In this guide, we’ve provided some specific insight for conscious consumers into how they might tell if items they are buying are ethical in different ways.
This includes eco, organic, labor rights and other types of certifications/standards that might indicate a level of ethics.
First, Understand The Different Levels Of Ethical Standards
1. In regulations set by the national or State/provincial governments
One example of this in the United States is the USDA and their regulations for ‘organic’ agricultural products.
One of the problems with government regulations is that they can be vague, and not specific enough.
2. By companies themselves on their website, product labels and in advertising and marketing
Companies might make claims about their supply and production processes, and how they might be ethical in different ways, or according to different measurements.
Companies might provide clear independent auditing or testing results for example, or they might very simply just use vague marketing phrases without much accompanying information as a foundation for those marketing terms (i.e. a form of greenwashing).
Obviously the more detailed, transparent and thorough the data and information the company provides – the more credibility their ethical claims might carry.
A few problems with relying in individual companies are that a) there’s no uniform of widely used set of criteria to be able to compare companies to other companies or for consumers to easily recognize an international certification for example, and b) companies can have a conflict of interest to procure their claims and information to make more sales or make their brand seem more ethical than it really is
3. By third party certifying bodies
Some organisations have the specific function to provide a set of transparent/easily accessible criteria and requirements that companies must meet if they are to have their products receive a certification symbol from those organisations.
Because these organisations are third parties, there’s less incentive for them to favor any one company or product, and some organisations are able to gain international recognition for a set of widely understood and credible criteria and standards.
Second, Understand What Ethics Are Important To You
Ethics can be subjective, and everyone will have a different idea of what is ‘ethical’ specific to their values and morals.
Some of the different areas of ethics might include:
The environment, and eco friendliness
Wild life and animals, and animal cruelty
Worker’s rights and worker’s conditions, and providing safe and fair working environments
Within each of those areas, different people may value different things … for example:
The environment – some people may specifically want to focus on companies that minimize waste pollution or have a lower carbon footprint. But, there’s many other aspects to the environment, such as sustainable use of resources, air pollution, fresh water pollution, ocean pollution, land degradation, plant life, and so on.
Wild life and animals – different areas of animal conservation and protection might include protecting wild life habitats, preserving biodiversity, stopping unnecessary trapping, poaching and killing of non pest species, preventing cruelty against livestock, stopping animal testing, and so on
Human health – reducing the amount of harmful chemicals used in goods and service production, and reducing harmful environmental pollution (such as air pollution)
Worker’s rights – ensuring all workers along the supply and production chain are paid a fair living wage and have safe and fair working conditions to work in everyday, especially in low income and developing regions in the world where there is a very low or unsafe standard of living
Third, Understand What Different Ethical Standards Mean, & Exactly What You Are Getting With An ‘Ethical’ Product Or Service
There are hundreds of different textile, fabric, clothing and fashion certifications now.
A few of the main ones and what they offer might be:
GOTS Certification (Organic, Eco, Fair Work, + Other Indirect Ethical Benefits)
The main fibre that is eligible for GOTS certification is organic cotton.
GOTS covers a few areas:
- Organically grown fibre (as opposed to conventional)
- Chemicals which meet toxicity and other requirements in the production process
- Treatment of production wastewater with
- Fair conditions and living wages for supply chain workers
GOTS also has indirect benefits – such as indirectly supporting fibres with lower carbon footprint and energy requirements, as natural and organic fibres have a lower carbon footprint than synthetic ones.
Read more about the GOTS standard in this guide
OEKO-TEX 100 Standard (Human Health)
The goal of Oeko-Tex fabric safety standard is to ensure that fabrics pose no risk to human health.
The Oeko-Tex 100 Standard prohibits the same long list of chemicals that GOTS prohibits; but Oeko-Tex addresses nothing else about the production steps. For example, wastewater treatment is not required, nor are workers rights addressed.
It is NOT an organic certification and products bearing this mark are not necessarily made from organically grown fibers – or from natural fibers at all.
Plastic yarn (polyester, nylon, acrylic) is permitted.
Oeko-Tex is only concerned with the safety of the final product.
Read more about it here:
There’s no specific animal cruelty certification yet for fabrics, but fibres/fabrics that may have animal cruelty issues in their production are:
Additionally, three organizations that currently certify cruelty free products in general, and to different extents are:
- Leaping Bunny
- Beauty Without Bunnies
- Choose Cruelty Free
Other Certifications & Standards To Note
- FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certification – promotes responsible management of the world’s forests. Can be used for fibres like bamboo fibre (used in textiles). Read more at fsc.org
- Fair Wear – verifies and improves working conditions for garment workers. Read more at fairwear.org
- Country or region based certifications – for example, Australia has Fairtrade (labor rights) at fairtrade.com.au.
- Europe has the Eco-Label … TENCEL™ Modal fibers are certified with the internationally recognized EU Ecolabel, an environmental quality label only awarded to products and services which have a significantly lower environmental impact throughout their entire lifecycle. Products awarded the label are independently assessed for compliance with strict ecological and performance criteria. Read more at europa.eu
- TENCEL also has a sustainability section on their site with their different certifications that they have been assigned
These are some of the many certifications available for clothing, fashion, fabrics and fibres.
Make sure you read what each certification/standard offers prior to buying.
Fourth, Look For The Relevant Certifications & Standards When You Buy
Look for the certification symbol on the tag/label (if shopping in person)
Research the brand and their products beforehand as well – look at their website, social media accounts, and other branded online channels for more information on how they produce and provide their goods and services
If shopping online, you should see the certification symbol, or a direct statement of the certifications the seller has in the product description, or on another page such as the ‘about us’ or ‘certifications’ pages of the site