What Is The Meaning Of Ethically Sourced?
The products we buy are more than just items on a store shelf; they are stories waiting to be told, journeys waiting to be examined, and choices that reveal our values.
Fortunately, there is an uptick in consumers worldwide asking for ethical sourcing, supply chain sustainability, and transparency about it all.
But as more brands prioritize the social responsibility and ethical considerations of their supply chains, it can also get more confusing as a conscious consumer to separate the truly “ethically sourced” from the greenwashing.
As consumers, we often place the focus on sustainability and the environmental impact, but the human side of things is critical, too.
Ethical sourcing standards lie at the intersection of sustainability and progress, signaling a more equitable world for all humans.
According to Forbes, 81% of consumers today think ethical procurement matters, and would pay 17.5% more for products that are ethically sourced.
No longer is it the norm for a business to choose between acting ethically or operating profitably—and that’s a very good thing.
Let’s take an industry dive into the ethically sourced definition and shed some light on what exactly it entails and why it matters.
The Full List For ‘Ethically Sourced’ Meaning
- What does ethically sourced mean?
- What are products that are ethically sourced?
- Why is ethical sourcing important?
- Sustainable vs ethical sourcing
- How do you know if something is ethically sourced?
- What are the best practices of ethical sourcing?
- Ethical sourcing certifications
- Examples of ethical sourcing companies
1. What Does Ethically Sourced Mean?
The term “ethically sourced” has no set, standard definition, but the ethical sourcing definition is largely understood to mean goods and products are obtained and made in a way that has minimal harmful impact upon workers, society, and the environment at all stages of the product’s creation.
Items sourced from sustainable suppliers (gemstones and metals to shea butter and palm oil) are meant to be grown, sourced, or made with the utmost respect for human rights, workers rights, and standards like no forced or child labor, fair pay, and rejection of any other unethical practices.
Because there is no global standard for the ethical sourcing meaning, its vagueness can lead to deceit and confusion.
For example, it’s common to ask, “Does ethically sourced mean organic?” and the answer is not necessarily.
While terms ‘fair trade’, ‘ethically sourced’, and ‘organic’ are all facets of ethics and oftentimes applied interchangeably, they are not the same thing.
That said, what are examples of ethical sourcing?
First, let’s not confuse the certification “Fairtrade” with the claim “fair trade”. Fair trade means a product upholds the principles of Fairtrade but it’s perhaps not labeled officially, or is accredited by another organization.
For small brands, the costs to get certified can be a huge obstacle.
Fairtrade, meanwhile, is a reputed organization whose label is the iconic blue and green label that verifies a product meets all its international standards, which include things like fair wages and working conditions for workers at every level of the supply chain.
Both Fairtrade and fair trade ensure sustainable procurement, but don’t guarantee something is organic.
In terms of ethically sourced food and beauty ingredients, organic means there are no antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds in the ingredients.
However, while “organic” implies certain ethical standards (i.e. workers aren’t exposed to chemicals), ethics aren’t a key consideration.
If you’re looking for ethically sourced meat, for instance, organic only means that animals are fed organic food. Your organic eggs could still very well have come from chickens kept in tiny cages in warehouses for their entire lives.
From a labeling standpoint, organic has become much more complex in recent years with a variety of scandals (like the GOTS certification of organic textiles) that wear away at consumer trust.
This is especially true when it comes to natural skincare products, since the beauty industry has no universally upheld definition or standard of “organic.”
Vegan & Cruelty-Free:
When it comes to ethical sourcing, consumers increasingly demand verification that no animals were harmed or tested on in the manufacturing of an item.
This is where the vegan and/or cruelty-free label comes in, to ensure ethically sourced products also protect our furry friends.
Especially when it comes to ethically sourced meat (like seafood), wild harvesting has become increasingly popular, and it’s becoming more common for agricultural items, too. Wild harvested means food items are gathered from plants and wildlife in a naturally and untouched native habitat.
