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Ethical & Sustainable Certifications, Explained

Polly Polly 13 Jan 2021 Ethical & Sustainable Certifications, Explained

As ethical consumers, we often rely on certifications and labels. But have you ever wondered what these certifications actually mean? Can you trust this information? Or are they maybe just nice logos with hardly any real meaning or impact behind it?

Being an ethical consumer is not the easiest role to take on. There are so many labels out there, with either too little or ambiguous information about them. On your way to learning more about fair fashion you might sometimes get lost - but don't worry, it happens to the best of us.

This is why we wrote this blog post: to make your ethical choices smoother and easier. This is not another article full of general and vague information. We not only explained each certification, we also critically scrutinized their practices and implementation of their standards. So you’ll know what to look for when shopping next time - to be sure your wardrobe is as fair and sustainable as possible.

In this article, we will look at:

The sources that were used to write this article can be found at the bottom of this page.

What about vegan certifications?

Scanning quickly through this article you might think: I don’t just care about the planet and people but about animal lives too. Aren’t there more certifications for them out there?

If you know us and our mission, you probably know that veganism is an integral part of us. When we think of fair and sustainable fashion, we include animals' lives in the equation too: vegan fashion is the way to go.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many certifications adding true value to the lives of animals. There are certain certifications that have criteria for animal products like wool for instance, guaranteeing that at least the most horrible of practices like mulesing was not part of the ‘production’ of this material.

However, because we believe animals are more than just a product and we live in a time where animal-free clothing options are endless - we did not include these aspects or types of certifications in the list. We simply invite you to look beyond those traditional materials that are often unnecessarily cruel and harmful for the environment and go for readily available vegan alternatives.

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Better Cotton Initiative Logo

© Better Cotton Initiative

Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)

The Better Cotton Initiative is a not-for-profit organization that aims to transform global cotton production to improve the lives of farmers and protect the environment from harmful farming practices.1 BCI has 7 principles that encourage companies to become more environmentally-friendly and fair to the farming community.

These criteria seem to be very thorough and carefully selected. To offer you a quick summary, they state that BCI Farmers minimise the harmful impact of crop protection practices, promote water stewardship and decent work, care for the health of the soil, enhance biodiversity and use land responsibly, care for and preserve fibre quality and operate an effective management system.

But how does BCI actually work?

When you find a product with a BCI logo, it does not mean that the entire product is made of Better Cotton.2,3 So what does it mean then? BCI logo indicates that the retailer or brand is committed to sourcing Better Cotton and invests in BCI Farmers. A company must be sourcing at least 10% of their cotton as Better Cotton to be able to start using the BCI logo. Within five years, this number should increase to at least 50%.

Let's imagine a brand placing an order for T-shirts and requesting 1000 kilograms of Better Cotton to be associated with this order. A cotton farmer then produces this amount of Better Cotton. This is registered on BCI's supply chain system to make sure that the same weight of cotton is being moved from one factory to another. However, during the production process, Better cotton is mixed with conventional cotton. As a result, you as a consumer get a T-shirt that contains both Better Cotton as well as conventional cotton.

“Better cotton is not about buying specific products that contain better cotton, it is about interacting with the whole supply chain to transform how cotton is sourced.”3

Why does it work like this?

The BCI explains that the supply chain is so complex that it would be too time-consuming and expensive to track where Better Cotton ends up. Especially when knowing this would not benefit the BCI farmers. They prefer to use their resources for reaching more farmers and offering them training on efficient water use, reduction of pesticides' use and application of decent work principles. This way, BCI is able to implement more sustainable practices around the world.

However…

The BCI did not ban pesticides or genetically modified cotton.4 Still, when we compare it to regular cotton, the water consumption and use of pesticides when producing Better Cotton is lower.5 If you believe this is the way to transform the cotton industry, look out for the BCI label. But in case you prefer to purchase items made of organic cotton, then the GOTS certification might be a better option for you. If you’d like to learn more about cotton and the different environmental impacts regular, organic and recycled cotton have, so you can make better choices - we got you covered.

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Bluesign logo

© Bluesign

Bluesign

Bluesign is a system for suppliers, manufacturers and brands to ensure that the production is “safer for humans and the planet”.6 Bluesign system looks at every stage of the production and takes into account chemical management, emissions to water, soil and air as well as the safety of both workers and customers.7

How does it work?

Third-party auditors are involved in the production process from the beginning.8 They check the compliance with the emission limits defined by Bluesign, use of the BAT (Best Available Techniques) and the efficiency and effectiveness of water, energy, raw materials and chemicals management.

Moreover, the partner is required to ensure compliance with International Labour Organization principles and assess its social responsibility program via external organizations such as Fair Wear Foundation, SA8000 or an equivalent.9

If the minimum requirements set by Bluesign are met, the Bluesign partnership can be established. Based on the audit, the partner receives a list of concerns and suggestions for improvement. This document then serves for an ongoing dialogue between Bluesign and the partner. At least every three years, the partner needs to be re-assessed.

