These days we are constantly exposed to brands’ claims about the sustainability of their products but very few are actually able to back these claims and commitments with tangible facts. Certifications, in this sense, are a powerful tool that virtuous companies can adopt to differentiate themselves from the competitions.
From food to fashion and electronics, most of the products we use in our daily life are covered by certifications. The aspects that Social and Environmental certification cover are several from resources extraction/farming to processing, testing and assembly, focusing on one or more of dimensions (labour, emissions, toxicity etc..). In the first article of our How to spot a sustainable product series, we looked at how ISO classifies ecolabels in three main categories: third party certified (or certifications); self-declarations, self-assessment on third party criteria (LCA).
This time we will bring you a journey through some of these certifications to understand what they actually measure and how they can help you for your next purchase. Today we will start the journey by looking at Fashion Certifications.
In general, a product certification is the proof that the product has passed performance tests, quality assurance tests and meets qualification criteria stipulated in contracts, regulations, or specifications. The certification process usually involves three or more different organizations: the certification founding organization, which is the company that defines the Standards and certification criteria, the Applicant, the company looking to get a product or process certified, and the Certifier, a third party organization recognized by the founding organization that has the power to assign the certification. Certification bodies to become recognized certifiers for a specific Standard, need to go through an accreditation process that is often based on the ISO/IEC 17065 Conformity assessment and that requires a further organization, the Accreditation body. These organizations are responsible to follow the approval and monitoring procedure of accreditation. Last but not least, there are the Consultants, individuals or organisations that help applicants to meet the certification criteria.
So, looking at how complex the Certification process and structure is, it becomes easier to understand why it can get quite expensive to get one. Each of these organisations plays an important role in ensuring that the process is fair and transparent, that all standards are met and that also the way the certification is used follows the rules.
Today in the Fashion industry, there is a quite large number of certifications measuring a broad range of factors. A first classification can be done based on whether the certification provides Social or Environmental standards. It is not rare, anyway, that two standards focusing on different aspects join forces to provide both social and environmental indicators.
Certifications measuring social performances are focused on working conditions, safety, working hours, wages, gender equality and human rights. These are all elements of major relevance for the fashion industry considering that most of the biggest brands have displaced their productions in developing countries leveraging on low wages, poor workers rights and law enforcing.
A bit more articulated are the Environmental standards since materials go through several processes before getting to the shop’s shelves. For this reason, before going deeper into the classification, it is important to understand how the fashion supply chain is structured (of course there is a huge potential variety of combinations but here we will focus on what can be considered as a simplified version):
- Virgin fiber production (farming/extraction) - Supplier;
- Yarn production - Supplier;
- Textile Production (this can include colouring) - Supplier;
- Clothes production - Supplier;
- Commercialization - Brand.
As you may have noticed we also included an indication of the role that the company responsible for the process has in the supply chain. In fact, we consider it an important element to evaluate when judging a brand since the more the processes are externalized, as in our example, the lower would be the effort of the company in becoming sustainable. Of course, that doesn't mean that there can’t be a real commitment by these brands, but their only real effort will be in finding suppliers that meet the desired criteria, which is still very honourable.
The last missing piece in the puzzle to master the fashion industry’s certification is to know how fibers are classified. As many of you probably already know fibers are:
- natural: animal (protein) or plant (cellulose, bast) fiber;
- synthetic: fossil fuels based;
- man-made :
- cellulosic fibers, from trees/food waste/others, but requires chemical processing is required;
- recycled fibers.
Therefore, the elements that are more often measured by certifications evaluating the environmental performances of clothes are:
- Farming practices for natural fibers (pesticides, chemical fertilizers, water consumption, energy consumption);
- origin of the fibre - for recycled fibers;
- content of the fibre (both recycled and organic);
- toxicity and biodegradability/eliminability of chemicals used for processing;
- toxicity of printing’s solvents;
- presence of heavy metals and other carcinogenic solvents;
- water consumption and wastewater management;
- energy consumption;
- waste production;
It’s time now to have a look at some of the most famous certifications that you are most likely to find in shops around the globe..
Is a Textile Processing Standard covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of all textiles made from at least 70% certified organic natural fibres. The standard does not set criteria for leather products. Organic Fibers are certified following third parties standards (IFOAM family of standards, EEC 834/2007, USDA NOP) and may include fibers transitioning from traditional to organic methods. Moreover, a textile product carrying the GOTS label grade ‘organic’ must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres whereas a product with the label grade ‘made with organic’ must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres. Further criteria focus on energy and water consumption and toxicity of chemicals, dyes, solvents and heavy metals used for processing. Furthermore, Social criteria based on the key norms of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) must be met by all processors and manufacturers. Therefore GOTS does not require Fair Trade certifications.
Developed by the non-profit organization Textile exchange, the Organic content standard sets requirements for third-party certification of certified organic input and chain of custody. Only materials from certified organic farms (under one of IFOAM’s Family of Standards) are accepted into the OCS. Then, through a Chain of Custody, the Certification ensures that the identity of the organic content is maintained from the farm to the final product. It has two logos, OCS 100, that can be used for organic contents bigger than 95%, or OCS Blended for lower contents of organic fibres.
The Textile exchange is also the founding body of other standards such as:
The shared goal of the standards is to increase the use of recycled materials. Materials are verified to meet the ISO definition of recycled with both pre-consumer and post-consumer material being accepted. The GRS includes additional criteria for social and environmental processing requirements and chemical restrictions. GRS sites are required to meet strict social and environmental requirements and Chemicals with potential for harm are not permitted to be used on GRS products.
It changes the way trade works through better prices, decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers and workers in developing countries. Fairtrade’s approach enables farmers and workers to have more control over their lives and to decide how to invest in their future. Fairtrade supports and challenges businesses and governments and connects farmers and workers with the people who buy their products. A product with the Fairtrade mark means producers and businesses have met internationally agreed upon standards which have been independently certified. Fairtrade sets minimum prices for all major commodities, while the unique Fairtrade Premium provides additional funds for farmers and workers to invest as they see fit It supports women who want to set up their own businesses and offers to train them to become entrepreneurs and community leaders.
FSC forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers, while ensuring it sustains economic viability. You are likely to find this certification on man-made fibers such as viscose, rayon, lyocell.
It certifies raw materials, fabrics, and textiles as well as ready-made goods like apparel, accessories, and home goods. It actually has a number of different certifications they offer:
- STANDARD 100 accounts for numerous regulated and non-regulated substances, which may be harmful to human health.
- LEATHER STANDARD applies to all leather based products and supports companies along the supply chain with the implementation of high human-ecological product safety,
- MADE IN GREEN is associated to the first two certifications and it guarantees that the textile or leather product has been manufactured using sustainable processes under socially responsible working conditions,
- STeP ensures the implementation of environmentally friendly production processes in the long term, to improve health and safety and to promote socially responsible working conditions at production sites. The target groups for STeP certification are textile and leather manufacturers as well as brands and retailers,
- ECO PASSPORT is an independent certification system for chemicals, colourants and auxiliaries used in the textile and leather industry,
- DETOX TO ZERO - which considers water waste and sludge.