The organization FairWild certifies that brands and their wild harvesting claims commit to sustainable collection, social responsibility, and principles of fair trade.
Because wild harvesting is one of the least understood facets of ethical and responsible sourcing, Claudia Delgado, brand and communications consultant for FairWild, explains:
“Wild ingredient ethical sourcing is of paramount importance from both an environmental and social standpoint, and it represents the intersection of these two.
“If we want to live on a healthy and thriving planet, we need to protect the last wild pristine landscapes we still have. Local rural communities are the biggest stewards of these ecosystems.
“Indigenous people make up only around 5% of the world’s population, yet they effectively manage 20-25% of the Earth’s land surface, which contains 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.
“Therefore, it is imperative to ethically source wild ingredients to ensure that everyone receives fair compensation and that wild collection adheres to ecosystem boundaries, preventing overharvesting and avoiding negative environmental impacts on the landscape.”
2. What Are Products That Are Ethically Sourced?
Both raw materials and the finished products they create can be sourced and made in ways that minimize environmental and social impacts.
There are a number of notorious industries, like coffee and diamonds, that were first called out for their ethical risks and abuses and the need for stringent regulations around ethical practices.
Common products for which we need to assess ethical risks when buying include:
- Diamond rings
- Palm oil
- Shea butter
- Beauty products
- Timber and paper products
3. Why Is Ethical Sourcing Important?
It all sounds nice in theory, but why is ethically sourced important?
Ethical sourcing is critical because it protects the environment and society from destructive business practices, as well as the members of the company supply chain.
It’s estimated that 50 million people in the world are still under some form of slavery, with almost 28 million working under forced labor. It goes without saying that this needs to end, and to prioritize ethical sourcing is one solution.
Companies can also avoid legal troubles entailed with having illegal workers, supply chain scandals, or environmental damage by upholding labor rights and acting in an ethical manner.
That said, some brands might wonder: what are some of the risks of ethical sourcing?
While cleaning up procurement processes to eradicate things like corruption, human trafficking or slavery may sound like a no-brainer, companies often hesitate because of the perceived costs associated with ethical supply chain management.
Some companies prefer to sweep under the rug the various controversies that lurk in their supply chain, fearing that exposure to clean it up might be harder than keeping it concealed. We’ve seen this especially in fast fashion.
That said, if cost and reputation are the main risks to ethically sourced items, these factors are also exactly why companies should ethically source.
According to one study, 73% of millennial consumers are more likely to purchase something that is ethical than isn’t.
Ethical considerations aren’t just a way for a brand to avoid operational business risks, to protect their reputation, or to avoid greenwashing accusations—sustainable practices are a way to gain a competitive advantage.
This means that companies can protect our planet and its peoples while also increasing revenue and sales by choosing to implement ethical sourcing strategies.
Who said nice guys finish last?
4. Sustainable Vs Ethical Sourcing
The terms ‘ethical sourcing’, ‘sustainable sourcing’, and ‘responsible sourcing’ are often used interchangeably, but really they each mean something slightly different.
While there is no official definition or differentiation between the terms, ethical sourcing tends to have more emphasis on the humane working conditions, worker well-being, and social impact within supply chains over the environmental aspects of the supply chain.
Though ethical sourcing and sustainability often share common ground—as is the case with organic farming, which is better for both people and planet—sustainable sourcing usually focuses more on the climate and environmental impacts of a supply chain.
Responsible sourcing is most often used as an umbrella term to address all aspects to the responsible approach of both ethical and sustainable sourcing.
The challenge with any of these terms is the current lack of a globally upheld standard definition to ensure clarity, consistency, and agreed-upon criteria of what constitute responsible and sustainable methods.
After all, it’s well-intentioned and advantageous marketing for a brand to claim something is sustainably or ethically sourced, but how can we truly know it?
