Textile sustainability certifications can be a complex and at times confusing subject. Making the right choices when it comes to finding ethical, sustainable fabrics to create a weighted blankets can be a challenge. Understanding textile sustainability certifications can make it a little easier to decide which options are best from a moral standpoint and can help consumers to make the right decisions when it comes to which sustainable fabrics to choose.
In this article, we aim to demystify the various labels that you may find applied to the textiles you buy. We will take a look at the history of textile sustainability certifications, and the problems that have arisen as eco-labels and sustainability certifications have proliferated in recent years. We will take a look at the labels applied to certain raw materials in the textiles industry, before looking at some of the most common sustainability certifications in the fabrics business. By the end of this guide, you should have a clearer idea of what each of the labels and certifications actually mean, and also which ones to look for when purchasing different kinds of textile.
The History Of Textile Sustainability Certifications
Before we go on to look at some of the leading labels and certifications in more depth, it will be helpful to consider where these came from and to examine the broad-strokes history of textile sustainability certifications. In understanding the landscape of such labels and certifications within the textile industry, it is first essential to understand that two separate movements have arisen which have both contributed to the ecolabels on the market today.
The Push For Environmental Safety in Sustainable Fabrics
The first of these is the push for greater environmental safety within the textile industry. This movement had its roots in Europe where, in 1992, the European Economic Council adopted a Community Eco-Label Award Scheme (1). The criteria for awarding such eco-labels focussed primarily on concerns regarding environmental pollution and human health and safety. Textiles were one of the first product groups to adopt such Eco-label criteria. This and other eco-labeling schemes that followed thereafter required multiple production standards for maximum allowable heavy metal residues in dyes used in eco-textiles, as well as the use of other damaging inputs such as pesticides, allergens, and biologically active compounds.
Around the same time (1992), the Oeko-Tex Standard (which will be covered in more depth later in this article) was also established by the International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile Ecology. This was based on two precursors, the Austrian Textile Research Institute’s OTN 100 (developed in the late 1980s) and the German Hohenstein Textile Research Institute’s Oko-Check. These two institutes combined forces and went on to create the Oeko-Tex standard – which is, today, one of the most critical and successful standards in the global textile industry.
The Push For Improved Working Conditions and Wages
The second movement was the push for better working conditions and wages. The push for improved working conditions and wages also came to prominence in the 1990s, as concerns grew over the human cost for those working in the textile industry. The Campaign for Labour Rights was inaugurated in 1993, and many more new organisations whose aim was to address labour conditions in textile factories were formed over the next few years after some high-profile exposés drew attention to the issues (2).
Out of these two movements, a number of eco-labels and textiles certifications were born.
The Problems with Textile Sustainability Certifications
One of the main problems when trying to understand and evaluate textile sustainability certifications is that they do not all cover the same areas. While some cover environmental issues such as:
- Organic Production
- Energy Usage
- Biodiversity Conversation
Others focus more on the human elements of sustainability, such as:
- Workplace Health and Safety
- Consumer Health and Safety
- Wages and Equality
- Economic and Community Development
This drives to the heart of what sustainability actually means. True sustainability comprises best practice in both the environmental and social fields – caring for both planet and people, as well as a company’s bottom line.
What is more, another layer of complexity is added by the fact that some sustainability certifications and labels are applied not only to textiles but also to other (or even all) consumer goods. Many certifications are not textile specific, which can make it difficult to compare these with the labels and certifications which are particular to the industry.
Another point that makes it more of a challenge to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of various certifications and labels is that they differ in scope when it comes to the stages of the lifecycle of a material that is covered. For example, some certifications (more on which below) cover only certain raw materials used within the industry, while others cover processing only, and others yet look at the entire life cycle.
What is more, some certifications and labels cover all textiles, when some apply only to certain specific products or materials. Furthermore, some apply only in certain countries or jurisdictions, while others are global in scope and application.
