Trying to shop green can be a tortuous task. This pair of jeans has a tag that says it required less water to produce — but another pair proudly boasts that it’s made with organic cotton. and yet another sports a fair trade label. Which do you choose?

GoodGuide‘s ratings aim to make that shopping conundrum disappear for green-minded consumers. GoodGuide has been giving out overall scores to big brands for environmental, health and social performance for several years now — but they group recently released new apparel brand rankings, just in time for eco-fashonistas to peruse before shopping for spring fashions.

Of course, a different nonprofit seems to release a new set of rankings on the relative greenness of companies about every week. From Greenpeace’s rankings of supermarkets on sustainable seafood to ForestEthics’ rankings of companies on their use of sustainable paper goods, the sheer number of rankings can be mind-boggling. But GoodGuide aims not to add to the confusion — and instead, offer some simplicity and clarity. How? GoodGuide’s rankings don’t just rank companies on one eco-aspect, but instead consider all aspects of business — encompassing environmental, health and social issues — awarding a composite, overall score for each brand.

An overall score is helpful for environmentalists who also care about health and social justice — and also helps the lay person get a more complete picture of a company. As you well know, many companies are adept at greenwashing — often by trumpeting the green changes made in one small aspect of the company while continuing to pollute, waste and harm on all other fronts. An overall score for a company, then, could make people aware that the company making a big to-do about its new solar panels is also charged with labor abuses and water pollution.

Since fashion is one of the topics I cover, I looked at the best-ranked companies in the apparel category. The contenders for the best scores? Patagonia and Levi’s, which scored 7.8 and 7.7, respectively, out of 10. That made me wonder — is Levi’s really that green? Sure, the company has launched some interesting U.S.-made and water-conserving initiatives recently, but the average pair of Levi’s jeans are still made with conventional cotton — while all of Patagonia’s cotton is sourced organically.

So I drilled down to the smaller scores that averaged out to the high rankings — looking under the “environmental” category and drilling down to the “sustainable fibers” sub-category. There, I found that both companies scored a perfect 10 for using sustainable fibers. How could this be, when Levi’s uses so much conventional cotton?

I put the question to Josh Dorfman, GoodGuide’s vice president of marketing — who explained why the two companies had the same score. “Companies that demonstrated clear use of at least some sustainable materials all received the same credit,” Josh said. “Companies that did not received no credit.”

So basically, companies can receive only two scores in this category — zero or 10 — and a company that uses just a minuscule amount of sustainable materials can nab the 10.

Why doesn’t GoodGuide use any of the numbers from 1 to 9 for the sustainable fibers category? Dorfman outlined some of the challenges. “We feel that use of sustainable materials is important and would like to further differentiate those demonstrating an even stronger commitment such as Patagonia,” he said. “The challenge is that it’s frequently difficult to determine the percentage of sustainable materials used by companies in order to compare them against one another. This becomes all the more challenging as we strive to go quickly, rate lots of categories and be broadly useful to consumers in identifying the best products and companies across numerous areas that touch their lives.”

Dorfman's candid explanation clarifies both the benefits and downsides of company ratings. Even more comprehensive, holistic scores like those of GoodGuide can really only act as a starting point for consumers trying to suss out the best options out there. GoodGuide can help you get a general sense of the company — but if you want to make sure your fashions are as sustainable as possible, you can’t blindly rely on a score. You still need to read labels, ask questions, and do some research.

But what if all that sounds like way too much work for a pair of jeans? As I always like to suggest to befuddled fashionistas, shop pre-loved! Reclaimed fashions are greener than new fashions — even when the new fashions used green materials. Plus, you’ll save yourself some money — and perhaps a confusion-fueled stress headache.

MNN homepage photo: Levi's

Fashion brands get green grades
GoodGuide's apparel ratings give consumers an overall score to gauge a brand's environmental, health and social performance — but you still have to do some di