Behind The Sustainability Certifications on Your Clothing
Being a conscious consumer is an act of rebellion. Whether it’s buying coffee from a small roaster that works directly with farmers, refusing single use plastic bags at the grocery store, taking the extra time to bike or walk to work instead of driving, or buying clothing from brands with a transparent supply chain – these are all forms of protest against the current unsustainable model in which the economy is based.
“Transparency is a tool for change, not the end goal.”
– Fashion Revolution / @fash_rev
With our collective purchasing power we can force the hand of corporations to make the necessary change to shift the balance towards transparency and sustainability. And our purchasing power is strengthened by education. No greenwashing gimmicks will fool us! We know what to look for and have the right tools in place –like the Arbor score.
How the Arbor score works:
“We know sustainability encompasses A LOT, so we knew our scores had to too. Our scores are always unbiased and based on data pulled from multiple sources including (but not limited to) data on ESG (environmental social governance), Certifications and UN sustainability goals. We make sure the data we do use to determine scores always covers all facets of sustainability (from production processes, to labour and human rights to the use of environmental resources - just to name a few). So you can rest easy knowing you're getting a fully-scoped score from Arbor.”
There is no shortage of certifications out there and they can seem vague and obscure to the naked eye. GOTS? OEKO-TEX? B-Corp? But once we understand what the certifications mean, we have even more tools in our kits to tailor our purchasing decisions to what matters most to us. So let’s take a look at some of the sustainable certifications that Arbor looks at when applying impact scores.
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the lovechild of the US-based Organic Trade Association, the German International Association Natural Textile Industry, the UK Soil Association and the Japan Organic Cotton Association. These organizations came together with the intent to combine their individual processing standards for promoting organics in the textile and food worlds. They set out to create an internationally recognized set of standards to cohesively change the textile industry from the start of the supply chain. Having a globally recognized certification means that consumers across the world can be confident that the fibre, yarn, and cotton that makes up their products is sourced from a green supply chain.
In order to qualify for the certification it is mandatory to meet all the required ethical and social criteria and each applicant must be vetted by an independent third party verification of their supply chain.
“With today’s sustainability challenges and the contribution of the fashion and textile industry to those challenges, we must collectively rethink production and consumption of textiles. Organic fibres play multifaceted roles in creating an industry that actively lowers its environmental impact and prioritizes human health over short term profit.”
A textile product carrying the GOTS label must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres, a product with the label grade 'organic' must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres. Organic fibres are natural fibres grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides and GMOs (Genetic Modified Organisms) according to the principles of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is a production process that sustains the health of ecosystems, soils and people.
Some of the key environmental and social features include:
- Ensuring that within processing and manufacturing environmentally hazardous chemicals are prohibited
- Wastewater must be managed and shown to uphold environmental standards
- There is equal emphasis put on social and environmental standards to protect the people and the planet. It go without saying, but sadly doesn’t that child labour will not be used, no discrimination is practiced, and that a living wage gap is ruminated and routinely assessed.
“The Standard sets requirements concerning working and social conditions that are equivalent to those of leading social sustainability standards. GOTS social criteria, based on the key norms of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), must be met by all processors, manufacturers and traders. They must have a social compliance management system, with defined elements in place to ensure that the social criteria are met.”Via GOTS
So what's the hype with organic cotton anyways and does it actually make a difference? The short answer to this long question is absolutely yes. According to the 2021 Organic Cotton Market Report conducted by the Textile Exchange, organic farming can reduce energy consumption by 30-70% per unit of land. Through organic farming practices like crop rotation, composting, recycling of crop residue, and the implementation of Indigenous knowledge of land management, organic farming improves the nutrient density of soil as well as its ability to capture and store carbon.
Not only is organic cotton better for the environment but it also fosters an environment that is more supportive of its farmers. A comprehensive 14 year long study by Helvetas of organic and fairtrade cotton projects in West Africa and Central Asia found that organic cotton farmers have better access to land, improved food security from crop rotation, more independence from seed companies and improved local infrastructure. Not to mention the benefits to female farmers in organic versus conventional farming. The study showed that because of the higher workload required for organic farming, it allows more female farmers the opportunity for varied work and the ability to own their own cotton farms giving them more economic independence.
