A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications

A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications stylewise-blog.com

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.

OEKO-TEX

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

.

GOTS

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

.

RSPO

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

.

B-Corp

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

.

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A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications stylewise-blog.com

Ethical Fashion Definitions & Certifications

ethical fashion definitions and certifications
Photo by Ali Naaz on Pexels.com

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

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.

Eco-Friendly/Green

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.

Transparency

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.

Vegan

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).

Ethical

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 and environmental certifications

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.

OEKO-TEX

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.

GOTS

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.

RSPO

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.

B-Corp

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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How the Cruelty Free Label Oversells Veganism

cruelty free isn't the same as vegan stylewise-blog.com

This post is part of the Complexity series: posts intended to explore social justice and ethics issues with nuance, understanding, and ultimately hope. I will bring in several guest writers throughout the series, so stay tuned.

Written by Stephanie Villano and originally published on Here & There Collective. Reposted with permission.

Even if you aren’t vegan, you’ve probably noticed that veganism has been gaining a lot of momentum in the last year or so, and seems generally accepted as more of a mainstream lifestyle instead of a fad. 

With so much more visibility, you’ve probably also heard the lifestyle referred to or promoted as “cruelty free.”

The unofficial mantra of the ethical vegan movement, the phrase is proudly emblazoned on vegan apparel and handbags, or hashtagged in social media posts promoting the lifestyle.

Ethical vegans abstain from consuming or using any products made from or tested on animals with the goal of willfully causing as little harm to other living beings as possible. By refusing to participate in industries that exploit and commodify animals, many ethical vegans bill their lifestyle as one that is free from cruelty.

As someone who has been keen to shed labels as of late, I would still identify as an ethical vegan if pressed to describe my philosophical beliefs – they’re by and large in line with the ethos of the movement.

But, labeling an entire lifestyle as free from cruelty is misguided

I can understand the impulse and the appeal of using the phrase “cruelty free” in the context of describing the conscious choice to eschew products made from harming animals – living a life without harming bringing intentional harm to other living beings is the very essence of living a cruelty free life, after all. And I am certainly guilty of using the term “cruelty free.” But, I’ve been trying to become more aware of when and how I use it and honestly think the movement should let the phrase go entirely.

Words matter.

So does context.

And I think it’s important to consider the ways in which labeling an entire lifestyle “cruelty free” as inaccurate and actually undermines the overall message – which is to live a life intentionally and consciously, with kindness.

Here’s why.

TO MY KNOWLEDGE, THERE EXISTS NO LIFESTYLE THAT IS ENTIRELY CRUELTY FREE

CALLING VEGANISM “CRUELTY FREE” DISCOUNTS, MINIMIZES, AND EVEN ERASES FROM THE CONVERSATION THE MYRIAD OTHER ISSUES WRAPPED UP IN OUR FASHION AND FOOD SUPPLY CHAINS… PARTICULARLY AS IT PERTAINS TO HUMAN SUFFERING.

Honestly, unless you’re eating hyper local, package free, organic, in-season whole foods, making your own clothes, or buying second hand – well, your lifestyle isn’t cruelty free. (and congratulations if you’re able to live up to that standard- but I would imagine that it’s not practical or possible for the lot of us)

I realize that the focus of the ethical vegan movement is to promote the idea that animals are not ours to use or consume, but a lifestyle that is supposed to be about compassion toward all living things should consider human beings as well.

So even though your vegan meal might be absent from intentional cruelty to animals, there might be some ingredient that involved cruelty to people at some point in its supply chain.

For example, how did the bounty of fruits and vegetables get to your local grocery store?

cruelty free isn't the same as vegan stylewise-blog.com

From tropical fruits like mango and dragon fruit piled high in bins in markets in New England, to bright red tomatoes of all shapes and sizes available to shoppers in Chicago in February, we’ve grown accustomed to enjoying a veritable cornucopia of whole foods all year long.

Each and every piece of fruit and vegetable we enjoy was picked, packed, and processed by a human being. If out of season, those same fruits and vegetables were shipped many miles to reach the produce section of your local market, adding to its carbon cost.

