Certifications cover just about everything we buy nowadays. The sale of food has a range of certifications that tell us if fruit and veg are organic, if meat meets animal welfare standards, or if eggs are free range. Wood for building or DIY has certifications to show that the forests it comes from are sustainable. Coffee has Fairtrade stamped on the jar to show us that the producers are getting a good deal. So, you would imagine that there would be a robust certification for something we use absolutely every day: clothes.
It may surprise you to learn that there is no basic industry standard certification for the clothes you wear, day in, day out. In fact, there are so many different certifications for clothes and other textiles that it can get quite confusing. None of these classes as a general certificate to show that clothes are ethically produced, safe to wear, or good for the environment, although individually, they each give a part of the picture.
This can be baffling or even alarming for anyone who worries about how companies make their clothes, or the long-term impacts of wearing them. How can you be sure what’s gone into making your clothes?
Fashion Certifications: Why They’re Important
We may have been wearing clothes for as long as half a million years. Right back at the start of fashion history, there was no such thing as synthetic fibres. The most basic clothing couldn’t help but be natural. Although, the wrong type of leaves or some bristly fur could still cause problems! Fast forward to 30,000 BC, and humans started to stitch rudimentary fabrics together with bone needles. Then as we moved into the Neolithic age, we began weaving, dying, creating ever more interesting fabrics and designs. Since then, we’ve never looked back.
Today, the fashion industry is worth 406 billion dollars as a whole and revenue from the industry may reach 664 billion by the end of 2020. Globally, the industry employs over 75 million people. With such a huge international financial impact, it’s time we started thinking about the other impacts our vast clothing industry has.
What we Want to Know About Our Clothes
As the general public becomes ever more socially conscious, it’s important to many consumers that the products they buy don’t have a negative impact on others. Recent documentaries like Blue Planet 2, and acts of activism like the work of Extinction Rebellion have raised the global awareness of the problems caused by overproduction, waste, and the poor disposal of single-use plastics. Consumers want to know that their clothes aren’t contributing to these issues.
Another key factor in the production of clothing is perhaps a newer consideration, but incredibly vital: How toxic are my clothes? Will wearing synthetic fibres for long periods of time prove harmful? The three key considerations for fashion consumers tend to be:
· Are my clothes produced in a way that gives someone else a fair income and good working conditions?
· Is the production of my clothing kind to the environment and sustainable?
· Are my clothes harmful to me or others due to the materials, dyes, or production process?
Gaining a certification means that a fashion brand or textile manufacturer had an assessment from an independent body and found to meet certain standards. These standards are set by the certificate provider, and these are almost always completely independent of each other. There are no current industry wide standards or standards set by government in terms of fashion ethics and sustainability. This means you could have two different pieces of clothing with totally different certifications on that mean absolutely the same thing, to all intents and purposes.
How do Fashion Brands Gain Certifications?
All the big names in fashion need to gain fashion certifications to stay afloat in today’s market. Ethically minded consumers won’t stand for anything else. But how do companies achieve the coveted certificates which they can then print on their clothing labels?
It really depends on the certificate they want. In the next section we’ll explore some of the most important fashion certificates, but if a fashion brand wants to market themselves as ethical, then they have to prove that their production practices involve:
· No forced labour or child labour
· Safe working environments
· Fair prices for producers and labourers
“Green” certification may involve:
· No use or limited use of certain chemicals
· Organically certified growth of cotton or other plants
· No use of pesticides or herbicides during production
· Safe disposal of waste from production of textiles
Trusted Fashion Certifications and What They Mean
Many of these certifications are for cotton, which is because cotton covers 2.5% of all agricultural land. It uses about 16% of all the pesticides used yearly, and 7% of the herbicides (weedkillers). As people start to wise up to this, they want to know that there’s an option to buy cotton that hasn’t been chemically treated, to protect themselves and their families. They also want to know that the mass production of cotton is being done ethically and fairly.
Fairtrade means producing cotton in a way that provides a fair price for the producer. This includes workers, farmers, and anyone who works through the process of moving that cotton from plant to fabric. Companies cannot gain a Fairtrade certificate without an assessment from FLOCERT, an independent body that audits whether a company meets the Fairtrade standards. So, in essence, a Fairtrade Mark has gone through two independent organisations, which is why it is so highly trusted.
