Every day, the clothing you choose to wear, whether lovingly picked out for a special day or hurriedly donned en-route to a challenging appointment, has probably travelled more around the world than you that year. A 2017 BBC article recounted the journey of a single shirt, made of the cellulose fibre lyocell. The tree for the fibre came from Europe, which was then shipped to Egypt to be spun into yarn and sent far east to China – where it was woven into fabric.
The fabric still needed to be dyed, and so it was sent back to Spain in Europe, and finally to Morocco for the actual cutting and sowing of the shirt itself. The garment came with a ‘Made in Morocco’ tag. The journey didn’t end there - packaging was back at the Spain before being sent out for sale into yet another country.
Spanning at least three continents, five countries and various factories and workers – such is the typical journey of most garments purchased today. But, wait a moment…
It’s been purchased online in a second – and so on it’s next flight. One would hardly suspect clothes were little globetrotters.
In the wake of UN climate change conference COP 26 and global efforts to spread awareness and advancement in sustainability, the choices facing us as consumers can be numerous and confusing. At every part of the supply chain for fashion, there are possibilities of toxic chemical use, unfair worker treatment and wages, lack of environmental protections, an overly large carbon footprint, inefficient water usage, synthetic fabrics, landfill waste and even animal cruelty. Not to mention the fact that social media microtrends encourage weekly disposal of your clothes, straight into landfills. When companies are not transparent, as is often seen, then we really have no clue what is actually happening. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh that killed more than 1000 workers and injured over 2500 more, illustrated how little consumers and even producers knew about poor working conditions in clothing factories with retailers such as Primark, Mango and Benetton acknowledging that some garments were sourced from there. For us as consumers, it’s just another evening outfit or party dress.
To make your choice towards sustainability and ethical fashion that little bit easier amidst the flurry of options – especially for your little ones, here’s a pocket guide to all the labels and certifications you can watch out for and what they mean.
Manoshi Kamdar Kothari, founder and CEO of Aara Inc, a fashion design consultancy based in Dubai and Mumbai, says, “When it comes to certifications, there are a lot of different governing bodies, there is not just one, and each certification usually has its way of doing things – and is independent.
“There are certifications like GOTS, OEKO-TEX, FairTrade, BCI (BetterCotton Initiative), Cradle to Cradle, SA8000 etc.. each addresses a different part of the process. Some focus on the materials themselves, others on the fair pay and human rights of the workers, others on the chemicals used (dyes for example), others like PETA or Responsible Wool Standard focus on the wellbeing of animals. So, it can be a bit complicated to understand them all as it will depend on the piece in particular and your values," says Araceli Gallego, country coordinator, UAE, at Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism movement, and founder of UAE-based sustainable shopping website, Goshopia.
Some focus on the materials themselves, others on the fair pay and human rights of the workers, others on the chemicals used (dyes for example), others like PETA or Responsible Wool Standard focus on the wellbeing of animals. So, it can be a bit complicated to understand them all as it will depend on the piece in particular and your values.
Regardless of which brand you are shopping for, these are some labels you can look out for:
*A chain of custody standard verifies the journey from the input raw material to the final product.
This organization tests manufacturing processes and materials in the chain of custody in the textile and leather industry and once a year, the organisation updates the banned substances, limits values and expands them to include new scientific standards.
There are a number of OEKO-TEX standards that you can look out for, with certification descriptions as per the website:
MADE IN GREEN: This certifies textiles and leather goods as being tested for harmful substances, and have been manufactured in environmentally friendly facilities under safe and socially responsible working conditions. It is also traceable – using the unique product ID or QR code, you can find info about the textile and leather article, stage of production, facility and countries of production.
STANDARD 100: All types of textiles that have this label have been tested for harmful substances, from yarn to the finished product.
LEATHER STANDARD: This certifies that the leather has been tested for harmful products, and can certify leather at all levels of production from the leather to the finished product.
STeP: This certifies production facilities that manufacture textile and leather articles under sustainable production conditions – in terms of chemical management, environmental performance and management, social responsibility, quality management, health protection and safety at work.
ECO PASSPORT: This independently certifies that each individual ingredient in the chemicals, colourants and auxiliaries used in the textile and leather producer meets the statutory requirements and that it is not harmful to human health. It is for the manufacturers of process chemicals.