And while we might envision idyllic family owned farms brimming with succulent fruits being happily picked by farmers, the sad truth is that the industrialized agricultural industry is rife with human rights violations and what is tantamount to modern day slavery and debt bondage.

No one knows the extent to which modern day slavery is prevalent in agricultural work, but it is certainly a known problem and the most at risk are seasonal workers who are tasked with the grueling and laborious job of harvesting, enduring long hours in harsh conditions.

If you’ve ever enjoyed fruits or vegetables out of season, there’s a good chance they came from Mexico. As the United States’ largest exporter of fresh produce, Mexico is responsible for much of the fresh fruit and vegetables we find, year-round, in our grocery stores.

In 2014 the Los Angeles Times uncovered cruel and inhumane living and working conditions endured by thousands of workers across farms in Mexico. Laborers were found crammed into dirty, rat-infested housing units, many of which lacked beds, and some which lacked functioning toilets or a reliable supply of water.

Wages were often illegally held from workers to prevent them from leaving during peak harvesting periods. There are many reports of workers who attempt to leave, but are subsequently captured and beaten.

Furthermore, as seems to be common in the agricultural industry, workers were forced to pay inflated prices for necessities at company stores, which often put them into debt. Many workers end the season with nothing to show for it because their entire pay goes to paying off their debt. The inability to save despite working long hours is part of what keeps many of these laborers in cycles of poverty. And this is just one investigation. There are countless other examples of exploitation, forced labor, child labor, and wage disputes happening all over the world, including in the United States, on farms where our fruits and vegetables are grown.

Not All Vegan Diets Are Created Equal

cruelty free isn't the same as vegan stylewise-blog.com

You might be the vegan who eats exclusively plant-based whole foods, but you also might be the vegan who subsists on Fritos, Doritos, Oreos, fast-foods, meat substitutes, and other unhealthy, heavily packaged, processed, unsustainable palm-oil laden delicacies.

We all know that plastic is a major environmental pollutant, so one can hardly call their lifestyle cruelty free if it actively contributes to our collective plastic problem.

We also know that unsustainable agricultural practices, most notably palm oil production, are destroying entire ecosystems and displacing and endangering the futures of the species who live in them. In the last twenty years, orangutan habitat has decreased by 80% in Indonesia, where much of the world’s palm oil is grown. Other species, like elephants and tigers, are also at risk.

There are ethical vegans who might take issue with all the above by raising the point that while crop farming might be exploitative to workers and destructive to the environment, it is not an inherently cruel industry. With major overhauls and proper legislation, work can be done to find solutions to these problems. And, as ethical vegans will tell you, animal agriculture is , on the other hand, inherently cruel, because there is no humane way to take the life of another living being.

And that brings me to my next point.

Calling One’s Lifestyle “Cruelty Free” Can Lead to Moral Licensing

The smug self-satisfied vegan is a well worn stereotype. I think the majority of vegans would fall outside of this stereotype, but it does have its merits. Beyond the stereotype, it’s easy to imagine that one might use their so-called cruelty free lifestyle to excuse, or license, other potentially negative or harmful behaviors and actions they might choose to engage in. “I haven’t eaten meat for like 20 years so it’s okay if I occasionally use products containing unsustainable palm oil.” or “I am making better choices for animals and the planet every single day, so it’s okay if I occasionally buy clothing made from unsustainable materials.”

Also related to this is the notion that one’s “cruelty free” lifestyle is morally superior to anyone who isn’t living “cruelty free.”

This ignores the fact that not everyone has access to healthy vegan foods, and may lack the resources to regularly buy them – especially in the United States where farm subsidies aren’t offered to specialty crops- which includes most fruits and vegetables. As a result, the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables are higher in comparison to other foods like dairy, processed meats, and corn-containing products.

Regardless of how we all identify or characterize ourselves, we should never become complacent and ignore any of the consequences our choices have on a much larger scale. Calling for the end of using “cruelty free” to describe veganism might sound nit-picky. But as someone who wants to promote the benefits of veganism for all its wonderful attributes, it’s important we acknowledge its shortcomings.

Only then can we truly begin to make progress toward a more compassionate and sustainable future for everyone.