Ethical Clothing 101: The SlowCo Guide to Sustainable Certifications

It seems like everyone makes  ethical clothing these days but how can we know if they’re legitimate? SlowCo guides you through the world of third party certification.

Even before the pandemic fast fashion and disposable clothing began facing backlash in the same way that plastic bags, straws, or palm oil had experienced in the years leading up to 2020. Technically, any company can add the terms sustainable, environmentally conscious or eco-friendly to its slogan or website, so how do you tell the phonies apart from the good guys? How can we know for certain which brands are making truly conscious efforts instead of attempting to cash in on consumers desire to buy ethical clothing? Which brands are doing what they claim to be doing, and which ones are just greenwashing? People today want reliable testimony and credible proof that their purchase has been manufactured in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner. But with so many different factors to consider - from buttons to zippers, to textiles and working conditions - when it comes to really knowing what makes a fashion brand sustainable, it can get overwhelming pretty quick.

That’s where third party certification comes in. Certifications are much more effective than a brand’s  self-declarations or even customer evaluations. They can credibly test and certify products thanks to their experience and expertise. Even more importantly, they have no monetary interest in the companies that they evaluate and they do not rely on self reporting, which means that they depend on other certifying organs to evaluate their work. Competition among certifiers also increases both effectiveness and efficiency, ultimately adding to the value of all programs. Today, even many governments recognize that third party certification programs can save resources and help them meet their legislative and regulatory mandates when it comes to ethical clothing.

ethical clothing slowco collection

              Understanding the Importance of Sustainable Certifications

In the same way that people have begun looking for and trust certified food labels, traceable clothing labels let consumers see that an independent research institution has evaluated and verified a certain product. The organs behind them are NGOs, organizations and government backed entities, which follow a nonprofit business model. Product labels from third-party, independent certifications, membership networks and rating systems have, therefore become a powerful and unbiased tool for consumers. They can be used in order to help us adjust our purchasing power with brands that demonstrate provable and traceable commitment to making clothes that are safe for textile workers, customers and our Earth.

Unfortunately, one all-encompassing label does not exist. That’s because fashion, and particularly ethical clothing, involve many layers of production, all of which need to be examined and verified. Instead, there are a lot of different certifications out there that represent different elements of ethical, sustainable, and transparent manufacturing. These labels differ from one another in many ways, but each serves its own purpose, for example determining which textiles are biodegradable, which factories provide safe working conditions or which stores engage in circular economy. As more and more issues are uncovered in fashion, more standards and certifications also emerge. The organizations that are behind them set the standards for better and safer production practices.

ethical clothing two models wearing ethical underwear

Know Your Labels

Certifications get the really hard work out of the way but in order to buy truly ethical clothing, consumers still need to decipher the labels, which are not yet entirely commonplace, on their own. Some certify an entire company, whereas others certify specific products like an entire ethical clothing piece or even just one element, like a button. Some of them focus on one aspect of production, whereas others take a more all-encompassing approach. Below we’ve compiled a list of six to get you started.

GOTS

GOTS is short for Global Organic Textile Standard, which is an international standard for organic fibres. It’s one of the most holistic and trustworthy certifications. It includes social criteria and ecological standards, and is backed by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. The standard covers the processing, manufacturing, labelling, packaging, trading and distribution of all textiles made from at least 70% certified organic natural fibres. GOTS is in accordance with the International Labor Organization. Although there are a number of different certifying bodies, all of them use the same standards.

OEKO-TEX 

Oeko-Tex is one of the world's best-known labels found on textiles, which have been tested for harmful substances. It represents the company certifications issued by the International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile and Leather Ecology, based in Switzerland. It certifies raw materials, fabrics, and textiles as well as ready-made goods like ethical clothing. Oeko-Tex has a number of different certifications, but the most common is called Standard 100, which verifies the presence for toxic chemicals that are harmful to humans. Other certifications awarded by Oeko-Tex focus on toxic substances found in leather, responsible, environmentally-friendly production processes, and monitor the supply chain and factors such as water waste and sludge.

Fairtrade International &  Fair Trade USA 

Fairtrade International works with small farmers around the globe. Both producers and traders must meet strict standards, which vary depending on industry but always include a set of certain factors such as fair wages, safe working conditions and supply chain transparency. These standards are audited by a third party called FLOCERT, which  Fairtrade International certifies products and ingredients. Fair Trade USA carries many of the same standards as Fairtrade International because the two used to be the same entity, however, they separated when Fair Trade USA wanted to give large farms the opportunity to be certified as well. Fair Trade USA uses many of the same labor standards as Fairtrade International, and includes additional environmental standards like the prohibition of GMOs.

RCS & GRS

The Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and Global Recycled Standard (GRS) are certifications awarded by the Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit. They track recycled materials through the supply chain using the chain of custody requirements of the Content Claim Standard (CSS). Their shared goal is to increase the use of recycled materials. The GRS is intended for use with any product that contains at least 20% recycled material and 50% if you want to label, while the RCS is intended for use with any product that contains at least 5% recycled material. Each stage of production gets certified, beginning at the recycling stage and ending at the last seller in the final business-to-business transaction. Material collection and material concentration sites are subject to self-declaration, document collection, and on-site visits. You may see this label more often than others because the standard is a single attribute certification meaning that it does not take into account any social, legal or environmental aspects of processing and manufacturing. This certification perfectly exemplifies that what makes a fashion brand sustainable is not as simple as obtaining one label.

ethical clothing slowco collection

Bluesign

Bluesign is a common certification given to textile manufacturers who are producing in a way that is safe for both humans and the environment. In terms of chemical management, it is considered to be the most technically advanced solution provider for sustainable textile productions. They take into consideration everything from water waste to dye toxicity and worker and consumer safety, closely tracing the path of each textile along the manufacturing process. Their system aims to unite the entire textile supply chain to jointly reduce its impact on people and the environment. Bluesign links chemical suppliers, textile manufacturers, and brands together to foster a more healthy, responsible, and profitable textile industry.

OCS

Short for Organic Content Standard, which is an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of certified organic input and chain of custody. The goal of the OCS is to increase organic agriculture production. They provide the industry with a tool to verify the organically grown content of the products they purchase. Provide companies with a trusted tool to communicate organically grown content claims to the industry. And provide organic fiber farmers with broad access to the global organic market for their products.

Make informed decisions

The most rigorous certifications and labels require even the tiniest components — from threads to shoelaces — to be tested for harmful substances and ensure that the garment has been made sustainably in its entirety. On location audits are also conducted in order to ensure that production facilities offer proper safety measures to protect textile workers and provide fair wages and working conditions. Certifications therefore can assure customers that a brands’ practices are being monitored in an unbiased manner and that its practices are in line with the most up to date health, science and legal information available.

Third-party certification will transform the fashion industry in the upcoming years. However, it’s also valuable to remember that currently there are also many conscious fashion brands that meet the criteria for certain certifications but chosen to remain uncertified due to various reasons, most commonly the cost of obtaining them, which many small businesses cannot afford. Similarly, what makes a fashion brand sustainable is not as simple as just having one certification, neglecting other environmental and social factors it does not test for. Being familiar with these certifications can help you become more informed consumers and allow you to shop for ethical clothing more easily based on personal values, beliefs and moral codes. Beyond looking out for these labels, it can be helpful to also check the fiber composition of the clothes or read about the brand to see what insights it shares about its supply chain. Better yet - ask questions!

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