Max Havelaar Fairtrade International Cotton
Clothing bearing this mark has also been through an arduous auditing process to check the cotton in use meets Fairtrade standards. However, even if a product is 5% cotton, it can still bear this mark. So, in essence, you could have a 95% polyester shirt with no certification regulating that synthetic fibre, but as long as the 5% cotton was sourced ethically, it could still hold this mark. While something to be wary of, certificates like this are still positive in the ways they encourage companies to ensure that even small parts of their supply chain are ethical.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) uses standards set by the Soil Association. That’s a non-profit organisation focused on sustainability and organic production of plants and food. GOTS describes itself as “…the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres…”, and aims to provide assurance to consumers that the plant-based clothing they buy is organic at every level. That means from the harvesting of the raw materials right through to manufacturing and labelling. This is reassuring to anyone concerned about the impact of toxic farming chemicals, such as pesticides, on their skin or deeper within their bodies.
OEKO-TEX provide a range of certifications for leather and textile products. Their MADE IN GREEN label is only given to products that go through tests for harmful substances follow sustainable practices. ECO PASSPORT is a specific certificate for chemicals used in textile and leather manufacturing. Clothing that holds this certification states that the chemicals in the clothes are not harmful or damaging to the environment.
ZDHC stands for Zero Discharge of Harmful Chemicals. This scheme currently runs the “Roadmap to Zero”, aiming to protect planet Earth by reducing the chemical footprint of all kinds of industries. Many high-end fashion brands are now contributors or members of ZDHC, and criteria include actions like proving the waste water from factories does not carry any harmful chemicals into the environment.
Buying Clothes Without Certifications
Why should you bother to buy clothes with these certifications? We’ve already touched on the ethical and environmental ramifications. Fairtrade marks show that growers and farmers all across the world are getting a fairer deal. Organic certification like GOTS shows we’re pumping less chemicals out into the environment. But, perhaps that’s good for you too?
Your Absorbent Skin
One of the primary concerns about non-organic cotton farming is that laborers in the fields become exposed to pesticides and weedkillers. Studies have shown that these chemicals can be toxic and cause damage to human health. It goes without saying then, that putting these chemicals deliberately onto your skin is not a great idea.
Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and it is incredibly absorbent. If you ever want to check this out, wait until your hands are feeling a bit dry then put some moisturiser on. See how it soaks right in? Your skin is a highway inside your body. So what you cover it in every day can’t help but have a massive impact on your health and wellbeing.
Choosing natural, organic fibres and fabrics could be a simple way to protect your health and the health of your loved ones. Think about the cotton sheets you put on the beds in your home: Have you checked their certifications? The label gives you a backstory to the fabrics in your life.
Fashion Certification: Consumer Choice
Fashion certifications are about giving consumers more choice. Sometimes it’s hard to navigate the world of clothes shopping, especially with millions (yes, millions!) of new vendors appearing online every year, each offering consumers beautiful, practical, or cheap clothing. Being able to read a label and understand the process your clothes have gone through before they get to you hells you to make a more educated choice. You can choose:
· Natural or synthetic fibres
· Synthetic fibres that use less toxic chemicals
· Cotton or other plant-based fabrics which are ethically produced
· Organic cotton with no toxic chemicals used in the growth or production
· Socially just brands which contribute to local communities or global initiatives
· Clothes which support the fight against toxicity in clothing for long-term improvements
The Future of Fashion Certification
At this stage, it’s crucial to realise that all the fashion certificates out there are voluntary. Fashion brands don’t have to sign up to any scheme, although it’s in their best interest as businesses to get on board: research shows that consumers are twice as likely to buy a product with a certified sign of ethical production than one without.
The biggest sign that certifications for clothes and accessories may become more commonplace in the future is that some of the biggest names in fashion are getting on board, and the certificates they’re getting on board with include schemes like ZDHC. Mentioned above, ZDHC aims to reduce the production of hazardous chemicals to zero. Synthetic fibres and fabrics have always introduced toxic chemicals not only to the environment, but to our delicate skin. If companies like Smit & Zoon, Nike, and Adidas continue to shout about their certifications that prove they’re reducing their use of toxic chemicals, then perhaps fashion certification can be the path towards less harmful, synthetic clothing right across the board.