Sustainability management in global fashion operations is an area of growing concern. Unfortunately, there is little consensus when it comes to breaking down and clarifying the environmental and sustainability practices. Products are often categorised according to a three-pronged approach, which focusses on product, process and supply chains. Unfortunately, some critical social aspects such as human rights are not widely covered in production processes. Similarly, serious environmental elements such as biodiversity are not entirely focused on at the chain level (3).
A failure in categorisation in the industry as a whole means that it can be challenging to categorise products according to sustainability credentials. This problem is made apparent in confusion surrounding textile sustainability certifications and labels.
Sustainability Certifications in the Textile Industry
In order to develop a better understanding of the certifications that are applied at each stage of the textile industry processes, let us first examine those that apply to raw materials – at the growing stage for the raw products used in natural fabrics. This will help us to understand the issues that arise at this stage of the process within the textile industry. The Global Organic Textile Standard is used for goods made with organic natural sustainable fabrics. However, goods meeting this standard must also meet other criteria for sustainability.
1. Global Organic Textiles
Indeed, one of the most widespread and highest regarded standards when it comes to fibre certification, the Global Organic Standard was developed by the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standards, which was formed in 2002 as a joint initiative between a number of leading organic textile standards organisations. The label has been seen in stores since 2010 and is widely recognised as the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibres. The latest iteration of the standard was released in 2017. It defines a series of high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain, and requires compliance with specific social criteria as well.
The Aim and Scope of the Global Organic Textile Standard
The standard covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of all textiles made from at least 70% organic natural fibres. It aims to define requirements to ensure the organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer (4).
The standard allows for two different label-grades:
- “organic” or “organic in conversion” and
- “made with X% organic materials”
For the first label category, no less than 95% of the fibre content of the products – excluding accessories – must be of certified organic origin or from ‘in conversion’ fields. For the second label category, no less than 70% of the fibre content must be of certified organic origin or from in conversion fields.
In order to be approved for these category labels, ‘organic’ or ‘organic-in conversion’ fibres must be certified by any standard approved within the IFOAM family of standards for the relevant scope of production. The certification body must have a valid and recognised accreditation for the standard it certifies with. Recognised accreditations for certifiers are ISO 17065 accreditation, NOP accreditation, IFOAM accreditation, and IFOAM Global Organic System accreditation.
Prohibited Inputs in GOTS Products
The standard sets forth the chemical inputs that are explicitly banned from all Global Organic Standard Goods. These include:
- Aromatic and/or halogenated solvents
- Flame retardants (chlorinated and brominated)
- Chlorinated benzenes
- Certain chlorophenols
- A number of Complexing agents and surfactants
- Any endocrine disruptors
- Inputs of formaldehyde and other aldehydes
- All inputs that contain GMO, enzymes derived therefrom, or that are made from GMO raw materials.
- Heavy metals (impurities must not exceed a given limit)
- Azo dyes and other harmful pigments that release carcinogenic compounds
- Inputs of functional nanoparticles
- Inputs with halogen-containing compounds
- Certain Organotin compounds
- A number of plasticizers
- Certain PFCs
- Certain Quaternary ammonium compounds
- Any inputs nationally or internationally legally banned for application in textiles, along with any substances classed as very high concern for authorisation by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
Broadly speaking, the standard prohibits substances which pose a hazard to human health, and also those which are environmental hazards, or bio-accumulative hazards in ecosystems.
Environmental Management under GOTS
To ensure that they meet requirements for the Global Organic Standard, all companies must assure that they comply with all applicable national and local legal environmental requirements applicable to their processing/ manufacturing states performed. Legal environmental requirements related to air and wastewater discharge, as well as the disposal of waste or sludge. GOTS requires that companies have a written environmental policy and procedures in place to allow for monitoring and improvement of any relevant environmental procedures in all their facilities.
In addition to meeting the legal requirements for their locality, the GOTS also mandates certain restrictions on the management of wastewater treatment and discharge. There are also stipulations with regard to the storage, packaging, and transportation of goods. Goods must be transported in such a way that they do not risk contamination. PVC (chlorinated plastics) must not be used in packaging material, and any paper or cardboard used must be recycled or come from a source that verifies compliance with sustainable forest management.