However…

Bluesign is used by ethical and sustainable companies such as Patagonia but also by fast fashion companies like Puma, Adidas, Nike or Lululemon. So, it would be reasonable to question whether their criteria regarding sustainable production are as strict as they describe. Moreover, judging how ethical a product with the Bluesign label is depends heavily on the type of social responsibility program the company chooses to certify with. Therefore, when seeing a product with the Bluesign label, we recommend diving a bit deeper to find out whether the product deserves your support.

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Business Social Compliance Initiative(BSCI)logo

© amfori

Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI)

Business Social Compliance Initiative, developed by the Foreign Trade Association (FTA, named ‘amfori’ since 2018), is a voluntary membership system for retail, trade, and manufacturing companies designed to improve working conditions for their suppliers.63 This means that BSCI isn't a certification program, it just provides companies with a social auditing methodology and report.64

The BSCI developed a code of conduct that is based on human rights, International Labour Organization conventions and national labour laws.65

What are the requirements of the BSCI code of conduct?

There are 11 requirements which include: freedom of associations and collective bargaining rights, no discrimination, minimum wages, maximum of 48 working hours per week, healthy and safe working conditions, no child or forced labour, no precarious employment, protection of young workers, compliance with minimum requirements for waste management, emissions, handling chemicals or other hazardous substances and ethical business behavior.66,67

How does it work?

Only companies that play the role of suppliers for the BSCI members can apply for an audit.66 Before the audit, they need to fill out the BSCI self-assessment questionnaire. Then, the results of the audit (which can be announced, semi-announced or unannounced) are evaluated based on the degree of fulfilment of the requirements and can range from A (outstanding) to E (unacceptable). In case that a supplier does not comply with certain requirements, they must adjust it “as quickly as possible” and the changes are then verified with a follow-up audit. The results are documented on the amfori BSCI platform which can be accessed only by the companies and producers that are BSCI members.

However...

As the BSCI is not a certification program, the company will not receive a formal certification after being audited. Producers that meet all BSCI requirements are then encouraged to apply for the SA8000 social certification.64 Unfortunately, SA8000 certification is not ideal (multiple facilities that are SA8000-certified were still involved in several scandals). Therefore, when BSCI describes their services as “the perfect basis for SA8000 certification”, it might be reasonable to question the strength of this membership system. For instance, it is quite disappointing that the BSCI doesn't have a requirement for workers to receive a living wage but only demands the minimum wage.

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B Corp Logo

© Certified B Corporations

Certified B Corporations (B Corp)

B Corp is a certification for for-profit businesses that evaluates their social and environmental performance.10 The goal of B Corp is not to just certify companies but to build a new system that requires companies to balance purpose and profit.

How does it work?

Each company that applies for the B Corp certification gets a B Impact score that indicates their social and environmental conduct.11 The companies are self-assessed and the data is then verified by B Lab, a third-party non-profit.

However…

The exact standards that a company must meet to achieve at least 80 points (out of 200) in order to get this certification are not that transparent.12,13, Additionally, as a consumer, you will not find much data about each company's evaluation. The company is not even required to publish its environmental and social impact reports. Being a B Certified corporation appears to be a step in the right direction but to actually assess this certification program and the performance of B Certified corporations, more transparency is needed.

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Cradle to Cradle logo

© Cradle to Cradle Certified

CRADLE TO CRADLE (C2C)

Cradle to Cradle is a certification for textiles but also fragrances, flooring, buildings that are considered to be safer, more sustainable and made for the circular economy.81 The name represents its circular approach to production: 'from cradle to cradle' rather than from 'cradle to grave'.82

This certification should encourage companies to work towards a design and production of products with a positive effect on the environment - rather than 'less negative'.83 This means that, for instance, during the production process, the used water is purified and not polluted.

What are the criteria?

For a product to be C2C certified, five categories are addressed: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.81

There are five achievement levels assigned to a product for each category: Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. When a product is assigned different levels of achievements for the five categories, the lowest category represents its overall certification level. For instance, a T-shirt receives the basic achievement level for material reuse but platinum achievement level for all other categories, the T-shirt's overall certification is at the basic achievement level.

How does it work?

It's quite simple. A company applies for the certification and selects an accredited independent assessment body for the product's testing, analysis and evaluation.84 If the requirements are met, the product is C2C certified. This certification promotes continuous improvement and therefore, every two years, the certification needs to be renewed.81

However...

The C2C approach disregards the use phase of a product.85 For instance, with textiles, the use phase is one with the highest environmental impact (62%) while the second most environmentally-impactful phase is raw materials sourcing (21%).86 This tells us that the C2C design is only responsible for 28% of the environmental impact of textiles (raw material sourcing and end of life combined).

So, C2C does not always distinguish environmentally preferable products because it does not guarantee environmental improvements for products with high energy consumptions during its use phase.

It would be preferred to combine the approach of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) with the C2C analysis. This way, the entire life cycle of the product is evaluated and the product designers can better optimize the product's phase with the highest environmental impact.85,87

Another criticism is about the fact that too much information about the products is overly protected. Even though it is understandable that companies can't always publish all the details about their projects, there is a demand for more open-source information regarding C2C certified products.85,88

Essentially, the C2C approach should not be regarded as a solution that is applicable to all designs, in its full form and at this exact time.87 One size doesn't fit all because, for instance, the size of an organization also affects its capacity to experiment with cradle to cradle designs.

