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Sustainability standards and certifications in the fashion industry

March 2, 2022
Green Marketing

The global consumer perception survey, “Sustainable Raw Materials in Fashion and Home Textiles“, conducted by Lenzing Group, and its findings revealed that transparency is key for clothing and home textiles brands to win consumer trust and confidence. Increasingly, consumers demand for more clarity of the raw materials brands use, the production processes behind their products and the implemented sustainability practices throughout their supply chains. Brands, suppliers and manufacturers turn to certification organizations to verify their sustainability performance.

A wide variety of sustainability standards and certifications exist in the fashion industry, providing brands with guidance and guidelines to measure, improve and communicate their sustainability efforts across supply chains. Many brands, if not all, may find it difficult to navigate through the myriad of standards and certifications in the fashion industry. Which standards should brands adhere to and how can brands communicate about their efforts in following these standards? Which certifications are worthwhile to pursue and how can these certification processes help brands along their sustainability journey?

For consumers, this can be rather confusing as well. What do the labels and certifications stand for? What are the criteria brands have to meet and what is the evaluation process behind the tags or stickers attached to their clothing?

As more and more standards and certifications emerge, gain popularity and recognition, and some even have become the “must-have” for sustainable fashion brands, it is time to take a deep dive into the world of standards and certifications in the fashion industry. In this blog, you will learn the difference between a standard and a certification, some of the key standards and certifications and the benefits and challenges, and most importantly how to choose the right ones for your brand.

What is the difference between standards and certifications?

Standards are specifications and criteria that serve as a frame of reference and are designed to ensure products, services and processes are reliable, safe and have consistent performance. When brands, suppliers or manufacturers follow a certain set of standards, it means the products they produce and sell are required to meet specific metrics in aspects such as economic, social and environmental sustainability. However, the compliance to a set of standards or claims of compliance does not mean you are certified to that standardization.

Certifications are issued by third-party certifying bodies including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private firms that assess and verify your conformity to standards. Fashion supply chains have a wide range of certifications involving stakeholders and actors from up- and down-stream of the value chain, such as farmers, fiber and material suppliers, clothing and textiles manufacturers, retailers and distributors. Usually, these certifications cover environmental and social aspects of your manufacturing processes or your own sustainability practices. The evaluation and certification of environmental performance address key issues in the textile industry, for instance, energy efficiency, material efficiency, water management, waste management and emissions, whereas social standards and certifications comprise performance indicators such as human rights, working conditions, health and safety, etc.

What are the most sought-after standards and certifications in sustainable fashion?

In our latest webinar, “Certifications and transparency in the fashion and textile industry,” Sascha Camilli from PETA Foundation and Jette Ladiges from World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) introduced to us the certification process of their organizations.

PETA is set out to protect animal rights and help brands identify their vegan-friendly products. Besides products and series of collections, brands as a whole can be certified under the PETA approved vegan scheme as long as they are able to prove that all the ingredients, materials, products and by-products are vegan friendly. WFTO is the only verification system that looks at social enterprises holistically, making sure that these businesses put people and the planet before profit. In contrast to commodity certifiers, the WFTO Guarantee System assesses the entirety of a business, following the 10 Principles of Fair Trade.

Joining the panel and speaking about some of the other key standards and certifications in the industry, Paola Masperi, founder of Mayamiko and Alessia Gotti, founder of AG//TEXTILES STUDIO, COO and co-founder at ROUNDRACK, Sustainable Supply Chain Specialist at WWF.

Among the well-known names, Textile Exchange is a popular certification and bench-marking body in the textile industry. As mentioned by the panel, there is no doubt about the role that Textile Exchange plays in the putting forward standards and certifications of materials for the industry. Textile Exchange has spearheaded the progress made towards sustainable production and sourcing while enhancing transparency in the textile value chain. Working with third-party certification bodies, Textile Exchange develops and manages a suite of standards that provide the industry with a way to verify sustainability claims from the raw material to the final product, including:

Next to Organic Content Standard, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is another leading standard setters for organic textiles, upholding the ecological and social responsibilities of organic textile production and processing.