5. How Do You Know If Something Is Ethically Sourced?
Consumers across all age groups are 4–6 times more likely to buy from purpose-driven companies.
It’s no wonder ‘ethically sourced’ has become a bit of a buzzword, with brands latching onto the term because it sounds good for business. Without real action behind the words, it’s nothing more than consumer marketing.
Starbucks, for example, is a corporation under fire for its misappropriation of the term.
Fortunately, an increasing number of governments have developed legislation to better defend and define ethical sourcing, including the EU, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and California, which will hopefully eradicate the pervasive industry greenwashing.
When the UK established their Modern Slavery Act in 2015, the country became a leader in ethical legislation. The Act entails tangible legal requirements for companies to pinpoint and prevent modern slavery throughout their operations and supply chains.
While the US is behind the UK and Europe for this type of legislation, California passed the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act in 2010, which demands large retail sellers and manufacturers to annually disclose their efforts to eradicate human trafficking and modern slavery from supply chains.
Because legislation is both slow-moving and fairly new to the scene, the onus mostly falls on the increasingly aware consumer to make the moral choice to support ethical practices.
And there are a number of agreed-upon tenets of the ethical sourcing process, from which we can determine if a product or service fits the criteria or not.
These are also known as best practices.
6. What Are The Best Practices Of Ethical Sourcing?
Researching a brand’s supply chains and manufacturing practices, along with their commitment to social and environmental responsibility, can help identify ethically sourced materials and products.
The following help to indicate what is ethical sourcing in business:
#WhoMadeMyClothes can be applied to pretty much any product.
The number one best practice for ethically sourced businesses is to have full transparency and traceability of supply chains, along with published open audits.
Some brands do a lot of good and can’t afford accreditation from larger certification schemes, so that shouldn’t be the be-all end-all.
When companies provide us with a visible supply chain, as consumers we can evaluate on our own if the business is ethical.
Decent Working Conditions:
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) decent work is defined as “productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.”
Decent work is generally understood to have four pillars, which are (1) standards and rights at work, (2) employment creation and enterprise development, (3) social protection, and (4) social dialogue.
Payment for work is at least the local minimum wage and paid on time.
Human & Environmental Rights:
With more of a focus on human rights than the environment, ethical manufacturing and sourcing would mean no slave labor, unpaid labor, child labor, sexism, racism, homophobia, health and safety violations, sexual or physical harassment, or abuse of any kind.
Many supply chains are traced back to some of the most marginalized and at-risk people and places on Earth.
From the diamond mines on native territories in Canada to the avocado farms of Mexico to dangerous shrimp fishing operations in Thailand, there are countless stories of minorities being negatively impacted by the lack of ethical sourcing in their industry and region.
Businesses involved with ethical sourcing should care about social justice and social stewardship.
Giving Back To Communities Impacted By Production:
This builds on the previous point. Instead of people being exploited for power and profit, ethical sourcing looks to improve the lives of communities that its production impacts, through things like infrastructure, improved local economy, and social programs.
Some supply chains are riddled with money laundering, bribery and other financial crimes that enrich corrupt politicians, drug traffickers, gangs, or terrorists.
It’s crucial to understand who owns a company and how it conducts business to avoid the negative impact of entanglements with high-risk factions.
It’s hard for ethically sourced products to effectively make the claim if any humans or animals are harmed in its creation.
7. Ethical Sourcing Certifications
Ethical sourcing is often accomplished through the application of policy that monitors the products, goods, and services being produced—and that they are sourced and developed ethically.
Again, Claudia Delgado of FairWild’s words:
“When we buy a product we will consume, we want it to work and be healthy. We want proof that the claims on the packaging are accurate regarding benefits, components and sustainability statements without space for greenwashing or dubious information.
“We want the best quality from the plants used, sustainable conservation of landscapes, respect for everyone involved in the supply chain, and feel empowered as consumers.