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European Ecolabel logo

© European Commission

European Ecolabel (EU Ecolabel)

When a product receives the EU Ecolabel, established by the European Union, it means that it meets the environmental criteria set by the EU and is considered to be of good quality.14 Overall, the EU Ecolabel strives to promote the circular economy by encouraging companies to generate less waste and CO2 as well as encourage them to develop durable, recyclable and repairable products.

What environmental criteria, you're asking?

Here it gets a bit more complicated… The criteria are tailored to each product type and its unique characteristics and different life-cycles.15 Even though the criteria look at every stage of the product's life-cycle, the focus is especially on stages where the highest environmental impact happens.

How does it actually work?

For instance, textiles usually have the highest environmental impact when they are dyed, printed and bleached.16 Therefore, the criteria designed by experts are meant to reduce harm during the manufacturing phase as much as possible. When it comes to electronics, the focus is on efficiency and energy consumption as their environmental impact is especially high during its use phase.

Let's take a few concrete examples of a criterion a product needs to meet (among many many others) in order to receive the EU Ecolabel: washing detergent has to work at 30 °C in order to actually save energy, personal care products must ban microplastics while also limiting packaging waste and electronic equipment must be easy to repair in order for it to last longer.17

However…

Even the EU Ecolabel did not avoid some criticism. To give you just one example, when it comes to viscose, the standards do not cover deforestation and illegal logging or water pollution during its manufacturing phase, which is quite problematic.18

The question that also arises is: why, in some aspects, does the EU Ecolabel have lower standards for viscose than EU BAT (EU Best Available Techniques) which were set over 10 years ago? In addition, there were some complaints regarding the controls and site visits which are sometimes replaced by a company's written statement and self-assessment.

The EU Ecolabel is definitely a step into the right (and more sustainable) direction. Just keep in mind that like any other label, EU Ecolabel is not perfect and you might want to watch out for products made of not super sustainable materials like viscose and judge each product individually.

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Fairtrade cotton and Fairtrade Textile Standard logos

© Fairtrade

Fairtrade

You have probably already heard about Fairtrade. It is one of the most well-known certifications in the world. You might have noticed its label on coffee, tea, bananas or flowers.

But did you know that there is also Fairtrade certified cotton? This label on cotton means that this material was produced in a fair working environment.19 Fairtrade bans genetically modified cotton seeds and a large percentage of Fairtrade cotton is also certified as organic. Since introducing Fairtrade certified cotton in 2005, their objective has been to extend their Fairtrade Standard to the entire textile supply chain.

In 2016, they finally introduced the Fairtrade Textile Standard. It applies to companies employing workers in the textile supply chain where Fairtrade certified cotton and/or other fibres that are labelled as “responsible” (which can include synthetic, man-made or natural fibres) are processed.20 In addition, this standard can also apply to brand owners who purchase finished textiles.

The Fairtrade Textile Standard is designed to improve the working conditions and wages of the workers as well as address the environmental impact of textile production.21

What criteria are involved?

The social criteria require the implementation of living wages, workplace safety, freedom of association and the collective bargaining rights for the workforce, no child or forced labour, no discrimination and reasonable working hours.

The environmental criteria focus on reducing the negative impacts on the environment by controlling the use of chemicals, reducing the water waste and air pollution and banning processes that are harmful to the environment or human health (chlorine bleaching, for instance).

How come I have never heard of Fairtrade Textile Standard?

It is relatively new - Fairtrade introduced this standard in 2016 and they explained that certifying the supply chain would take some time due to its complexity.22 And it did - just earlier this year (2020) Fairtrade certified the first sewing factory with their Fairtrade Textile Standard.23

However…

The Fairtrade Textile Standard was already subject to some criticism. A supply chain can have the Fairtrade Textile Standard certification even before its workers receive living wages (but it needs to meet the other criteria).24,25 Companies need to include a claim regarding their progress in this aspect - this claim is optional on the packaging but compulsory for all off-pack uses. They have six years for actually implementing a living wage for the workers - but there is no guarantee that the company stays with its supplier when the prices go up.

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Fair Wear Foundation logo

© Fair Wear Foundation

Fair Wear Foundation (FWF)

Fair Wear Foundation is a non-profit organization with one goal: to improve conditions for workers in garment factories.26 It is often viewed as a certification but that’s not actually the case - FWF offers membership to brands. The membership criteria focus specifically on labour standards in the garment industry.

The member brands strive to influence the factories that produce their textiles to ensure fair working conditions for the workers by adhering to a code of conduct based on the International Labour Organization's criteria.27

These criteria include: no forced labour or child labour, no discrimination or unreasonable working hours, the right to form trade unions and have a legal employment contract, a living wage and safe and healthy working conditions.

How does it work?

A brand does not have to perform perfectly to start working with FWF.28,29 However, only brands that fall into the category “Leader” can use the FWF logo. FWF offers guidance to brands and highlights areas where they can make changes with the greatest impact. Then, FWF reviews brands' activities and assesses, for instance, whether the plan for improvement is realistic or whether a problem that was detected in a previous assessment was successfully resolved.