Looking at certifications from a brand perspective, Paola shared two approaches when it comes to choosing them – “One is certifying materials and products that you produce and the materials that you work with; the other one is looking at certifying yourself as a company.” For Mayamiko, it was important to take the holistic approach while increasingly working with certified suppliers and certified materials.

Moreover, brands have the responsibility to gather all the information needed to have a deep understanding of their supply chains, and certifications can help navigate throughout this journey.

As of now, the industry does not have a unified set of standards or certifications that encompass every aspect of supply chain sustainability. So, the challenge lies in figuring out the best-suited certifications for your brand and stakeholders. Based on her experience working with brands that have become PETA certified, Sascha’s advice is that, “as a brand you should put yourself in your consumer’s shoes and think about what they want to be reassured of and how you can reassure them through a certification.” In addition, you should identify what is the most important for your business and brand as a whole and how certifications can help you achieve your sustainability goals.

What are the benefits and challenges of getting certified?

Certificates and sustainable product labels help consumers simplify brand research and practice sustainable consumption. For brands, standards and certifications validates their sustainability commitment and brand values while providing guidance and credentials.

What’s more, standards and certifications contribute to the industry’s movement towards a more sustainable supply chain. Third-party certifying organizations such as non-profit, governmental organizations and industry associations bring transparency to the table by auditing brands and their suppliers, evaluating their efforts and performance rigorously, and verifying their credibility. And, being certified means joining a larger community of like-minded brands, suppliers and manufacturers.

Though brands are not mandated to certify their sustainability products or practices, certificates are valuable tools in that they provide methodology to evaluate and verify one’s sustainability efforts in complying with industry standards. Plus, certifications equip brands with sustainability credentials in their communication with consumers.

Certifications like PETA can help brands address the concerns of their customers and tell the brand story by communicating with the consumer the work that brands are doing or have done.

For brands like Mayamiko, “certification is sort of a framework that helps us structure, standardize and formalize the work we do”. But, brands should not solely rely on certifications as their criteria in choosing suppliers and producers. For example, certifying organizations may not have an auditor that has been vetted and approved in small developing countries. Most of the time, small suppliers and manufacturers have no budget to invest in certifications. Therefore, establishing and building collaborative relationships with your suppliers and manufacturers are of utmost importance in understanding your supply chains. Communication plays a crucial role in your sustainability journey — brands need to really get to know your suppliers and have clear communication on what you are looking for.

When speaking about the challenges of certification schemes, especially for innovative fibers and materials, Alessia shared her experience working with next-gen material technologists. For alternative sustainable materials, the priorities are given to solidify the business case, demonstrate financial viability and communicate their contribution to advancing sustainability. And, brands can help push this kind of innovation forward by incorporating these new materials to their supply chains and accelerate the growth of next generation materials.

Certification on its own should never be used as a proxy for sustainability – brands themselves should ensure they investigate the quality and robustness of any standards they use.

However, when getting started, brands should have an understanding of what values their customers are looking for and which certifications can meet their needs and offer credentials and reassurance to consumers. What brands can learn from Mayamiko’s experience is that “you need to understand your entire supply chain – where your products come from, the materials and the people involved, your consumer and then obviously now even more so the post-consumer life cycle,” Paola shared. This means that not only having a holistic view on your sustainability is crucial, brands should also take the whole life cycle of their products into consideration. Surely, “certification gives that validation but it’s not a substitute for doing the hard work.”

Brands ought to choose voluntarily for the certifications that align with their brand values, mission, sustainability strategy and goals. Which certification best fits your brand of course depends on what your key sustainability priorities are. It is vital to have a holistic view on your brand’s impact across all critical areas and not in a silo.

Interested to learn more about sustainability certifications and how to communicate them to your audience? Check out the webinar recording here.