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This post contains two guides:

  1. Ethical & Sustainable Fashion Terms
  2. Ethical, sustainable, and holistic certifications

Ethical Fashion Definitions

Fair Trade

According to the World Fair Trade Organization (my go-to for fair trade info), fair trade is defined as:

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 fair trade model is set up to help the poorest people in the poorest areas of the world. It doesn’t necessarily seek to revolutionize the entire industry (though I think many would argue that it does set itself up as a model for the ideal relationship between producers and consumers). Rather, it hopes to provide economic opportunities and social stability to those who would otherwise not have access to good work and fair wages. That’s a big reason why fair trade organizations and businesses focus on skills and education for women, who often experience the greatest disadvantages when access to resources is scarce.

A number of the most prominent “ethical” companies – and certainly most of the brands I’ve featured here – are categorized as fair trade. Some have official fair trade status granted to them by external auditing agencies, but it costs a pretty penny to get fair trade certified, so some operate under fair trade principles without official certification. Many fair trade organizations are classified as non-profits.

Social Enterprise

Social Enterprises, according to the Social Enterprise Alliance, are:

businesses whose primary purpose is the common good. They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental and human justice agendas.

There are better and worse social enterprises. Be wary of businesses that seem to use “social good” as a marketing tactic but don’t live up to their goals when it comes to transparency and labor rights. In my mind, a social enterprise is better than just any old enterprise, but it leaves itself open to some troubling mindsets and can cause more harm than good for both the people who receive the “benefit” and for the psyches of American consumers. Watch this awesome video with Slavoj Zizek for clarification.

B Corporation

According to the B Corporation website (and helpfully summarized on Wikipedia) a B Corp Certification is:

a private certification issued to for-profit companies by B Lab, a United States-based non-profit organization. To be granted and to preserve certification, companies must receive a minimum score on an online assessment for “social and environmental performance”, satisfy the requirement that the company integrate B Lab commitments to stakeholders into company governing documents, and pay an annual fee ranging from $500 to $25,000.

B Corp certifications are given to businesses with a commitment to fair labor, sustainability, and transparency. The B Corp is the no nonsense sibling to the sentimental social enterprise in the sense that they strive to do good by integrating it into the entire supply chain. B Corps aren’t necessarily attached to a specific social good, but they aren’t as likely to fall prey to well meaning but ineffective ways of “helping” people because they’re simply adhering to a sort of best practices for people and planet.


Sustainable manufacturing, as defined by the Financial Times, is:

managing the triple bottom line – a process by which companies manage their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities. These three impacts are sometimes referred to as profits, people and planet.

You’ve probably noticed that some ethical brands are more oriented toward environmental impact while others focus on labor rights. Sustainable brands tend to think of what’s ethical in a holistic way – after all, we don’t exist apart from nature – so most incorporate fair labor into their business model while also finding ways to reduce waste, water usage, and pesticides throughout the production process and account for the long term financial livelihood of the brand. I’ve come to embrace sustainability above all because I know that those who are committed to sustainability understand that it must extend to employees, consumers, and the earth.


The most basic definition of eco-friendly is:

Not harmful to the environment.

When it comes to manufacturing industries, this is much easier said than done. Chemical runoff, water pollution, degradation of resources, toxic off-gassing, environmental destruction, climate change – these are issues eco-friendly and green brands aim to prevent through practices that prioritize organic materials’ sourcing, low-impact dyes, human and animal friendly processes, closed loop systems, and clean energy.

Still, the definition is broad and open for interpretation, so pay attention to what the company says about its process, not just what it uses in its branding.

There’s also been a lot of greenwashing – or labeling things as eco-friendly when they’re not – as it’s become more popular in recent years. Something made with organic cotton could be produced with toxic dyes. Nature imagery can disguise toiletries steeped in destructive chemicals. Be wary. A certification for organic cotton is available for companies who can afford it. Look for the GOTS Certified label on product listings and tags to ensure that your organic item was produced with consideration for ecological sustainability and check to make sure dyes used are low-impact and nontoxic.


The basic definition of transparency is fairly obvious and doesn’t just apply to the fashion industry, so I’ll use Everlane‘s concept of “radical transparency” here:

Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.

Everlane certainly isn’t the first or only company to value supply chain transparency and, in fact, most companies that fall under the previous categories are likely concerned with transparency, as well. But they have made transparency a buzzword and I think they set a particularly good example for other companies who may not be ready to get certified organic/B corp/fair trade, but want to respond appropriately to consumer demand for ethically produced goods.

Companies concerned with transparency are ready and willing to share information about their factories, production standards, costs, raw materials, and corporate structure. They do an unusually good job at answering tough questions because their employees are trained to know the answers. And they’re prepared to make changes if they don’t live up to consumer (or their own) expectations.


In the words of Happy Cow, Vegan fashion is:

clothing and accessories made from cruelty-free sources, i.e. NO animal products were used in making the garments and gear, and no animal was harmed.

I’m not a vegan, but I do believe in maintaining high ethical standards in the meat and fashion industries. The definition is simple and straightforward and, as such, something can be labeled as vegan without necessarily being sustainable or concerned with the human good. Some leather substitutes, for example, are fairly toxic to the environment and to the people who work with them. But by ensuring that no animals were slaughtered to make your purse or shoes or whatever, you can be certain that no animal suffered, and that matters.

It should also be noted that the conventional leather industry wreaks havoc on workers and the environment, so choosing leather substitutes that treat animals, people, and the planet with respect is a good idea (The True Cost movie expands on this. You can download it here if you haven’t had a chance to see it).


This one’s a doozy, because ethical priorities are different for everyone. I’ll stick to the Ethical Fashion Forum’s definition:

…ethical fashion represents an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment.

Guide to Ethical 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 certifications are good for the garment and consumer goods industries.

Certifying agencies set a minimum standard for a particular ethos, such as fair labor or organic textiles, then require companies to pay for regular auditing in order to receive certification status. 

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 – which led them to part ways with Fair Trade International in 2012 – because they let large scale brands like Starbucks take advantage of the fair trade label without fully understanding the complexities of the global fair trade coffee sourcing industry (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 September, I do think they are trying.

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. (Note that I originally gathered this data for a post on garment industry certifications, so please let me know in the comments if you know of others that apply to food and other consumer industries.)

Labor Certifications (Fair Trade)

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. Learn more here.

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. Learn more here.

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. Learn more here.

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. Learn more here.

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. Learn more here.

Environmental Certifications

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.


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. Learn more here.


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. Learn more here.

Rainforest Alliance 

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. Learn more here.


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. Learn more here.

Holistic Certifications

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. Learn more here.


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. Learn more here.

More industry-related posts in Industry Talk.

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