Factory audits ensure that FWF knows what is happening in factories. Based on the findings, brands receive recommendations on what to improve. Moreover, factory training sessions ensure that workers are aware of what safe and working conditions are and when there is a problem, they can use the complaints helpline to report an issue.

However…

Even though there are independent third-parties involved in the monitoring process, it is mainly up to the brand to solve its problems. Therefore, a lot of changes and improvements depend on the brand itself which means the changes might not be actually happening.30

This is quite different from the certification programs that are not based on membership. Let's take the EU Ecolabel as an example: for a product to receive the EU Ecolabel, it is necessary that the standards are already met whereas FWF expects improvements over time.

It cannot be emphasized enough that FWF does not certify brands as “X% fair”. This means that FWF membership alone is far from indicating the actual status of the company's fair policies.27 However, FWF reports on its member brands and their performance so you can make more informed decisions by checking their reports.

If you'd love to wear clothes from brands that are members of FWF, have a look at our FWF collection for women and also our FWF collection for men.

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Global Organic Textile Standard logo

© Global Organic Textile Standard

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

The Global Organic Textile Standard is a certificate for textiles made from organic fibres. This certification requires compliance with high-level environmental criteria as well as social criteria.31

The environmental criteria were designed to ensure the organic status of textile from processing of the raw materials, through manufacturing up to packaging and labelling.

The GOTS certification may apply to only one step of the process. This means that textile is only fully GOTS certified if all steps of the process have the GOTS certification. To make sure that companies comply with GOTS' criteria, a dual system that consists of on-site auditing and residue testing was developed.

Watch out: there are 2 levels of GOTS certification.

  • The “organic” label indicates that at least 95% of the textile is made of certified organic fibres and a maximum of 5% is non-organic fibres.32
  • The “made with X% organic” label indicates that at least 70% of the textile is made of certified organic fibres and maximum of 30% is non-organic fibres (but a maximum of 10% synthetic fibres. For socks, leggings and sportswear, the allowed maximum of synthetic fibres is actually 25%.).

Both labels do not allow GMOs, conventional cotton, angora wool and virgin polyester. Additionally, blending organic and conventional fibres of the same type is not allowed.

However…

Even though GOTS is a very well-known and often praised certification, there have been some concerns about its social criteria. They were criticized for being “too weak” as the GOTS guidelines describe that the fibres they do not allow are the ones that come from production projects where there is an “evidence of a persistent pattern of gross violations of the ILO core labour norms … and/or of animal welfare principles or irrefutable evidence of a persistent pattern of land grabbing methods”18

As the terms “persistent pattern” or “irrefutable evidence” are quite strong, it is likely that the process of banning fibres from questionable production facilities is not as uncompromising as you might have expected. So, you might feel comfortable about GOTS certification when considering their environmental criteria while being a bit more sceptical about their social criteria.

If you'd love to wear GOTS-certified clothes, have a look at our GOTS-certified collection for women and also our GOTS-certified collection for men.

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Global Recycle Standard logo

© Textile Exchange

Global Recycle Standard (GRS)

The Global Recycle Standard, developed by Textile Exchange, is an international standard that was designed to track the use of recycled materials.33 Therefore, each step of the production needs to be certified. The third-party verification also has criteria for environmental and social practices.

However…

The GRS can be used as a business-to-business tool for products that contain at least 20% of recycled material (although some exceptions apply).33 For consumer-facing labelling, the product needs to contain at least 50% of the recycled material. Unfortunately, you as the customer will not be aware of the percentage of actual recycled material used in the final product.

If you are a fan of recycled materials, have a look at our GRS-certified collection for women and also our GRS-certified collection for men.

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Green Button logo

© German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

Grüner Knopf (Green Button)

The Grüner Knopf is a certification for clothing, bedding and rucksacks that was launched by the German Development Ministry.34 To receive this certification, the products need to meet quite the list of 26 social and environmental criteria. The criteria include minimum wages for workers, reasonable working hours, ban of child and forced labour or ban of softening agents and dangerous chemicals.

This certification focuses on production stages (for instance, on cutting, bleaching, dyeing), but the ambition is to extend the criteria for other stages of the process too. Monitoring whether a company is complying with the criteria is conducted by an independent auditing body.

However…

While the Green Button was launched only in 2019, it has already received some criticism. Not only because of the fact that other stages of the process are not monitored but also because of its cost and the amount of bureaucracy involved.35,36 The main criticism is that it brings nothing new, the criteria are weak and it will not make any real difference in the industry. And that is quite apparent - the social requirements include, for instance, payment of minimum wages instead of pushing for living wages. That is pretty disappointing, especially when the certification comes from a governmental department.