• Sustainable Apparel Coalition
This is the leading alliance worldwide for sustainable production in the apparel, footwear and textile industry.
Under the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Higgs Index measures the environmental and social sustainability of the product throughout its full life cycle (value chain sustainability). Now, if you'd like to find out the sustainability profile of a member company's product, you can input its profile ID (found on the webpage where the product is sold on the website).
The Higgs Index Sustainability Profile shows you the global warming potential of the product, the fossil fuel use, water use and water pollution caused, and these are ranked in four levels - Baseline, Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3, where Level 3.
• 1% for the planet
This certification is given to businesses and individuals that meet the standard of donating one per cent of annual sales or salary to environmental causes.
• Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
This global standard for all textiles certifies that the product is made of at least 70 per cent organic fibre and has undergone environmentally and socially responsible processing along the entire textile supply chain – from harvesting to manufacturing and process.
Kothari says about labels here in UAE, “In Kidswear brands, I have 100 per cent seen GOTS here in the UAE.”
• Organic Content Standard (OCS)
This certifies that the materials originating on a farm is certified to recognized organic standards – to verify the organically grown raw materials at any stage from the farm to the final product.
• Recycled Claim Standard (RCS)
This sets requirements for third-party certification of recycled input and chain of custody.
• Global Recycled Standard (GRS)
This certifies the recycled content ,social and environmental practices, chain of custody and chemical restrictions – this verifies the recycled content of the company’s products and verifies responsible social, environmental and chemical practices in their production.
• Fair Wear Foundation
This label from an independent non-profit organization certifies that the company is a Fair Wear foundation member, is undergoing third-party brand performance checks, factory audits, factory training and a complaint helplines as part of the effort to improve working conditions for garment workers. Their Labour standard code is derived from the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the International Labour Organization’s Conventions and include freely chosen employment, freedom of association, right to collective bargaining, no discrimination in employment, no exploitation or child labour, payment of living wage, reasonable hours of work, safe and healthy working conditions, legally binding employment relationship.
• International Organization for Standardisation (ISO)’s ISO 14001
Seal of approval from a third party that the company runs to an international standard developed and published by the International Organization for Standardisation.
ISO 14001 Environmental Management System – According to Certification Europe, this is a systematic framework to manage the immediate and long-term environmental impacts of an organization’s products, services and processes.
This is a comprehensive standard for textile manufacturers that assesses and certifies the environmental, social practices, manufacturing and every ingredient in the materials used. The company provide safe working conditions for employees and work, to eliminate harmful substances at each step of the supply chain, and certifies that the textile products are safe for consumers, workers and the environment.
The company and product are assessed by the criteria of the standard, before the seal is given. A Bluesign-approved product consists of at least 90 % bluesign approved textiles and 30 per cent Bluesign approved accessories.
• Carbon Disclosure Project
Though this doesn’t appear as a label, to find out more about the carbon footprint of any clothing company, you can register and check their profile on the website of the Carbon Disclosure Project – which assigns scores for different categories such as Palm Oil, Climate change and more. (This is, provided the company has submitted information.)
• FLA (Fair Labour Association) Workplace Code of Conduct
This certifies that the company adheres to humane, safe and socially responsible treatment of workers who manufacture the clothes.
• Cotton made in Africa’ (CmiA)
Cotton made in Africa is an internationally recognised standard for sustainable cotton from Africa – it supports smallholder farmers by facilitating access to necessary equipment, ensuring adequate labour conditions and is committed to protecting the environment during the agricultural process.
• Fair Trade Textiles Standard
As part of the Fairtrade textile programme – this certifies safe working conditions, living wages workers’ rights and adequate labour protection for workers.
• Fair Trade USA
Fair trade certified means certified that they are safe work conditions, environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, community development funds.
• EU Eco label
This label is awarded to products and services by the European Commission that meet the organisation’s environmental standards throughout their lifecycle – from raw material extraction, to production, distribution and disposal.
• Cradle to Cradle Certified
A global standard for products that are safe, circular and responsibly made – it certifies that the materials are safe for humans and the environment, reducing harmful emissions, promoting renewable energy and protecting clean air – safeguarding clean water, healthy soils and social fairness.
• Leather Working Group
The leading standard worldwide that certifies tanneries and companies if they meet standards for environmentally safe production. It does not certify for working conditions.
• Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
An international standard for the management of forest harvests - this identifies products that are responsibly sourced from forests such that it preserves biological diversity, benefits the lives of local people (including upholding the rights of indigenous people) and workers. This can be in reference to fabrics such as cellulose and rubber, tags and packaging for clothes.
• BetterCotton Initiative
They certify for crop protection, water, soil health, biodiversity, fibre quality, decent work, management system for cotton production.
• Climate Beneficial
This certifies that the fibre was sourced from animals that are grazed on carbon farms. Carbon farming focuses on sequestering carbon into the earth – and improving the rate at which CO2 is converted to organic matter, and increasing fertility and water holding capacity in soil.
• PETA Cruelty-free
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ‘cruelty-free’ label certifies that no animal testing was done in the making of the product.
• PETA approved Vegan
This label for clothing, fibres, shoes and more certifies that the product is vegan.
What are the other options for me?
It may not be convenient to be on the hunt for these labels every time you purchase clothes for yourself and your family. Moreover, not everyone may have them even if their production cycle may meet the criteria: Gallego says, “Those certifications are pricey for the local designers as they are mostly European or American standards.”
In that case, you can look out for specific lines from manufacturers that are transparent about eco-friendly processes, slow fashion outlets and keep the practice of researching the brand before purchase.
Kothari says, “As a rule of thumb, everyone knows that polyester is not very good for the environment – the making and the manufacturing of it and the after life of polyester - it takes forever to degrade. It's not biodegradable or anything.
As a rule of thumb, everyone knows that polyester is not very good for the environment – the making and the manufacturing of it and the after life of polyester - it takes forever to degrade. It's not biodegradable or anything.
“But I can’t give you a general rule of thumb that, you know, use cotton instead of this because - I don't know how the farmers have been treated. I don't know how that crop has been grown. So you could be contributing to some unfair, wages and practices by buying more cotton versus a polyester. So I don't necessarily have the right answer to that question.
“But I mean steer clear of like, you know, completely polyester, and I would say super cheap garments. I can assure you that if something is super-duper cheap, it's not going to be very sustainable - probably made at mass production.”
Are synthetic fibres sustainable?
Everyone does wear them, and in fields such as sports and hiking – having sweatproof, waterproof synthetic clothing can be necessary. Nevertheless, the fact remains that polyester is a plastic made from petroleum, that doesn’t degrade easily and can be recycled only once or twice. After that, it will be disposed off in landfills. Moreover, according to a 2020 study by scientists from the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy and the University of Plymouth showed, even just wearing synthetic clothes releases more microfibers into the atmosphere than washing them – 900 million polyester microfibres per person per year to the air by simply wearing the garments versus around 300 million polyester fibres for washes, which however makes its way to the ocean.
2. The 30 wear test: When buying a garment, ask yourself if you will wear it at least 30 times – if not, don’t buy it. This is the 30 wear test by Livia Firth, founder of Eco Age – a fashion sustainability advocacy and solutions company.
3. Buying preloved clothing: According to ThredUp, online consignment and thrift store, buying used clothes extends the garments’ life by about two years which cuts its combined carbon, waste and water footprint by 82 per cent.
4. The correct care: Wash the garment as per the instructions given on the clothes to ensure it lasts for longer. “You can do the correct wash care, and you can actually maximize the wear out of the garment,” says Kothari.
5. Mend, don’t throw: Manoshi Kamdar Kothari, founder and CEO of Aara Inc, a fashion design consultancy based in Dubai and Mumbai says, “If a button breaks or is torn, just mend it to have a longer life out of it. Some people throw the garments saying the button is broken. They don’t even take five minutes to stitch the button back or replace the button. So, just a small step like that can increase the life of the garment.”
6. Never throw it in the trash: Your clothes can be donated or sold at a preloved clothing store, or the fabric from the garment can be used in myriad ways. “If you're done with it, then you can always upcycle that garment or donate it in the right places,” advises Kothari.
“There are a lot of brands that do upcycling from old garments too.”
7. Microplastics filters: “I know people are trying to create something because those micro fibers and the micro plastics are actually very harmful to the environment as well, because they get emitted into the oceans and you're breathing it honestly. So you're literally breathing plastic - it’s not even visible to your eye, it's so small,” says Kothari. You can add microfiber filters, or laundry balls which have been shown to reduce microfiber pollution in wastewater.