Navigating sustainability in fashion can be a difficult task for everyone, even someone like me who has a MA in fashion communications. This industry is filled with terminology that is neither accessible nor understandable to the untrained consumer, who is left confused and vulnerable to green-washing tactics performed by global brands.
Whenever there is a global industry, one of the first interventions we see appear are certifications and labels. They exist to put the consumer at ease and to make them stop asking questions. In fashion, as in food, there has been a major demand for the use of organic, non-toxic ingredients in the production of our clothing, along with the honest and fair treatment of garment workers around the world.
I will break down a list of the most commonly known labels and certifications in the space of sustainability in fashion, in the hopes of giving you a fuller picture of what they really do, so that you can make your own decision if they align with your personal values, or not.
On the simplest level, a B Corp certification is a stamp of approval for companies that have proven their commitment to doing good. It’s awarded by B Lab to companies that have met “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency,” according to its website.
Brands prove that they deserve certification by taking the B Impact Assessment, which is available for free online. The assessment is a 5-category questionnaire that asks about every detail of how a company operates. The five topics are: governance, workers, community, environmental impact, and customers. Once a company fills out the assessment, it is awarded a score out of 200 points. A score of 80 or higher is necessary for a company to be eligible for certification.
BETTER COTTON STANDARD
The Better Cotton Standard is awarded to cotton producers by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which is the largest cotton sustainability program in the world. According to its website, the Better Cotton Standard System is concerned with environmental, social and economic sustainability in cotton production. It pursues those aims by trying to reduce the environmental impact of cotton farming, improving livelihoods and encouraging brand adoption of the initiative. It can help in Identifying companies that want to make a public commitment to more ethical cotton sourcing, but aren’t committed to going fully organic or GMO- and pesticide-free. Some brands that use this certification are: Asos, Nike, Levi’s, Inditex (Zara), Gap Inc., Tommy Hilfiger
Bluesign is a standard awarded to textile manufacturers that ensures they’re producing in the most environmentally-friendly, health-conscious way possible, and is backed by Swiss organization Bluesign Technologies. The Bluesign certification takes into account everything from water conservation to chemical usage to dye toxicity in an effort to protect both the workers involved in manufacturing and the consumers who will purchase the final product. It can help in identifying textile mills that are using processes and materials designed to reduce environmental impact, with an emphasis on minimizing toxicity. Some brands that use this certification are: Adidas, Columbia, L.L. Bean, Asics, REI, Outerknown.
GLOBAL ORGANIC TEXTILE STANDARD (GOTS)
GOTS is a certification reserved for textile processing, manufacturing, and trading entities, not for actual organic farmers, that verifies the use of organic materials or practices to create textiles. It can be awarded by a number of different certification bodies that all operate using the same set of standards dealing with organic fibers, dyes, chemicals and bleaches, in addition to upholding the labor standards set forth by the International Labor Organization. It can help in identifying brands that are committed to sourcing organic, but not necessarily throughout the entire supply chain. Some brands that use this certification are: Stella McCartney, H&M, Kowtow, The Summer House.
STANDARD 100 BY OEKO-TEX
While the organization behind Oeko-Tex (full name: International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile and Leather Ecology) issues a number of different certifications relevant to fashion, the Standard 100 is the most commonly encountered by consumers. It certifies that textiles are free of substances that can be harmful to humans, but it does not require the use of natural fibers. It can help in identifying brands that are committed to keeping toxic dyes and chemicals out of their textile processing and final products. Some brands that use this certification are: Reformation, Outland Denim, Calvin Klein.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal certifies that an agricultural product like cotton or cashmere was produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or GMOs. This label applies to the fibers themselves but doesn’t necessarily cover dyes, finishes or other treatments that might be applied to a textile. The USDA allows GOTS-certified textiles to be sold in the United States as organic, too. It can help in identifying brands that are using natural fibers that are GMO-free and grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
This ethical fashion certification evaluates organic agricultural products that could comprise garments, such as organic cotton, hemp or linen. EcoCert started in France and has since expanded internationally. They provide agricultural training and help make plans to move farms to more organic practices. EcoCert also certifies textiles made with organically grown materials according to Organic Content Standards. The aim of this standard is to guarantee the traceability and integrity of raw materials during all stages of manufacturing.
Sewing is one of the most labor-intensive phases of production, and it’s also the phase where the most labor problems are, so the Fairwear Foundation focuses on practical changes for garment workers.
Fairwear Foundation membership means a brand has followed set steps based on the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights. Employment must be chosen freely; children under 15 are not employed; equal opportunities are given to all employees; workers have a right to unionize; all employees have the right to equal opportunities, collective bargaining, a living wage, a safe environment, regular employment and reasonable hours. In short, it’s all about the human factor in production. The Fairwear Foundation is based in Europe and works with brands that use European production.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certified most often applies to food, but it can do for garments, as well. It just means that people in the supply chain of a product have been paid fairly for their work and products, often above current market rates, and work in safe conditions. The treatment of people is put first and foremost, and you can rest assured that certified brands are helping to develop communities in some of the poorest areas in the world. Some common Fair Trade Certified brands you might know include Patagonia and prAna.
I hope this overview on eco-labels and certification in the fashion industry can help you to make the most informed purchasing decisions, as purchasing power can quite literally change the world. If you don’t have the time or the resources to do the research into ethical fashion, rest assured that we have a completely conscious curation, hosting over 30 independent, ethical, and sustainable brands from around the world.