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Oeko Tex Standard 100 and Made in Green logos

© Oeko-Tex

Oeko-Tex

OEKO-TEX is a union of 18 independent institutes that research and test textiles in Europe, Japan and with partners all around the world.37 OEKO-TEX developed several certification labels and services you might’ve come across:

  • STANDARD 100 & MADE IN GREEN are labels for products
  • STeP is a certification system designed for production facilities, brands and retailers
  • DETOX TO ZERO is a system that verifies whether the criteria set by a Greenpeace's Detox Campaign are being implemented in production facilities
  • ECO PASSPORT is a certification for suppliers of chemicals

Let's talk about the two product labels:

OEKO-TEX STANDARD 100

STANDARD 100 applies to textiles. It guarantees that a product is made of components that were tested for harmful substances and that it was shown to be harmless for humans and their health.38 (*One exception is made for endocrine disrupters and substances suspected to be cancerous but not yet scientifically proven to pose risk to humans' health.)39 The testing procedure is conducted by independent institutes that investigate regulated as well as non-regulated substances.

However #1

Even though OEKO (='eco' in German) triggers the thought of a certain environmental criterion, this is not the case.39,18 Standard 100 is actually a health certification, not an environmental one. This label does not mention any requirement related to the use of genetically modified crops, pesticides or organic cotton.

The thought behind this label was that if it is not harmful to humans, it cannot be harmful to the planet either. We already know that this is not the right conclusion and since then, OEKO-TEX developed other environmentally-friendly labels. However, they are not used that often since the market recognizes and prefers other labels, with much stricter and higher standards.

OEKO-TEX MADE IN GREEN

MADE IN GREEN is a label designed for textiles to indicate that the product does not contain harmful substances (meaning it must be Standard 100-certified) and the production itself took place in environmentally-friendly facilities under safe and fair working conditions (meaning the facilities must be STeP-certified).40,41

However #2

The requirements for receiving these certifications are phrased very vaguely.42 For instance, STeP certification that is meant to ensure that the facility is both environmentally-friendly and socially responsible has these regulations about the packaging: “Recycling and reuse of packaging material for internal purposes is encouraged and single-use packaging should be avoided.

Looking at the social responsibility and raw materials sourcing, it states “When sourcing raw materials, such as fibres, companies should make sure to source only from suppliers that can prove they work responsibly and sustainably.”

The use of the word “should” means that they are just recommendations and not obligations. So, you can't be really sure that products with the Made In Green label were produced in a fair and sustainable environment.

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Organic Content Standard 100 and Blended logos

© Textile Exchange

Organic Content Standard (OCS)

The Organic Content Standard, also developed by Textile Exchange, was designed for tracking and confirming the presence and amount of organic material in the final product.43 Any non-food product that consists of 5-100% organically grown material can obtain this label. The testing procedure is conducted by an independent party.

Watch out - you will find these 3 versions of the OCS on products:

  • “Made with/Contains 100% Organically Grown Material” when the product contains 100% organic material. Only then, the OCS 100 logo can be used on the product.44
  • “Made with/Contains Organically Grown Material” is used for products that contain 95% or more organic material. The rest of the product cannot be made of the same type of material as the organic material (for instance, a product that consists of 95% organic cotton and 5% conventional cotton does not belong to this category). Interestingly, the OCS 100 logo can be also used on products that fall into this category.
  • “Made with/Contains X% Organically Grown Material” for products that contain 5-99% organic material. There are no restrictions for the rest of the content. In this case, the OCS Blended logo is used on the product.

However…

This label does not take into account any other environmental or social aspects related to the production.44 If you, as an ethical consumer, care about more than just an organic composition of the product you are buying, you should check whether it has other (and reliable) certifications.

If you'd enjoy wearing OCS-certified clothes, have a look at our OCS-certified collection for women and also our OCS-certified collection for men.

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Peta-Approved Vegan logo

© PETA

PETA-Approved Vegan

PETA, one of the largest animal rights organization, developed the PETA-Approved Vegan certification to indicate that a product does not contain any animal products.45,46 This certificate can be used for accessories, furniture, home decor and clothing, and is widely seen on clothing tags and product shots at webshops.

However…

The companies that apply for this certification do not go through any inspections.30 While it might have been created with the best of intentions, PETA relies solely on the company's own self-auditing to confirm that the product is actually animal-free. So, it may occur that a product carries the PETA-Approved Vegan label while it is not actually vegan (anymore).

You can use this certification as an indication of a potential vegan product but we recommend you to double-check whether the product is actually vegan, just to be sure really no animals were harmed in the process.

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Recycled Claim Standard logo

© Textile Exchange

Recycled Claim Standard (RCS 100 & RCS blended)

The Recycled Claim Standard too was designed by Textile Exchange to verify the presence and amount of recycled content in final products.47 The testing procedure is conducted by an independent party and each stage of production needs to be certified.

The RCS comes in 2 flavours:

  • For products made with 95-100% recycled materials, the RCS 100 logo is used. The rest of the product cannot be made of the same type of material as the recycled material.48
  • When the product contains just 5-95% recycled material, the RCS Blended logo is used. In this case, there are no restrictions for the rest of the content.

However…

This label does not take into account other environmental or social aspects related to the production.47 Therefore, if you want to be sure that a product was produced more sustainably and ethically, you should also look out for additional (and reliable) certifications.