Effective record-keeping is essential, and all companies must be able to show that they have effective, documented control systems and keep records that allow them to trace goods, certifications, and quality.
Social Criteria for GOTS
Throughout all stages of the manufacture of a GOTS product where workers are employed, specific social criteria also apply. Namely:
- Employment is freely chosen (There is no slavery, servitude, bonded or indentured labour and workers may leave employment as and when they wish.)
- Workers may form trade unions and use collective bargaining, and are not discriminated against due to their activities in this regard.
- No child labour may be used.
- No discrimination is present concerning race, caste, religion, origin, age, disability, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, political or union affiliation, social background or any other condition that could give rise to discrimination.
- Working conditions are safe and sanitary.
- Wages and benefits are a fair reward for work.
- Working hours are not excessive.
- No precarious employment is provided.
- Harsh or inhumane treatment is prohibited.
- Companies have a social accountability policy to ensure that social criteria can be met.
Companies must also be able to show that they are an ethical business, not involved in any act of corruption, extortion or embezzlement, etc..
While the Global Organic Textile Standard is commonly agreed to be the best and most comprehensive of the certifications or labels covering textiles made with organic fibres, there are other bodies that cover this section of textile production. Other organic standards that you may encounter include the Soil Association Organic Standard and the Organic Farmers and Growers Certification, both of which may also be applied to cotton or other organic natural materials used in textile production. Another certification is the Organic Content Standard (OCS) (5) and the Organic Blended Content Standard, both of which certifications rely on third-party verification to ensure a finished product contains an exact amount of a given organically grown material.
Entire Supply Chain Textile Sustainability Standards
2. Oeko-Tex Standard 100
As mentioned above, another of the most critical textile sustainability certifications is the Oeko-Tex Standard 100. Since introduced in 1992, this universal, consistent, independent testing and certification system has been applied to raw, semi-finished and finished textile products at all processing levels, as well as accessory materials that are used. The focus of this standard has been on the development of test criteria, limit values, and test methods on a scientific basis. With its decades of experience, this is highly effective testing and certification framework and contributes to a high level of product safety from a consumer’s point of view. Products labelled with this standard are verified to be safe for human health.
Products that carry the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label have been tested at all stages of production to ensure there are no harmful chemicals or residues present, and that the product was made in environmentally friendly conditions.
The Aim and Scope of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100
The textile industry is unusual in that each stage of production, from the farming of raw materials to the finished textile product is often somewhat geographically dispersed. Plants are grown in one location, then processed in an entirely different part of the world. The extremely fragmentary nature of the industry means complex and confusing supply chains and connections, and companies who work in some areas with very different environmental regulations. Oeko-Tex Standard’s criteria catalogue (6) is designed to level out global differences regarding the assessment of possibly harmful substances in textiles. The system can identify and eliminate all potential sources of problematic substances at each stage of textile processing, and products bearing this label have been tested whenever a textile product is recomposed or a chemical change made to its material. For the first time, the Oeko-Tex criteria provide manufacturers with a uniform and scientific basis for the evaluation of potentially harmful substances in textiles.
Oeko-Tex Standard 100 has a modular structure, and certification can be issued for:
- Raw materials, fibres and filaments
- Yarns, raw and finished
- Raw and finished textile fabrics
- Ready-made products
- Textile and non-textile accessories.
Substances prohibited under Oeko-Tex Standard 100
The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 has a comprehensive and strict catalogue of regulated and banned substances, including:
- Azo colourants, formaldehyde, pentachlorophenol, cadmium, nickel, etc…
- Numerous other harmful chemicals, even if they are not currently legally regulated.
- Substances regulated under the European Chemicals Regulation and ECHA’s SVHC Candidate List as deemed relevant for fabrics, textiles, garments or accessories.
- Regulations regarding lead (as per the US Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA)).
- A range of other environmentally relevant substance classes.
