As a slow fashion enthusiast and conscious consumer, I try to be as mindful as I can about investing in products from businesses that are trying their best to tread lighter on the earth and treat the people involved in their supply chains with care and respect.
There are a growing number of sustainable and ethical brands available to us, which is only good news for the future of fashion. But, understanding the nuances of a brand, what they believe in, and how this influences their business practices, can be a very time-consuming — and sometimes confusing — process.
This is where sustainable fashion certifications can be really useful. Sustainable fashion certifications simplify the research process by communicating certain aspects of a brand’s commitment to more mindful business practices.
These certifications have become increasingly popular as consumers have become more aware of the fashion industry’s fault lines.
And, it seems like there is a growing demand for certified products. A study done by Nielsen in 2015 found that, in a survey of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries, 66% were willing to pay more for products or services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. This is an increase from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013.
So, what are sustainable fashion certifications?
Sustainable fashion certifications are acknowledgments of a brand’s commitment to various sustainable and ethical business practices.
There are different categories of certifications, depending on the criteria that they measure. Types of certifications include: holistic, environmental, animal rights, workers’ rights and human rights, and social certifications.
What these different categories show us is that some certifications focus on the entire company or supply chain, whereas others certify a specific product or just one ingredient.
There are also several different sustainability certification organizations. To be certified, a brand has to opt into the process, meaning that it is always voluntary. The certification process looks different for each certification. Some certifications use a third party to verify the process, and others rely entirely on self-reporting from the brand.
Being awarded a certification means that a brand has met those criteria by adopting various best practices within their business.
As it stands, there is no single, all-encompassing certification that is used across the industry. This is, in part, because there is no industry-wide consensus on what exactly defines a sustainable and ethical fashion brand.
A few common sustainable fashion certifications
Here are just a few common certifications that you may have come across:
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) – The Better Cotton Initiative is the largest cotton sustainability program in the world and aims to make global cotton production better for the people that produce it while protecting and restoring the environment, and improving the future of the cotton industry through the encouragement of ethical cotton sourcing.
Fair Trade USA – This certification focuses on the advocacy of worker rights and ethical labor, through the prioritization of worker safety and fair pay. As their website states, “A choice for Fair Trade Certified™ goods is a choice to support responsible companies, empower farmers, workers, and fishermen, and protect the environment.”
Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) – GOTS is a global standard for brands that are committed to sourcing organic fibers. It includes ecological and social criteria and is backed by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. The standard covers the entire supply chain from the harvesting of the raw materials, environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing to labeling.
If you are looking for a cheat sheet of certifications and brands that are committed to them, check out this article by Fashionista.
The value of greater transparency and creating new best practices
Sustainable fashion certifications can be an important part of encouraging people to consume more mindfully because they communicate to the consumer what the brand’s values are and what they are committed to when it comes to sustainability and ethics.
They allow people to make more informed decisions when they are investing in a garment and choosing which brands they want to support.
Certifications are also useful signifiers for people who may not have the time to do their own, in-depth, supply chain research before they buy from a brand, but do care about supporting a brand with mindful business practices.
Beyond consumption habits, sustainable fashion certifications facilitate the development of more sustainable and ethical business practices. As the fault lines of the fashion industry become more widely known, the pressure on brands to rethink their business practices increases. Certifications create avenues for businesses to respond to these pressures by making firm commitments to doing good in various ways.
It’s not only a positive communication tool for conscious consumers, but committing to sustainability can also pay off for companies. Certifications can be seen as a beneficial marketing tool for differentiating between brands and gaining consumer trust in a brand’s products.
Hopefully, as more businesses become certified, it can encourage other businesses to want to do the same. This contributes to the creation of new, aspirational best practices in the fashion industry.
Does that mean that all certified brands are sustainable and ethical?
This article on sustainable fashion certifications, by Fashionista, lists many big brands as being certified for different criteria around ethics and sustainability. This left me wondering: Even if they are certified, can big brands really be considered sustainable and ethical?
The simple answer is no.
Here’s the thing about certifications: they are a way to account for various aspects of how things are produced, but these aspects are often fragmented and neglect other elements of the brand’s business practices.