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ROC logo

© Regenerative Organic Certification

Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC)

Regenerative Organic Certification is a holistic agriculture certification aiming to transform the farming industry - from fossil-fuel-intensive practices to organic and low-till practices in order to have healthy soil and reduce carbon emissions.74

This certification is built on three pillars: animal welfare, fairness for farmers and workers and environmental requirements for soil health and land management. It is overseen by the non-profit Regenerative Organic Alliance that is made up of experts in the field of farming, animal welfare, social fairness and soil health.75

What about their criteria?

The criteria built on these pillars require specific practices to be followed or banned.76 For instance, one of the animal welfare requirements is 'transportation time from the loading of the first animal to last animal unloading takes less than 13 hours and food and water is not withdrawn for more than 12 hours prior to the slaughter'. This requirement applies to companies at the silver and gold level and is optional for companies at the bronze level.

However, the most ethical choice would, of course, be to not use, kill or wear any animal at all. Even though banning certain practices such as mulesing (which this certification does forbid) is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s simply not necessary in this day and age when there are so many animal-free, sustainable alternatives. We recommend you buying clothes that are entirely animal-free - only then you can be sure that no animal suffered for the clothes we buy and wear.

Another example is the social fairness requirement freedom of association - only the companies at silver and gold level need to meet this requirement.

What is the reason for another certification?

The thinking behind ROC is that 'organic is not enough'.77 The intention is not to replace the 'organic' label, but to keep it strong as it was intended while setting the bar for certifications even higher.

The producers move up through three levels77

The Bronze level represents the beginning level and the Gold level is the highest achievable stage for the producers. This system enables producers to continuously improve their practices.76

  • Bronze level: to get to the bronze level, between 0-50% of fibre- or food-producing land must be certified. The producer is not allowed to label its products with the ROC logo. Each year, the company must reapply for certification. After three years, its operations must progress to the next level.
  • Silver level: to get to the silver level, at least 50% of fibre- or food-producing land must be certified. By its 5th year, it must reach at least 75%. Therefore, each year, the producer needs to reapply for certification. The producer is allowed to label its products with the ROC logo.
  • Gold level: to get to the gold level, 100% of fibre- or food-producing land must be certified. The company is, of course, allowed to label its products.

The Regenerative Organic Certification comes in four versions:76

There are four categories of labelling based on the use of Regenerative Organic Certified ingredients in a product:

  • '100% Regenerative Organic Certified' - the product was produced and processed using only regenerative organic methods and ingredients (with the exception of water and salt).
  • 'Regenerative Organic Certified' - the product is produced and certified as USDA organic (or its equivalent) and contains at least 95% regenerative organic ingredients. The non-organic ingredients must be non-GMO, irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge.
  • 'Made with regenerative organic ingredients' - the product contains 70-95% regenerative organic ingredients. These products cannot carry the ROC logo. The non-organic ingredients must be non-GMO, irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge.
  • Products with fewer than 70% regenerative organic ingredients can use “regenerative organic” to specify the used ingredients. However, the ROC logo nor any front panel claims about the ROC certification are not allowed.

How does it work?77

A company or a farm that wishes to be ROC-certified first needs to be USDA organic-certified (or international equivalent). ROC-certified producers also need to have a certification for animal welfare and social fairness such as Animal-Welfare Approved or Fair Trade Certified.

The process of getting the ROC certification is quite simple. First, an online application needs to be submitted.78 If eligible for ROC, a customized Regenerative Organic System Plan is sent to the company. Then, a certifying body makes the final decision about receiving the certification. The company is audited annually.

However…

There was some criticism raised against adding yet another label into the mix.77 Some voiced their opinion that this certification is wrapped up in marketing instead of being backed up by extensive research which might hinder its chances to actually improve the current farming situation.

Moreover, ROC was criticized for being primarily practice-based rather than measuring data-driven outcomes which restricts farmers instead of fostering innovation.

At the same time, the experts behind ROC argue that this certification is high-bar, gold standard umbrella certifications.79 At the time of writing, it is still too early to say as this certification began its pilot testing phase in 2019 and revised its framework just in June 2020.80

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SA8000 logo

© SA8000

SA8000

SA8000 is a social certification program based on the UN Declaration of Human Rights, International Labour Organization conventions and national laws.49,50 This certification is not designed for brands or products but for factories all around the world.

In short, the 9 elements covered by this certification are: no child labour, no forced or compulsory labour, healthy and safe working conditions, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, no discrimination, no disciplinary practices, reasonable working hours, remuneration and management system.

How does it work?

The process of receiving the SA8000 certification is quite common. First, the factory needs to fill in the self-assessment form and then contact a SA8000 accredited certification body to start the evaluation process.51 The evaluation includes identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the factory and judging whether it complies with the SA8000 standards. If it does, the factory can start using the certification. The certification is valid for 3 years and throughout that time, announced and unannounced on-site monitoring takes place.

However…

There were multiple reports criticizing this certification program for not being able to protect the workers in supply chains. One of the most tragic examples is the Ali Enterprises fire in Karachi, Pakistan where nearly 300 workers died - just a few weeks after the factory received SA8000 certification.52 This certification was given out to the factory despite several safety hazards, such as the lack of proper fire exits. What might come as a shock is the fact that even after this accident, their SA8000 certification was not revoked.