In order to qualify for Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification, a company must be able to show that all components, without exception, meet the required criteria. Materials must be submitted for testing and are tested exclusively at member institutes in Europe and Japan to ensure a high testing level. The manufacturer must also sign a declaration of conformity, stating that the products sold during the 12 month license period will all conform with the quality of tested samples. Company visits are also an essential component in certification, and regular product controls are a fixed part of the system.
3. Oeko-Tex SteP
In addition to the Standard 100, Oeko-Tex also has a Sustainable Textile Production (SteP) certification system. This certification system is for brands, retail companies and manufacturers from the textile industry who wish to communicate their achievements regarding sustainable fabrics manufacturing processes.
The Aim and Scope of SteP by Oeko-Tex
This certification covers not only the chemicals used and management of, but also:
- Environmental Performance
- Occupational Health and Safety
- Social Responsibility
- Quality Management
- The extent of sustainable management provided by a production facility
The objective of this certification is the permanent implementation of a series of environmentally friendly production processes, optimal health and safety, and socially acceptable working environments.
In order to qualify for SteP certification, a company must meet certain minimum requirements in the management of chemicals, environmental performance and environmental management, health and safety, social responsibility and quality management.
There is a three-level scoring system:
Level 1: entry level
Level 2: good implementation
Level 3: exemplary implementation
A certification, once issued, is valid for three years (7).
Requirements under SteP
Those certified under SteP must meet the following requirements:
Management of Chemicals:
- Compliance with the guidelines of a restricted substances list (RSL).
- Effective, suitable management of harmful substances.
- ‘Green chemicals’ compliance.
- Periodic training and education on the handling of chemicals used.
- Appropriate communication regarding the use of chemicals and their risks.
- Effective monitoring of the use of chemicals.
Environmental Management under SteP:
- A suitable environmental management system to ensure effective environmental protection measures.
- Commitment to a range of environmental targets.
- Periodic creation of environmental reports.
- An appointed environmental representative.
- Periodic training and education on environmental targets, measures, and risks.
- Implementation of current environmental protection schemes (for example, ISO 14001)(8)
Health and Safety:
- Proof of suitable measures to ensure health and safety in the workplace. (E.g. filter systems, eat protection)
- Guaranteed safety of buildings and plants. (Through constructive measures, escape plans, separated production areas, etc..)
- Good risk prevention measures.
- Implementation of existing safety standards. (For example, OHSAS 18001)(9).
- Acceptable working conditions (in adherence with UN and ILO conventions).
- Execution of performance appraisals for employees.
- Implementation of existing social standards.
- Training for employees with regard to social issues.
- Implementation of a suitable quality management system.
- Traceability, responsibility and adequate documentation regarding goods and supply chain.
- Advanced management aspects including risk management/ corporate governance.
4. Oeko-Tex Made in Green Label
In addition to offering the above certification schemes, Oeko-Tex also administers the ‘Made in Green’ Label. Any finished textile items and semi-finished products at all levels of the textile supply chain can be granted the ‘Made in Green’ label, which certifies that they are free from harmful chemicals, were manufactured using environmentally friendly processes and under safe and socially responsible working conditions. This label is awarded for one year. A company must meet all Standard 100 and SteP requirements before being awarded this label. It offers consumers an unprecedented level of transparency and allows companies in the textile industry to communicate effectively with consumers regarding their entire supply chain.
As you can tell from the above, Oeko-Tex standards, encompass many different elements within textile production, processing, and manufacture, and as such, provide an excellent measure for consumers when determining which products they can trust.
5. Bluesign System
Another example of standards designed to cover the entire supply chain and be broadly applied within the textile industry is the Bluesign System. The Bluesign system unites the entire supply chain to reduce its impact on people and the environment jointly. The holistic system provides a solution for sustainability within the industry and helps to ensure transparency regarding sustainability issues for consumers.