Cotton farming in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, circa 1960. (Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Brands are feeling the pressure to switch to organic cotton in their products, but sourcing organic cotton in the supply chain isn’t easy. According to the Organic Cotton Report, because of recent US sanctions on China (one of the biggest cotton growing region in the world), the fact that it takes at least three years for a farm to successfully convert to organic cotton, and the added devastating economic and human impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion world is feeling the heat and the demand for organic cotton currently can’t be met.
And for a bit of a juicy cotton industry scandal: in 2020, an investigation from GOTS found that 20,000 metric tonnes of cotton was falsely certified as organic in India. GOTS found forged cotton certification documents, bogus QR codes and a fake Government of India website certifying the supplied cotton as organic.
Kind of like “GOTS-light”, The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a global non-profit organization and the world's largest cotton sustainability program. BCI focuses on the cotton industry as a whole and is tailored to companies and farmers that want to shift to a more sustainable model but aren't ready to immediately jump on the organic train. It’s certification process looks at how cotton is produced to ensure that a range of sustainable and ethical methods are put into play. This includes the use of local water, the protection of biodiversity, the mitigation of harmful farming practices, and ensuring a functional and healthy work environment for the farmers and their communities.
In order to qualify for a BCI mark on a brands label, members are required to source at least 10% of their cotton from Better Cotton farms with the intention of upping that to 50% within five years.
What separates this framework from GOTS, is that instead of just focusing on shifting the industry to fully organic, it is about interacting with the entire supply chain and impacting how cotton is sourced. This is achieved through the implementation of the supply chain methodology called “Mass-Balance”. This is how BCI explains it:
“Simply put, it means what comes out must balance with what went in. For example, if a retailer places an order for finished garments, like T-shirts, and requests one metric tonne of Better Cotton be associated with this order, a cotton farmer somewhere must produce one metric tonne of cotton to the Better Cotton Standard. This is then registered on BCI’s supply chain system, and credits for the order are passed through the supply chain for that same weight in cotton, from one factory to the next. What comes out is the equivalent amount of cotton that the farmer produced as Better Cotton, but it has been mixed in with conventional cotton in its journey from field to product.”
But this methodology comes with a couple of pitfalls. Not only does it make the supply chain untraceable, meaning that just because there is a Better Cotton name on the label, it doesn’t necessarily mean the cotton that makes up the garment was ethically sourced or sustainable. An independent investigation into the BCI mass-balance program found that the lack of traceability led to their failure to uncover their involvement in the forced labour workcamps in China’s Xinjiang region. In May 2021, The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region criticised BCIs flop-flopping on its involvement in the region. In light of the findings, BCI reportedly deleted statements on their website saying that they planned to leave the Xinjiang region.
“...continued silence by BCI taints all brands and retailers that use BCI cotton as an ethical alternative in an industry widely tainted by forced labour, as well as the farmers who trust BCI to take a stand for ‘better cotton’ production everywhere."
- Via The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region's statement on BCI
Migrants work at a cotton factory in the Xinjiang province, China. (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)
The Coalition urges BCI to, without delay, republish all previous statements, and to issue a new statement which clarifies that BCI’s rationale for exiting the Uyghur Region was based on the ongoing and credible evidence by numerous sources of systematic forced labour in the Uyghur Region. The Coalition further urges BCI to continue to "assess the enabling environment for its operations throughout China.” From the Coalition’s statement to Better Cotton, May 18, 2021.
Next up is one of the textile industries' strictest standards for manufacturing and environmental protection, Bluesign. The standardization process created by the independent Swiss company, Bluesign Technologies, monitors the lifecycle of textiles from the factory to the final product. The aim is to keep harmful chemicals out of the manufacturing process to protect the health and safety of the workers, consumers, and the environment. The system also factors in the supply chain as whole, including the fair labour practices and a broad range of environmental emission reduction measures. The textile industry, especially the wet-processing step –where the fabric gets bleached, dyed, mercerized, and printed– is one of the largest consumers of water in all of the manufacturing industries and one of the biggest producers of wastewater. So keeping harmful chemicals out of the process is kind of important.