Additionally, according to the New York Times, many workers at the factory worked for 12 hours a day and they received only $58 per month - which is way less than the minimum, let alone living wage.53

The problem with voluntary certification programs like this one lies in the fact that auditors sometimes feel pressured not to report a problem as their revenue depends on issuing the certification. At the same time, the workers feel forced to lie about their working conditions to not get fired.52

Due to many reported scandals connected to the factories that are certified with SA8000, we strongly advise to be critical of it and not rely on this certification alone.

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Sedex and Smeta logo

© SEDEX

Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA)

SMETA is not a certification system but an auditing methodology that combines multiple practices of ethical audit techniques. It was designed to enable suppliers to share one audit with numerous customers and therefore, avoid duplication in ethical auditing.68

There is a platform called Sedex-Database that is used by its members (suppliers, retailers, distributors or processors) who can manage their suppliers and exchange information on their ethical performance.69

How does it work?

First, for the site to be audited a self-evaluation form needs to be submitted.70 Then, the auditors visit the sites, assess to which extent the SMETA criteria are met and create an audit report which will get uploaded to the Sedex database.

There are two types of audits:

  • 2 pillar audit consists of labour and health & safety standards. This type of audit has some environmental requirements but they depend on the laws of the corresponding country
  • 4 pillar audit consists of labour, health & safety, environment and business integrity standards.

Why does it actually work like this?

Some suppliers are being audited multiple times a year due to having numerous customers with a different set of standards - this causes work to be often disrupted or even makes the suppliers more inclined to commit audit frauds.71

To avoid this, Sedex aims to increase efficiency in ethical trade auditing and decrease the audit costs (that are often paid by the suppliers) so these resources can be spent on activities that would improve the working conditions and lives of workers in the supply chain.

What are their criteria?

Sedex has a set of measurement criteria for the suppliers.72 They include: no forced labour, freedom of association, health and safety, no child labour, living wage (in countries where a living wage is not established, they use the minimum wage and correct overtime premiums as the requirement), reasonable working hours, no discrimination, no inhumane treatment, regular employment. Other issues such as entitlement to work, the two different audit pillars, business ethics and community benefits are also taken into consideration.

However…

Only the buyers, suppliers and auditors have access to the Sedex database which includes the reports on the ethical performance of their suppliers. Unfortunately, you as a customer cannot access this information.

What is also important to mention is the fact that Sedex does not determine the frequency of audits and it is up to the buyer to decide on how often they will require the audits to be carried out.73

Moreover, Sedex was subject to some criticism in the past as claims were made that the information provided in audits was not always accurate.71 Some said that this might be due to Sedex recommending short timescales for closing-off non-compliances which might have pressured some suppliers to deceive the auditors.

But that being said, all audit reports should be looked at with a bit of scepticism and there isn't a reason to believe that the Sedex system is less accurate than any other auditing system. Some even argue that audits that are carried out for Sedex members are done more rigorously as they are expected to be read and reviewed by numerous customers of the audited supplier.

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Soil Association logo

© Soil Association

Soil Association

Soil Association Certification isn’t a certification itself but one of the UK's biggest organic certification body.54 It certifies organic food products as well as organic clothes and textiles.

Soil Association can certify to two organic textiles certification programs - The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Organic Content Standard (OCS) in 11 countries around the world.55,56

How does it work?

If a company applies for GOTS or OCS certification via Soil Association and meets the standards for the certification, the GOTS or OCS logo must be accompanied by the reference to the Soil Association and/or the Soil Association logo.57

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World Fair Trade Organization logo

© World Fair Trade Organization

World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO)

The World Fair Trade Organization is dedicated to fair trade production all around the world.58 WFTO doesn't just look at a specific product, material or supply chain, it actually assesses the business as a whole. The assessment analyzes whether the business actually implements its 10 Fair Trade Principles that are based on the International Labour Organization principles.

More specifically, the principles are: creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers, transparency & accountability, fair trading practices, fair payment, no child labour & forced labour, no discrimination & freedom of association, safe working conditions, providing capacity building of its employees, promoting fair trade and respect for the environment.

Is WFTO a certification?

Not really - but it is often viewed as one. WFTO is actually a verification system that, just like Fair Wear Foundation, offers membership to brands. In order for a company to become a WFTO member, it does not have to be perfect from the get-go. Some criteria must be met from the very beginning while other criteria have a deadline. There are some other aspects in which the company must show constant improvement over the years. Moreover, WFTO members are audited every two years.

Let's take Principle 6 as an example. Commitment to Non Discrimination, Gender Equity and Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Freedom of Association: a member needs to provide equal pay for equal work, equal employment rights and benefits for women and men (and many other criteria) from the very beginning. The deadline of two years applies to both women and men participating in decision-making in the organisation and taking up leadership positions. The member needs to show continuous improvement in, for instance, supporting workers in work-life balance (which encompasses flexible working hours, allowing time for breastfeeding and so forth).