The Aim and Scope of the Bluesign System
The Bluesign system uses the input stream management approach to eliminate harmful substances from the very beginning. By testing for chemical input and ascertaining risk at each stage of the process, rather than simply end-product testing, Bluesign certification can minimise the risk of harmful chemicals to people and the environment at each stage in the process of textile manufacture. Those companies awarded a Bluesign certification have undergone risk assessment based on the best available technique, and have undergone on-site implementation to ensure the right use of chemical products and best environmental practice. Under the system, companies are encouraged to continuously improve sustainability performance, including safety and reducing environmental impact.
Criteria for the Bluesign Label
In order for production sites and companies to be awarded the Bluesign Certification, they must be able to prove that they are in adherence with the five principles of sustainability, utilising the BAT (Best Available Technology) concept.
The term BAT is an important concept in the environmental license policy for companies, referred to in Europe within the European IPPC directive and the Industrial Emissions Directive. BAT are techniques and organizational measures that are best practice as far as the environment is concerned. Following BAT, the latest locally available technological solutions must be implemented.
In addition to following the principles of sustainability, companies and production sites must also recognise and adhere to a range of criteria related to social responsibility. They must commit to the observance of the UN Global Compact – the international initiative which supports universal social and environmental business principles (10).
Consumer goods can be awarded the Bluesign label when they have met the criteria above for all stages in their supply chain. Products are not only tested at endpoint, but also at stages throughout the manufacturing chain, to ensure that they are within consumer safety limits that are specified in the Bluesign System substances list (BSSL) (11).
Each applied chemical component is tested based on the criteria and requirements, and placed into a category – Blue is the category for those components that meet all Bluesign criteria and requirements, grey is the category for components only to be used under certain conditions, and black is for components that do not meet the Bluesign criteria and requirements.
When consumers see the Bluesign label, they can trust that the entire supply chain of a product meets the criteria mentioned above. Like Oeko-Tex’s certifications, the Bluesign System also provides an easily recognised and well-known certification for the textile industry.
6. Naturtextil Best Standard
One final wholistic standard worth noting is the Naturtextil Best label. This label values environmental and social criteria throughout the entire textile industry and supply chains. This standard is verified by an independent third-party organisation following ISO/ IEC Guide 65 Product Certification, GOTS accreditation system is also applied. When this label is applied, consumers can rest assured that:
- 100% certified organic fibres have been used.
- Fibre processing methods have been restricted (bleaching, chlorination, mercerization, etc..)
- Limited dyes and auxiliaries have been used.
- No hazardous substances (formaldehyde, PCP, TCP heavy metals, etc.) have been used.
- High-quality parameters have been adhered to.
- Residue tests have been carried out on the finished product.
- ILO conventions have been adhered to, and living wages paid (12).
Recycled Content Certifications
While the sustainable textile certifications mentioned above are the most all-encompassing and widely known global certifications, there are numerous other examples of certification schemes within the industry. One other important area in the field of textiles sustainability is the verification of claims of recycled content in materials and textiles.
7. Global Recycled Standard (GRS)
One of the most important and best-known standards when it comes to recycled content in the textiles industry is the Global Recycled Standard (GRS). The GRS is an international, voluntary, full-product standard which sets requirements for third-party verification of Recycled Content, in addition to chain of custody, social and environmental practices and chemical restrictions. The goal of this standard is to increase the use of recycled material and reduce/eliminate the harm caused by the production of products.
Originally owned and developed by Control Union Certifications in 2008, since 2011, this standard has been owned and administered by Textile Exchange. The Global Recycled Standard is intended for use with any product that contains at least 20% recycled material. Each stage of production must be certified,
beginning at the recycling stage and ending at the final point of sale (13).
In addition, the Textile Exchange also administers the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), which is intended for use with any product that contains more than 5% recycled material.
Specific Material Certifications
In addition to considering the general textile certifications, consumers may also be interested in considering the certifications that are applied to certain specific materials when considering their sustainability credentials. Examples of specific material certifications which are widely accepted include:
8. The Responsible Down Standard
Another of the standards owned and administered by the Textile Exchange, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) is designed to ensure that down and feathers used in textile products come from ducks and geese that have been treated well. The standard requires that they have been allowed to live healthy lives, express innate behaviours, and have not suffered from any pain, fear or distress. The standard also follows the chain of custody from farm to product. Practices such as live-plucking and force-feeding are prohibited. Only products with 100% certified down and feathers carry this label (14).
9. Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)
Another example of a Textile Exchange certification which focusses on a specific material is the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). This standard is designed to provide the industry with information on best practice for farmers and to allow consumers to recognise when wool comes from farms with a progressive approach to managing their land, and from sheep that have been treated well and responsibly. The RWS protects animal welfare, preserved land health and provides for traceability within wool supply chains (15).
These are just two of many certifications applied to specific materials. There are also a number of certifications or labels, for example, which apply specifically to cotton – such as the Cotton LEADS program.
Materials standards and textile specific certifications are not the only ones that are relevant in the industry. Those who have a particular interest in the human side of sustainability should also consider looking into various Fairtrade Certifications that can be applied to textiles, just as they can to food and other consumer products.
10. Fairtrade Mark
Fairtrade’s new Textiles Standard and Programme, administered by the independent certification body, FLOCERT, is designed to tackle challenging and unsafe working conditions within the entire textiles supply chain. By committing to Fairtrade, companies can help to improve the social and economic wellbeing of the workers across the entire production chain. Consumers know, when they see this label, that working conditions and workers have been taken into account. The standard is available for cotton and other sustainable fabrics (16).
World Fair Trade Organisation Fair Trade Management System
FLOCERT also administers the World Fair Trade Organisation’s standard and guarantee system. The WFTO label signifies that practices across a product’s supply chain have been checked against the WTFO Fair Trade Standard, and also represents support for the fight against poverty and inequality. Every purchase of products carrying this label supports small producers and their communities (17).
Within the textile industry, and over the entire market, fair trade and equality are crucial components, alongside environmental best practice, in true global sustainability.
The above is an overview of many of the most important certifications and labels that can be applied to sustainable textiles. However, these represent only a part of the picture. There are also a number of other certifications, standards, and schemes which are applied, not necessarily globally or internationally, but rather in certain smaller and more specific jurisdictions. However, looking for the standards and labels mentioned above should allow you to choose sustainable fabrics when it comes to textile purchases, and becoming accredited with one or more of the sustainable certifications above is a good move for those in the textile industry who wish to highlight, and improve their sustainability credentials.
(1)’Council Regulation No. 880/92′, European Economic Council, 23 March 1992
(2)’An Overview of Ecolabels and Sustainability Certifications in the Global Marketplace’, Corporate Sustainability Initiative, Duke University, 1st October 2010
(3)Karaosman, H.; Morales-Alonso, G.; Brun, A. From a Systematic Literature Review to a Classification Framework: Sustainability Integration in Fashion Operations.Sustainability 2017, 9, 30.
(4)Global Organic Textile Standard, Version 5.0, 1st March 2017
(5)Organic Content Standard 2.0, Textile Exchange, 2013
(6)Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex® – Limit Values and Individual Substances According to Appendices 4&5, and 6&7
(7)Factsheet, Oeko-Tex SteP, Oek-Tex Edition 01.2019
(8)ISO 14001, Environmental Management Systems, 09.2019
(9)BS OHSAS 18002, British Standards Occupational Health and Safety Management, 2008
(10) UNGC. United Nations Global Compact: The Ten Principles. 2015
(11)Bluesign System Substances List (BSSL) Version 7.1, July 1th 2017
(12)Naturtextil Certification, https://naturtextil.de/en/certification/ 2019
(13)Global Recycled Standard 4.0, Textiles Exchange, July 1st 2017
(14)Textile Exchange, Responsible Down Standard 2.0, 2014
(15)Textile Exchange, Responsible Wool Standard Implementation Manual 1.0, 2016
(16)Fairtrade, Fairtrade Textile Production Mark, Fairtrade International, 2018
(17)World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), WFTO Fair Trade Standard, Version 4.1, December 2017