How we define and measure sustainability

How do you truly know how sustainable a brand is? That’s what we wondered as well. In our quest to find out how we encountered several problems and decided to develop our own framework that objectively determines sustainable performance. Here’s how.

Lars Dinjens4 October 2020

It can be frustrating to find out which brands operate according to high environmental and social standards. The rise in demand for more sustainable products has brands answering by portraying themselves as eco, green, ethical, or sustainable. But a lack of a general definition and little to no regulations about the usage of these terms results in an even more confusing buying process. Currently, every brand can come up with its own definition of sustainability, rendering the word ‘sustainable’, and all similar terms, extremely confusing, and at times entirely useless. 

That’s why we decided to bring all the different interpretations of sustainability together under one overarching definition that covers all major topics that brands can work on to become more sustainable. It had to include a broad range of topics and be applicable to different brand categories. We first looked at what was already on the market but realized that none of the existing frameworks covered what we wanted to measure. After reading hundreds of sustainability reports and months of extensive research, we identified five main pillars that we set out to measure: People, Planet, Animals, Transparency, and Ambition. All pillars have their own subtopics and together they define exactly what we mean when we talk about sustainability.

Our five pillars of sustainability

Our five pillars of sustainability

Quantifying sustainability

After defining the word ‘sustainable’ and identifying what we wanted to measure, we developed a framework that objectively measures these criteria. Because sustainability is a very broad and complex concept and we want to maintain objectivity, we decided to work with a rating system that awards points for how the brand is doing according to the five pillars. Since the framework works as a roadmap that includes every step a company can take in every element of sustainability, we can now award points progressively. 

the framework works as a roadmap that includes every step a company can take in every element of sustainability

For example, under the pillar People, the first subtopic concerns the Code of Conduct. We investigate the standards the brand has set for itself, and the higher the standards are, the more points are awarded. But since a Code of Conduct is more about guidelines and less about actual action, the second subtopic involves audits, where we question the frequency and quality of the audits and which organizations conduct them. The better the answers match our criteria, the higher the score. The other subtopics comprise living wage, fair trade, and so forth. For every topic, there’s a series of questions we ask that analyzes current actions and achievements that enables us to award points in a scalar fashion.

Gathering the information 

With the word sustainability and its subtopics defined, we can start gathering the necessary information to rate a brand. Because no one knows more about how a brand operates than the brand itself, the information that we collect is first and foremost based on what the brand communicates itself. This process starts with transparency. Because we strongly believe that every brand has a responsibility to communicate to its customers how its products are made, we do not award points when a brand does not provide the required information for a specific element. This working method eliminates greenwashing, makes the information verifiable, and stimulates brands to increase transparency.

With this in mind, we read websites and sustainability reports and categorize the information we find in terms of relevance to our criteria. It becomes a process of ticking the boxes where the information matches the points in the framework. It’s not uncommon at all that brands selectively disclose information, play with the statistics, or apply forms of greenwashing. But because the framework only awards points where our specific questions are answered, our working method provides a true and objective rating of sustainable performance.

Verifying information

The only caveat to this system is when the brand provides false information. Since modern supply chains are extremely complex processes, brands often do not know themselves what actually happens in it. Imagine it being very hard for a brand with a head office in Germany to check whether factory workers in low wage countries in their supply chain are subjected to excessive overtime. The bigger the brand, the harder it generally is to monitor and improve these conditions. It’s not just labor, but applies to every step of the process, including material sourcing and environmental performance. That’s why the final and most important step is gathering high-quality data from external independent organizations to verify the brand’s own information. 

Luckily there are numerous high-quality ecolabels and organizations present who have been working on these problems for a long time. Take the example of the Fair Wear Foundation, which monitors human rights in its member brands supply chains and publishes yearly reports on the brands’ performance. Because they are a specialized organization with high standards and high transparency, we can use their information as a verification tool on human rights in supply chains. The same goes for ensuring organic textiles with the Global Organic Textile Standard, or the Carbon Disclosure Project which specializes in tracking and publishing carbon emissions specifically. 

We currently manually scrape the information from these organizations’ websites and add the ecolabel or performance scores to the brand objects in our database. We’re in the process of setting up partnerships with all these organizations to automate the process which will save us a large amount of time and allows us to keep it up to date.  

Piecing the puzzle together

But that’s not nearly all the information that’s available. Brands often publish a selection of what they wish to communicate themselves, but the lion’s share of the information stays behind closed doors. An increasing number of brands use environmental modules like the Higg Index or Ecochain which enable companies to track topics like wastewater, energy, and transportation. This information is company-specific and up to date and therefore a very valuable source of information. 

as consumers, we mostly have to either deal with the information that brands provide themselves or search for very specific information from independent bodies that is very hard to find

There’s a huge amount of information available, but as consumers, we mostly have to either deal with the information that brands provide themselves or search for very specific information from independent bodies that is very hard to find. When we started Fairify over a year ago we had the idea of a browser extension that would take the available information on sustainability and provide its users with more sustainable alternatives. Because we soon realized that trustworthy information on brand sustainability did not exist, we decided to create our own working method to obtain it. We are now expanding on that notion and have embarked on a mission to combine all the data points from as many high-quality external sources as possible to piece this enormous puzzle together. Finally, we make it as easy as possible to access this information.

If you have any questions, comments, or are interested in working together, feel free to contact us!

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