Chemical discharge from textile factories on January 07, 2012 in Rajasthan, India. The deep colour of water indicates heavy presence of dyes and chemicals, which pollute water bodies. (Photo by Xavier Zimbardo/Getty Images)
“BLUESIGN is a holistic system that provides solutions in sustainable processing and manufacturing to industries and brands. Based on strict criteria, auxiliary material and services are developed to support the company specifically in its sustainable development. As an independent authority, BLUESIGN checks the progress that a company has made in this effort, provides continual further development of solutions and continuously optimizes its criteria”
Any part of a garment can be in accordance to the bluesign criteria from yarn to buttons, to buckles. To qualify for the Bluesign logo on a label, the final product must include at least 90% bluesign approved textiles and 30% bluesign approved accessories.
Bluesign was founded in 2000, and attracted the attention of brands that were looking for ways to accurately monitor their resource consumption. Patagonia, for example, has been working with Bluesign since 2000 to apply their technologies throughout their supply chain. In 2007, they became the first company to officially join Bluesigns network of partners.
“We committed to the highest level of consumer safety and to the continuous improvement of environmental performance in our textile supply chains by applying the Bluesign system to help conserve resources and minimize negative impacts on people and the environment.”
“The test is conducted by our independent OEKO-TEX® partner institutes on the basis of our extensive OEKO-TEX® criteria catalog. In the test they take into account numerous regulated and non-regulated substances, which may be harmful to human health. In many cases the limit values for the STANDARD 100 go beyond national and international requirements. The criteria catalog is updated at least once a year and expanded with new scientific knowledge or statutory requirements.”
A handy feature from OEKO-TEX? All of their labels are traceable, meaning that anyone can log on to their site, enter in the label number and confirm the validity of the brands sustainability claims. They also publicly make the names of manufactures available whose certificates and claims are withdrawn. Three cheers for accountability!
Some of their other standards include:
LEATHER STANDARD: Like the Standard 100, but for leather goods. Which is very important because the conventional tanning process for leather is known to use harmful chemicals that leach into the waterways but also have devastating health consequences for the garment workers.
MADE IN GREEN: This is a traceable label, often with a QR code, where a consumer can gain access to more information about the factories where the product was made. This label goes one step further than the STANDARD 100 and their LEATHER STANDARD by ensuring that the garment was not just produced without harmful substances, but also that it was also made in environmentally conscious facilities that are safe and socially responsible for the workers.
STeP: Reading like a list of Arbor values, the STeP certification is a modular program that is geared towards the production facility and the subsequent working conditions instead of the finished product itself with the long-term goal of implementing environmentally safe and socially conscious working conditions.. The list includes:
- Chemical management
- Environmental performance
- Environmental management
- Social responsibility
- Quality management
- Health protection and safety at work
This is ideal for those who value the prioritization of animal welfare above all else but falls short in considering the consequences of producing leather alternatives. Most “vegan” leathers are synthetics and derived from, you guessed it, plastic. Don’t get us wrong –the livestock industry is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases and is a huge driver of global carbon emission through deforestation for land use. According to the 2020 Environmental Profit & Loss report conducted by the luxury retail fashion group, Kering, the overall impact and resource use of plastics on the environment is significantly less.
Impact of leather vs plastic production across the Kering group of companies
Even though the overall impact for synthetic leathers is lower, it leaves a mark on the environment nonetheless. Plastics can take up to 100 years or longer to degrade in a landfill and contribute to the 13 million tonnes of synthetic fibers that end up in our oceans every year. And not to mention the microplastics floating about –read our post on Lululemon for more information on that here.
The definition of a conscious consumer is an educated consumer. And whether you prioritize organic cotton over vegan leather, the one thing we can all agree on is that the more we know, the better.