some of these practices might include:

  • Being an Equal Opportunity Employer
  • Paying all employees a living wage
  • Providing reasonable accommodations to empower employees with disabilities
  • Keeping labor local where conditions and practices can be monitored closely
  • Not exploiting workers in marginalized or suffering communities or countries
  • Providing appropriate time off for illness, vacation, and parental leave
  • Allowing adequate time for meals and bathroom breaks

In addition to following these guidelines for the employees in our Foxduck shop, we do extensive research to ensure that the companies we work with also abide by these standards.

A sustainable t-shirt undergoes hand screen printing.

3. Cultural & Community Awareness

The garment industry has taken center stage in conversations around cultural appropriation and underrepresentation in recent years. While some red flags are glaringly obvious, here are a few green flags to look for when seeking an aware and inclusive clothing brand:

  • Clothing styles and designs don’t steal or “borrow” from other cultures, especially in relation to sacred or religious symbols or attire
  • Clothing designs are original and not stolen from others, especially marginalized or less-popular designers
  • Clothing is modeled by people of all races, sizes, and ages
  • Clothing sizes are inclusive of many body types
  • Clothing pricing is accessible to the local community and does not vary by size

At Foxduck, our goal is to improve the quality of our community for all, which means our commitment to cultural responsibility takes shape in several different ways.

We create designs based on local cultural, natural, and historical landmarks, rather than stealing ideas from other cultures. We support local organizations like TCP Network, a local radio station that amplifies marginalized voices in our community. And we are thrilled to work with a diverse group of influencers and models who truly embody our community and values.

4. Charity & Nonprofit Involvement

In recent years, a global conversation has grown around wealth and what businesses should do with their profits. While it isn’t important to every consumer when learning how to know if a business is ethical, look for companies that donate some of their profits or proceeds to charities or nonprofits.

For us, giving back to our community was one of our major goals in starting Foxduck. We felt so passionately about the organizations in our community that we started an entire collection of apparel to recognize and support them.

Our Highlights program gives back to a selection of local nonprofits each year through an in-house stretch pool. A percentage of the proceeds from each shirt sale are collected and distributed to the organizations in the hopes of creating a positive impact on our community.

We also give back directly to a number of causes we feel passionate about, including:

  • Donating 15% of June 2021 sales to the Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition
  • Raising over $5K for the Community Action Partnership, our county’s largest anti-poverty organization
  • Donating tree information stickers to Lancaster Tree Tenders, an organization aiming to grow Lancaster’s urban forest
  • Donating a portion of our proceeds - as well as design services - to Church World Services, who help immigrants and refugees in our community

Do you run or work with a Lancaster-local organization and want to partner up? Send us a message – we’d love to chat!

5. Transparency

When it comes to how to know if a business is ethical, one of the best ways is simply to ask. An ethical brand will be more than happy to answer your questions and tell you all about the work they do to ensure their company has a positive impact on the world.

If there are specific questions they don’t want to answer or if they dismiss the conversation entirely, it may be a red flag that they aren’t as ethical as they may want to appear.

At Foxduck, we value integrity and honesty above all else. We are not only willing but excited to answer your questions about our process and business. In fact, many of the conversations we’ve had over the years with our customers and friends have led to improvements in our business practices that we now consider second nature.

A pile of ethically made and printed Foxduck shirts.

6. Certifications

Another easy way to identify an ethical company is through their government or third-party certifications. An ethical business may have a number of certifications formally confirming that they are:

It’s important to note that while it’s great to see a business with a mile-long list of certifications, they aren’t a perfect measure. Many of the popular certifications require a rigorous qualification process (as they should) that can unfortunately be quite expensive and time-consuming. This makes it difficult for many small businesses to get an official certification, even if they follow all of the required guidelines.

The next best thing is to look at the business’s partners and see if they have any relevant certifications. At Foxduck, this is one of the big factors that affects which suppliers we choose to partner with.

7. Openness to Change

The bottom line is that figuring out how to know if a business is ethical is an ever-changing game. Our understanding of ethical business practices as a society has changed immensely over the past few decades. While these are the standards we currently use to hold businesses accountable, they will likely evolve and grow over time.

At the end of the day, do your research, ask questions, and trust your gut when it comes to how to know if a company is ethical. Few companies are “perfect,” but the time and attention you put into doing your best to support ethical businesses (and encouraging others to do the same) can make a big difference.

We continue to consider the impact our business has on the world around us. We welcome tough conversations with our friends, customers, and fellow business owners on how we can improve our operations. And above all else, we work hard every day to do right by those we serve.

Support local Lancaster organizations like Music for Everyone and Lancaster Conservancy by exploring our Highlights collection!