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Your Guide to Sustainable Certs

Your guide to sustainable certificates

So you want to start buying sustainable and ethical clothes, but you’re not sure what all these standards, certificates and memberships even mean? Are they self-assessed or verified by a third party? How do the certification bodies operate? Taking on the role of a conscious consumer is a noble goal, but it raises the question of whether the brands you're supporting really share your values or are just green-washing.

Conor Culliton
Founder
Table of Contents

A good way to get a good understanding of these differnt shcemes is to see where they are similar and where they are different. Each of them are created for different purposes over time which means there isn’t an obvious classification for schemes which can add to the confusion. In the table below we compare and contrast eight different standards, classifications and memberships. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive method of explaining these labels but more an overview with the idea of giving an understanding of the certification landscape. After we give a more detailed view of a number of the schemes.

The table compares the schemes under five headings, whether it relates to materials, fair production, type, and if applicable, and what materials it relates to.

For Materials

This is indicated for schemes that relate to materials. These labels can make claims on the content of their materials, for example recycled vs organic, how the materials are processed, for example without chemicals or a limited amount of chemicals, or chain of custody, ensuring how the material is mixed with other materials is accounted for.

For Fair Production

This is indicated for organizations that relate to fair production. The organizations make claims related to fair working condition for workers, living wage, no forced labour, child labour, discrimation, working hours or trade union rights.

One important nuance here is the difference between minimum wage and a working wage. The living wage is the amount determined by a relevant organization that can provide a decent living whereas the minimum wage is the amount set by law.

Type

This indicates the type of process the organization carries out. For example some will provide certifications verified by third parties. This is perhaps the strongest scheme as you can be more sure of the characteristics described in the standard.

Audits describe the current state of an organization but the audits may not necessarily be public and a bad result may not have any other concrete consequences other than planning to improve in the future.

Memberships are another type of scheme. Memberships typically involve members committing to improving certain criteria.

Materials

Materials indicate the type of the materials the scheme relates to.

Comparison

For Materials For Fair Production Type Related Materials
GOTS x x Certification All Organic Materials
GRS x x Certification All Plastics
OEKO-TEX x Certification All Non Organic Materials
OCS 100 x Certification All Organic Materials
SEDEX x Audit
BSCI x Self Certified
Fair Wear x Membership
BCI x Multistakeholder Governance Group Cotton

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

GOTS is a standard for processing organic fibers, it deals with both environmental and social criteria. Certification of processors which is carried out by independent third parties covers the entire supply chain. GOTS is generally considered the world’s leading standard for organic fiber processing.

GOTS certification does not cover organic fiber production directly as it only relates to processing. Production is under the scope of organic farming standards, many of which are set out by national governments.

Ecological criteria include:

  • Separation from conventional fibre products and identification of organic fibre products
  • Use of GOTS approved colourants and auxiliaries in wet-processing only
  • Processing units must demonstrate environment management, including wastewater treatment
  • Environmentally hazardous substances prohibited in chemical inputs

Social Criteria include:

  • Employment is freely chosen
  • Freedom of association and collective bargaining
  • Child labour shall not be used
  • Remuneration and assessment of living wage gap

Global Recycled Standard (GRS)

The Global Recycled Standard was originally developed by Control Union; ownership was moved to Textile Exchange in 2011. It is a full product standard that aims to track and trace recycled input materials and provide assurances that end products actually contain recycled materials and are processed sustainably.

Certification is carried out by third parties, each step of production is certified, starting with the initial recycling and ending with the final business-to-business transaction.

The standard is intended for use with any product that contains at least 20% recycled material but only products with at least 50% recycled materials can use the GRS logo.

GRS certification has both environmental and social requirements:

Environmental requirements include:

  • Recycled materials verification
  • Supply chain verification
  • Energy use management
  • Exclusion of certain chemicals
  • Water management

Social Requirements include:

  • No use of child labour
  • Right to collective bargaining
  • Wages exceed basic needs of workers
  • Rules related to reasonable working hours

Fair Wear

Fair Wear was founded in 1999 with the goal of improving conditions for garment factory workers. Unlike the schemes above, Fair Wear does not provide a certification but works under a membership model.

The foundation has an audit it calls ‘Brand Performance Checks’ that groups its members into categories: leader, good and needs improvement. Although organizations can begin to work with Fair Wear before they operate perfectly, they can only use the Fair Wear logo on products if they fall into either the leader or good category, leaders can use a modified version of the logo indicating this status.

Fair Wear labour standards include:

  • No forced labour
  • Freedom of association and right to collecting bargaining
  • No discrimination in employment
  • No child labour
  • Payment of living wage
  • Reasonable working hours
  • Safe and healthy working conditions
  • Legally binding employment relationship

amfori BSCI

Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) is a voluntary membership system that gives participants tools to monitor their supply chain with the goal of improving social performance in line with the BSCI code of conduct.

Similar to Fair Wear, BSCI is not a certification scheme but rather provides an audit methodology that is carried out by third parties for participants to monitor factories and farms in their supply chain. Audit results can be shared with other participants using the amfori BSCI platform. Poor audit results do not necessarily mean that a factory or farm will not be used anymore, however adjustments are expected to be made and are verified with a follow up audit. Participants can also ask partners for a self-assessed questionnaire to be completed at any time. This is usually later followed by an audit.

Overall ratings for audits range from A - Very Good to E - Unacceptable. Audits with ratings A or B are valid for two years. For producers with a rating of C, D or E, a follow up audit is required within 2-12 months.

Unlike many other schemes, the amfori logo generally does not appear on end products. Companies can indicate their membership in their corporate communication.

BSCI's code of conduct includes:

  • The rights of Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining
  • No Discrimination
  • Fair Remuneration
  • Occupational Health and Safety
  • No Child Labour
  • No Precarious Employment

Organic Content Standard (OCS)

OCS in an international, voluntary standard with the goal of increasing organic agricultural production. Certification is performed by third parties on organic input and chain of custody.

The OCS promotes the use of organic materials in three ways, by proving the industry with a tool to verify the organic content of products, providing companies with a trustworthy label to communicate organic content claims and by pricing access to the global market to organic farmers.

Unlike other schemes, for example GORS, OCS has no social criteria, focusing solely on materials.

OCS has different label claims that can appear on products. OCS 100 indicates that a product is made of at least 95% organic material with the other non-organic 5% being a different type of material, for example a product containing 95% organic cotton and 5% conventional cotton would not be OCS 100. OCS Blended products are made of at least 5% organic material and can be blended with conventional materials of the same.