How to learn about a product.

Always ask questions. Keep digging.

If you’re reading this, chances are you care about what you purchase. Growing a community of like-minded people – those conscious consumers who want to know more about how and by whom a product is made – ensures the wares we find in the marketplace are good for us, good for the people who make them and good for our environment.

Therein lies the importance of transparency. If all companies were open about how their goods were made – well, I wouldn’t have much to say. The problem is that regulations and enforcements are different around the world; not all ingredient lists are mandatory; and certification agencies vary in power, reliability and trustworthiness.

If the product we want isn’t clearly marked, how do we find the information we need to make an educated decision? How can we avoid investing hours of research when all we want is a simple tube of toothpaste? Worldwide, household goods and services spending is about 20 trillion dollars – and the competition for your dollars is brisk. Yet tracing a product back to its roots (quite literally) is difficult even, at times, for the manufacturer.

As a designer, I am hyper-aware of what goes into the marketing process of a product. A grass-colored bottle with nice words like “eco-friendly” and “organic ingredients” doesn’t necessarily mean those claims are true or complete. If I’m shopping for, say, a new shampoo, the first thing I do is turn that bottle around and read the ingredients. Before trying on a t-shirt, I find the inside label to check the country of origin and fabric content. The packaging and labeling (if present) is only the tip of the iceberg – i.e. the information that the company has chosen, or is legally required, to present. Companies that take pride in their manufacturing process will often have detailed breakdowns of methods and materials right there on their website. Dig further. Ask questions.

Eventually, it is possible to build up your own trustworthy network of suppliers. By nature, business works on supply and demand. If we insist on transparency, it will start to become the norm. Living in an age when revolutions can happen online, consumer power has never been more prevalent. By shopping with retailers that share our priorities, we support and encourage the growth of those practices.

Why we need transparency.

The importance of transparency is clear.

1- Read labels. On textiles in the U.S. and Canada, it is legally required to list the contents and country of origin. For children’s textiles, a tracking number or address even identifies the factory it originated from. If there’s no label, or is a product that doesn’t require one, check the company website or call. If you’re looking for information on cosmetics or edibles, a good place to start is the Environmental Working Group Consumer Guides. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole to go down, but slowly familiarizing yourself with terms and methods will make it manageable and give you some buying empowerment.

2- Be aware of buzz words. “Handmade” sounds special, but many consumer goods are made by hand regardless. “Organic,” “natural,” “cruelty-free” and “fair-trade” are just words unless a reputable third party certification agency has authenticated those claims. The agency can be looked at a bit closer as well: What are the standards they are upholding? How often do they re-certify? Who oversees the development of testing?

3- Establish some go-to suppliers. Brand loyalty is a powerful tool, and you are in control of that. The more consumer dollars you siphon to brands you believe in, the more you are reinforcing the feasibility of their business model. As a bonus, having spent some time researching those companies, you will now have some trusted sources that you know are more likely to create things the way you want.

4- Stay curious. If you’re holding a soft bamboo scarf in your hands but know that bamboo stalks are extremely hard; if you notice that the flammability tag on your mattress has warnings about inhaling fumes; if you see that “perfume” is listed on your moisturizer but not the ingredients in the perfume itself… Congratulations, you’ve already started on the right path. Keep asking why.

How do you make informed choices? What/whom are your trusty resources? Let us know in the comments section below. We want to share your tips and ideas and build a like-minded community of consumers.

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7 Comments

  1. Arthur
    Posted May 13, 2014 at 4:13 PM | Permalink

    I love your articles but please change the font. I have 20/20 vision and my eyes hurt after reading a few sentences with this font style.

  2. Posted May 13, 2014 at 5:57 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for this article! Love that you break down the simple steps to help us start asking questions.

    Rebecca http://www.thisiwear.com

  3. Julia
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:10 PM | Permalink

    Great article. I always read the labels on products I buy. Especially the ingredients for all groceries. If there are more than 5 ingredients, or any I've never heard of, I usually just put the item back in the shelf.

  4. Boyd
    Posted May 18, 2014 at 10:05 AM | Permalink

    Nail on the head article! Consumers should make the decision on what they buy and from whom based upon their own research; brand loyalty can 10X greater than flashy advertising.

  5. Emma Segal
    Posted May 19, 2014 at 5:21 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for the great comments! There will be more to come, so let us know if there's anything you've been curious about.

  6. Posted May 27, 2014 at 12:55 PM | Permalink

    It's all about transparency! Great article and tips! Love Provenance HQ

  7. Sharon
    Posted January 2, 2015 at 1:15 PM | Permalink

    Great article. I have always read labels and questioned ingredients. I try not to buy if
    "made in China"

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