Ethical and Environmental Fashion Certifications
While I don’t subscribe to a consumption practice that demands certifications from every brand I support, there is no question in my mind that ethical and environmental certifications are good for the garment and consumer goods industries.
That’s because certifying agencies set a minimum standard for a particular ethos, such as fair labor or organic textiles, then require companies to pay for regular external auditing in order to receive certification status.
As we have seen time and time again, all the glossy promises don’t mean much if no one is holding companies accountable to living up to them! While no accountability structure is perfect, certifying agencies are one way ensure better business practices.
Of course, this strategy is not free of loopholes, and certifying agencies like Fair Trade USA have been accused of being too generous in their approval process. This led them to part ways with Fair Trade International in 2012.
The split occurred because Fair Trade USA certified Starbucks, which more strict fair trade certifiers saw as a lazy or even opportunistic move considering how complicated it is to trace coffee.
(Bruce Wydick, a journalist I really admire, wrote about fair trade coffee here).
Fair Trade USA argues that their intention was to use the standard more consistently across industries. And having heard a representative from the agency speak at the Sustainable Fashion Conference I attended in 2018, I do think they are trying.
Certifications Make an Impact
Despite inconsistencies and disagreements within agencies and from consumers, certifying agencies, at the very least, provide a framework for understanding what we mean when we use “ethical” terminology.
And this also helps companies that aren’t certified, because it means they have a set of metrics to weigh their process against.
So, certified or not, we can use the language of certifications to express what our goals are when producing and consuming goods, and that’s a good place to start.
According to the World Fair Trade Organization, fair trade is:
“…a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South…”
The following certifications ensure that basic fair trade standards are being met:
Fair Trade Federation
US based, the Fair Trade Federation works to build sustainable, long term partnerships with marginalized artisan communities.
Fair Trade Certified/Fair Trade USA
“The leading independent third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in North America,” Fair Trade USA offers certification to producers of both food and textiles.
Fair Trade America
Fair Trade America is the US arm of Fair Trade International and operates under its standards. Members include food companies like Divine Chocolate and Ben & Jerry’s, but they also certify cotton.
Fair For Life
Founded in Switzerland, The Fair For Life credential applies to both food and textile products, and currently boasts over 3,000 products under its certification program.
World Fair Trade Organization
Founded in 1989, WFTO is one of the world’s largest fair trade certifiers, with over 324 networked organizations across the world. All certified organizations must meet the WFTO’s Ten Principles of Fair Trade, which includes environmental stipulations.
WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) is a social compliance certification for factories rather than brands. It focuses on 12 principles: legal compliance, no forced labor, no child labor, no harassment, legal compensation and work hours, nondiscrimination, health and safety, freedom of association, environment, customs compliance, and security. WRAP essentially tells the consumer that the basic standards of business are being followed. It is not a fair trade certification.
Ethical Trading Initiative
Similar to the WRAP certification, ETI sets a minimum standard across 8 humanitarian principles. They also offer region and subject specific training programs for businesses to ensure that they retain a base ethical standard. ETI is a good jumping-off point for brands looking to reform their supply chain.
While fair trade certifications operate under a unifying set of values regarding labor rights and sustainable empowerment, environmental certifications tend to be more specific.
As you’ll see below, these certifications deal with a particular environmental concern and, as a result, eco-friendly companies are often certified under more than one standard.
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
The Better Cotton Initiative certifies cotton for water stewardship, responsible farming, soil health, biodiversity, and fiber quality. It also has some holistic metrics: namely, a focus on safe work and an emphasis on effective business practices.
bluesign assesses individual components of the textile production process, with a focus on nontoxic dyes and appropriate and safe chemical processing practices. Branded as a holistic certification, bluesign’s sustainability standard, while eco-friendly, has human safety in mind.
Used internationally, OEKO-TEX is a textile certification program that ensures that fabrics are safe. The organization checks for toxic dyes, banned chemicals, and other toxic substances to ensure consumer and environmental health.
The leading certifier for organic textiles, GOTS, which stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, sets a universal definition for what constitutes the category “organic” when it comes to fibers like cotton and wool. In addition, textiles companies must make a commitment to exclude toxic dyes and chemicals.
Rainforest Certified products that bear the green frog label must meet several standards that protect for biodiversity, safe pesticide use, natural resource conservation, human flourishing, and a commitment to continuing improvement.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies that palm oil distributed under its label is harvested sustainably and fully traceable throughout the supply chain. This certification is somewhat contentious, with critics arguing that it is actually impossible to fully trace palm oil.
There is no question that fair trade and environmental certifications are useful. But while they build trust with consumers, they don’t always tell the full story. Businesses that seek to be sustainable in the long term must weave social responsibility into every aspect of their process, from corporate environment to textile sourcing to waste reduction.
These holistic certifications see the big picture.
Cradle to Cradle
With a focus on preventative measures, Cradle to Cradle certifies that businesses have made an effort to decrease energy, water usage, and waste in their supply chain in addition to using nontoxic processes and treating workers and communities fairly.
Based in the US but open internationally, B-Corp Certification is tailored toward for-profit social enterprises that seek to meet high transparency standards along with responsible labor and environmental practices.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.