For example, certifications do not have control over the volume of garments that the brand is producing. While certifications address specific issues, they do not challenge the fact that overproduction and overconsumption are at the core of fashion’s waste crisis.
Protecting and advocating for garment worker rights is also a huge part of sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry. As Liana Foxvog, Campaigns Director for the advocacy non-profit, International Labor Rights Forum, told Vogue: “There isn’t any certification in the garment industry that ensures that workers receive a living wage and their freedom of association and collective bargaining rights respected.”
On the flip side, just because a brand isn’t certified, that does not mean that they are not a trustworthy slow fashion brand. The certification process often inherently excludes smaller brands. Getting certified can often be a long, time-consuming, and costly process, which many smaller brands do not have the capacity for.
So, certifications are just one signifier of a brand that is making an effort to tread lightly and with more care.
A small brand that is trying its best to minimize its impact and care for the people in its supply chain is invariably going to be more sustainable than a big brand that is overproducing and using exploitative labor practices.
Are sustainable fashion certifications helping to solve our fashion crisis?
Sustainable fashion certifications do make it easier to tell which brands are making an effort to address their impact. But, working towards a just fashion future is not as simple as that.
As much as certifications can be a positive marketing tool to convey the good work that the brand is doing, there are many cases where they are also used as greenwashing. Many of the techniques you can use to identify if a brand is greenwashing can be used to identify if a brand is using certification to greenwash too.
For example, the Better Cotton Initiative has recently been exposed for being a smokescreen for many unsustainable and unethical practices, such as their lack of transparency around labor practices and alleged use of forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, as well as their continued use of genetically modified cotton and pesticide use.
Regardless of what certifications they have, fast fashion brands can never be ethical or sustainable. The sheer volume of production and the unethical labor practices inhibits this.
While these certifications do play a role in holding brands accountable, pushing them to do better, and allowing conscious consumers to make more informed choices, it is still a solution that focuses on making “better” consumption choices, rather than challenging our role as consumers.
This plays on the idea that the fashion crisis will be solved through more conscious consumption. It is problematic to frame sustainability as a consumer choice and allow consumers’ wallets to carry the burden of systems change, instead of focussing on the fact that the pace at which we are consuming is unsustainable.
The truth is, sustainable fashion certifications will not solve our fashion crisis. No one solution ever will. It will take a complex tapestry of innovations, solutions, and initiatives to weave together a more just future of fashion.
Could a standardized system be beneficial for the future of fashion?
Sustainability in the fashion industry is a complex topic and comes with a variety of different interpretations. Add to this the layer of confusion that comes with having a growing number of certifications, each with its own sustainability claims.
The success of certifications as a pathway to a just fashion future still relies on the consumer having the privilege of time to research and understand the certification, as well as the sustainability literacy to engage with the issue.
The fragmentation of issues within the sustainable and ethical fashion world can leave people feeling confused about which certifications to trust. This creates a fashion landscape that becomes difficult to navigate for the everyday consumer who just wants to make a purchase.
This need to simplify and include more people into the slow fashion community makes a standardized system seem like a positive way forward. There have been people and organizations advocating for moving towards a standardized system that is enforceable and can be applied across the fashion industry.
As always, getting companies on board, who are not willing to reveal their environmental and social impacts, will be one of the biggest hurdles. This is why enforceable regulation and other reforms in the fashion industry will be needed, in addition, for a standardized system to be truly effective.
There is no easy way to ensure that a fashion brand is entirely sustainable and ethical, but sustainable fashion certifications encourage fashion brands to work towards making a positive impact and addressing issues in their business practices.
And, as consumers, they encourage us to make informed decisions and support fashion brands that reflect our personal values.
That said, while certifications are effective as guidelines, they have their limitations and are not the be-all and end-all of a more just fashion system.
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is based in Cape Town, South Africa, and is currently completing her PGDip in Sustainable Development to accompany her undergraduate in Multimedia journalism. She is a slow-living enthusiast and a lover of low-impact fashion.
She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability that is inclusive, accessible, and fun as we try to figure out how to create a more sustainable and just world, together.
When Stella is not in front of her laptop doing uni work, you’ll probably find her reading, writing, illustrating, or baking/cooking. A dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.