Watch out: there are 2 WFTO labels

  • The Guaranteed Fair Trade product label, that can only be used by WFTO members.59
  • The Guaranteed Fair Trade Origin label, that can be used by first direct buyers (this includes both WFTO members and non WFTO members).

How come non WFTO members can use this label? This decision about allowing non WFTO members to use the label was due to the desire to expand their reach. In practice, it works like this: if the buyer wants to sell the product without rebranding it, they can use the product label without any particular agreement with FTO. However, if these buyers (so-called 'resellers') would like to rebrand the product while using the buyer label or use the label for some promotional materials, a contract between the buyer, WFTO and FTO is necessary.

Even though…

That might have been beneficial for the producing members and it might increase the awareness about WFTO, that decision was not warmly welcomed by all stakeholders. The drawback of this decision was the fact that non WFTO members would get the benefits without being bound to a thorough control and compliance with fair trade criteria.

Fortunately, WFTO listened to the concerns and developed a system for non WFTO members. This system ensures that WFTO has the right to conduct an independent audit or investigate complaints as well as withdraw permission for use of the WFTO label, if justified. However, non WFTO members need to respect only 6 out of the 10 WFTO principles. These include: transparency & accountability, fair trading practices, fair payment, no discrimination & freedom of association, safe working conditions and respect for the environment. Unfortunately, it excludes the principle of no child or forced labour.

Overall, WFTO seems like a reliable and trustworthy organization that certifies fair trade products that meet strict criteria. As you already know, products with Guaranteed Fair Trade Origin label do not need to meet all 10 Fair Trade Principles, so we recommend being a bit more cautious when seeing that label.

If you'd enjoy wearing clothes from brands that are members of WFTO, have a look at our WFTO collection for women.

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Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production logo

© Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production

Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP)

Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production is a certification program designed for factories that comply with their 12 principles: compliance with laws and workplace regulations, no forced labour, no child labour, no harassment and abuse, (at least) minimum compensation and benefits, reasonable working hours, no discrimination, healthy and safe working conditions, freedom of association and collective bargaining, compliance with environmental rules and regulations, customs compliance and security.60

They declare a zero tolerance policy which means that if any factory is proven to be violating the 12 principles, it will lose its certification and will not be able to get certified in the future.

How does it work?

A production facility submits an application to WRAP and pays a registration fee.61 The second step of the process is self-assessment of the facility where they have to show compliance with the 12 principles. Then, the facility chooses a monitoring organization that is WRAP-accredited to audit the facility against the 12 principles. After the audit, WRAP evaluates the report and decides whether to certify the facility or not. If a facility fails to meet all the requirements, it will be informed about what needs to be improved and an additional inspection can take place.

The WRAP certification comes in 3 flavours:

  • Platinum certification indicates that a facility has shown full compliance with the 12 principles for 3 consecutive inspections.
  • Gold certification indicates that a facility has shown full compliance with the 12 principles.
  • Silver certification indicates that a facility has shown substantial compliance with the 12 principles, however, a few minor non-compliances were identified and need to be addressed. Nonetheless, the facility cannot have any non-compliances in terms of child or forced labour, serious health and environmental issues, safe working conditions and the workers need to be paid at least the minimum wage and receive compensation for working overtime.

However…

It seems that WRAP's commendable zero tolerance policy is, unfortunately, only theoretical. WRAP was involved in some scandals that revealed that many WRAP-certified factories violate the 12 principles, including child labour, unpaid wages, illegal firings as well as harassment of workers.62 Despite these revelations, the factories involved in these scandals did not have their WRAP-certification revoked. So, we don't recommend relying on the WRAP certification.

You might be left wondering… Are there any certifications I can fully trust and rely on?

This article aims to highlight the many nuances in the ethical and sustainable fashion industry. Just like any other aspect of our lives, more ethical and sustainable consumption is not a black-and-white issue.

Not a black-and-white issue

Just to illustrate the complexity of this, imagine a scenario where:

  • An ethical and sustainable company of a smaller size decides not to use a label because it is enormously expensive or time-consuming. But this should not undermine their ethical and sustainable practices.
  • An ethical company does not use a certain label because it deems its standards too low…whereas a not-so-ethical company can find loopholes in the requirements for being certified and obtain a label while not operating ethically and sustainably.
  • A company selling clothes that are certified as fair and sustainable while still contributing to animal exploitation by using materials such as leather or wool.

It isn't as simple as we would like it to be.

Ethical consumerism on the rise

Fortunately, the world of slow, ethical and sustainable fashion is growing and the number of ethical consumers, like yourself, is on the rise. It is no wonder why many companies want to jump on this train, hide behind claims and labels or their (sometimes genuinely unintentionally) greenwashing marketing strategies. This makes shopping more ethically and sustainably a bit more difficult - but we hope reading this overview has helped you gain more insights and confidence in your ethical choices.

Even if this means that you may trust only a few certification programs, it is important to know what matters to you when you are making a purchase.

Shop like you give a damn

At Shop Like You Give a Damn, we invite you to shop compassionately. As little as possible. But always vegan, fair and as sustainably as possible. Use our 14 ethical & environmental criteria to filter on the issues that matter to you most!

If you are still feeling hungry for information, you will find more resources below:

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