“Standards are certifications like FairWild, which ensure the quality, source and transparency of the products we are consuming. So, they allow us to choose products aligned with their values.”
Third-party sourcing and manufacturing certifications are a useful way to verify if something is ethically sourced, with different labels offering verification of different ethical standards.
Ethical sourcing standards are ensured by the various ethical sourcing audits and labels.
While some steer more closely into the sustainability sphere, arguments can be made that each of the following related to ethics in some way:
- B Corporation (B Corp)
- EU Ecolabel
- Fair For Life
- Fair Labor Association
- Fair Wear
- Sustainable forestry certifications (such as the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative)
- Green America
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
- Leaping Bunny
- PETA Vegan / Cruelty-Free Approved
- Rainforest Alliance
- Responsible Down Standard (RDS)
- Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)
- Social Accountability International (SA8000)
- Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA Audit)
- Soil Association
- Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI)
- USDA Certified Organic
- Vegan Approved
- Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP)
- ZQ Merino Standard
- World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO)
- International Labour Organization (ILO)
8. Examples Of Ethical Sourcing Companies
In a world where the gap between wealth and poverty only seems to widen, corporate social responsibility matters, with ethically produced and sourced items being an important benchmark.
From ethically sourced clothing brands to sustainable snack brands, here are some examples of companies demonstrating a solid ethical sourcing policy:
- Allbirds: A brand offering sustainable shoes and apparel, much of which is made of ethically sourced wool.
- Brilliant Earth: A conscious jewelry brand specializing in ethically sourced diamond rings and metals.
- Conscious Chocolate: A brand offering ethical chocolate.
- Ethique: One of our favorite brands for ethically sourced beauty products, personal care products, and non-toxic cleaning products.
- Equal Exchange: A leader in ethically sourced coffee.
- Girlfriend Collective: Sustainable yoga clothes and loungewear basics are this brand’s area of expertise.
- KOTN: An eco-friendly clothing brand that makes organic cotton basics sourced from family-run farms via direct trade practices.
- Nature’s Path: An organic snack brand offering ethically sourced and sustainably grown food.
- Patagonia: A Fair Trade Certified sustainable outdoor clothing brand offering exceptional supply chain transparency given their size.
- Stella McCartney: One of the most famous luxury vegan labels, offering high-end vegan shoes, clothing, and accessories.
- Ethical Trading Initiative: ETI is a fashion industry-focused members-based alliance to promote worker’s rights and ethical supply chains worldwide.
- Fair Labor Association: An NGO that supports workers rights globally, especially agriculture and manufacturing.
- Slave Free Chocolate: A grassroots organization that advocates and campaigns to eradicate the use of Worst Forms of Child Labor (ILO 182) and child slavery in cocoa farms to ensure ethically sourced chocolate.
- The Kimberley Process: Since 2000, it has been instrumental to ensure ethically sourced diamonds are from conflict-free zones.
- Responsible Mica Initiative: A global ‘do-tank’ with numerous organizations committed to establishing fair mica free from things like child or slave labor.
- Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil: With a long history of unfair labor, RSPO seeks to transform the harmful palm industry by ensuring ethically sourced palm oil.
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Final Thoughts On Ethical Sourcing Practices
Ethical sourcing has a critical role to empower workers worldwide, to develop more just supply chains, and to promote sustainable progress.
When we prioritize workers rights, strengthen local economies, and protect local communities and environments, we help to create a more equitable Earth.
And as buyers, we can be ethical consumers through dollar voting. By choosing to support companies that advance ethical sourcing practices and uphold social responsibility across the board of their operations, we are one step closer to a better future for everyone.
Ethical sourcing isn’t some utopian dream—it’s a tangible, practical approach to doing business the better way.
Whether a small mom-and-pop shop or a large multinational corporation, ethically sourced products prove that business can be a force for good.
And by spreading the word on how to find them, you can help keep the momentum moving in the right direction.