Ethically Sourced Materials: An Overview and Sourcing Guide

How to Determine Which Materials Are Actually Ethically Sourced

By Rose Morrison, managing editor of Renovated

The harvesting and creation of items used in various industries have practices around them that could harm employees, nations and the planet. How can you know whether or not the item you purchase has ethically sourced materials? Here’s how to determine it.

What Does Ethically Sourced Mean?

An ethically sourced material is one where the ethics of each process step get consideration in its production. From the growth and development of each element to production and human impact, these products are crafted with fairness and positivity in mind. Makers produce ethical materials by ensuring they have no significant effect on the environment, human well-being or society.

Environmental Impacts

The production and use of many materials create pollutants that enter the environment, causing unsafe conditions and damaging the already changing climate. Chemicals can get into the air, soil and water. Without mitigation efforts, they can put crops at risk, damage animal habitats and threaten clean water access.

Treatments that can neutralize the toxins are costly and unethical companies refuse to use them, though many can afford them. Processing fabrics, building materials and more projects release carbon emissions into the atmosphere. They contribute to the hole in the ozone and the greenhouse effect, which is responsible for increased extreme weather, rising sea levels and land destruction.

Acid mine drainage in Portugal
Ethically Sourced Materials: An Overview and Sourcing Guide
Acid mine drainage in Portugal
Gustavo Veríssimo from Setúbal, Portugal – lagoa vermelha

Human Impacts

Unethical working conditions plague many organizations, who move their operations overseas to countries with fewer regulations to maximize profits. Many people creating, cutting and sourcing raw materials are overworked and underpaid. Some can barely afford to live.

Large businesses monopolize areas where residents don’t have much option but to work with them. Due to poor regulations, the structures and environments given to the employees can be hazardous to their health and safety.

Worse, it’s not uncommon for a child to make or process those materials. A notorious industry for this practice is mica mining, with the U.S. Department of Labor predicting tens of thousands of kids as young as four working in the desert to get the mineral for beauty products. Thankfully, awareness continues to rise around the issue.

Societal Impacts

Unethically-made materials impact all aspects of society, from entering industries to increasing a customer’s carbon footprint. Companies can bribe governments to give them an advantage over the market, get away with inhumane policies and skimp on taxes.

Trade secret misappropriation can provide a business an unfair advantage over a nation’s economy. Organizations can also unethically use social media and the internet to defame other businesses and make false claims about what happens behind the scenes.

How to Tell if a Material Is Ethically Sourced

There are several ways to get an idea of how ethical a business’ practices are. Using ethical materials is part of what earns them certifications consumers can rely on.

Fairtrade International

Approval from Fairtrade International means a company is providing fair and safe employment to its agricultural workers. The organization evaluates the conditions of growers and those who process planted products. In the industry, Fairtrade International works to prevent child labor, provide livable wages, improve the climate, support gender equality and advocate for human rights issues.

fair trade certified

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

GOTS focuses on creating organic fabrics and holds manufacturers to high ethical standards. The standards for certification involve not just the formation of the material but also the human rights considerations and society’s impact on their production.

The GOTS standard includes no child labor or discrimination in any part of a fabric’s creation. Monopolization shouldn’t force employees to work at a company, and the facilities should comply with high occupational health and safety standards without violence or harassment. Collective bargaining and freedom of association are a must.


Vegan Action

As the name suggests, Vegan Action primarily focuses on ensuring businesses that say they are vegan are. It applies to food products, vegan leather and other materials not made from or tested on animals.

The ethical treatment of animals used by companies is a highly debated topic. By getting vegan products, you know creatures were out of the equation throughout manufacturing.

Forest For All Forever

Deforestation is a major environmental issue and unethical organizations will remove lumber without considering the health of the forest they take from. Forest For All Forever certifies wood as responsibly sourced for use in projects.

Companies should avoid deforestation when possible and using reclaimed lumber shows a commitment. By hand-dismantling old structures, a business can resell parts for long life in another construction or carpentry project.

Leaping Bunny

Like Vegan Action, Leaping Bunny focuses on materials that avoid unethical treatment of animals through the manufacturing process. To get its certification, a company has to implement a supplier monitoring system and supply CCIC Declarations for Raw Materials and Product Compliance. Each supplier and third-party manufacturer has to comply with the organization’s standard for a product to maintain its certification.

Leaping bunny logo

Evaluating a Company’s Transparency

While certifications can greatly help when finding products with ethically produced materials, researching an item that interests you can show an organization’s transparency. Small businesses can’t always afford the fee for a certification process, but making their supply chains clear and backing up ethical claims shows they’re serious about providing products you can feel good about using. If a company is transparent, you should have no trouble identifying where its materials come from, and if the workers and environment around them are safe and treated well.

Spotting Greenwashing

See Also:

Greenwashing is the opposite of transparency, with businesses intentionally trying to deceive their consumers into thinking it is ethical if it is not. Marketers are experts at making you feel good about products without realizing those feelings are distractions from reality.

Pictures of clear waters, lush forests and thriving animals are just pictures — they don’t prove a company practices what they preach. Even the color of a package can make it seem more environmentally friendly, with earth tones and simplistic packaging implying ethical practices even if the organization doesn’t use them.

Buzzwords are a common way businesses distract from their lack of ethical certifications. Beware of descriptions that say “plant-based,” “all-natural,” “raw,” “organic,” “pure,” or “eco-friendly” without proof that they are. No laws govern those terms, allowing companies to state their materials are anything they want to say. Doing things like changing a design or using recycled packaging shouldn’t take away from using unethically sourced materials.

Creating a Better World With Ethically Sourced Materials

As a customer, focusing on ethically sourced materials forces unethical companies to change their ways. Determining which materials benefit workers, society, and the environment can help you shop responsibly.

Rose Morrison

About the Author

Rose is the managing editor of Renovated and has been writing in the construction industry for over five years. She’s most passionate about sustainable building and incorporating similar resourceful methods into our world. For more from Rose, you can follow her on Twitter.