Eco Labels In Fashion: Three Certifications To Know

By Benedetta Barelli 

Ethical fashion standards and certifications are gaining momentum as consumers’ concern for sustainability grows. They were first established in 1992 by the European Commission and can be defined as  “an official symbol that shows that a product has been designed to do less harm to the environment than similar products”. They are a voluntary method to qualify a product as ethically and environmentally friendly and can spotlight specific credentials such raw materials, farmer welfare, ethical labour, organic production, working conditions, CO2 emissions and chemical use; or the entire lifecycle of the product, known as the ‘cradle to grave’ approach.

Eco-labels are becoming a key point of reference for those looking for information on how and where their clothes are made, and their quantity has skyrocketed in the past few years in response to this burgeoning demand. In fact, according to the Ecolabel Index, today we have more than 455 eco-certifications in 199 countries spanning 25 industry sectors, with the textile industry claiming 104 of these. Whilst, on the one hand, this should be seen as a positive response to an increasingly conscious consumer market, it can also pose a problem, creating confusion rather than transparency within the industry.

To help you navigate this minefield, I have pulled together a list of the three labels I feel carry the most clout. Whilst they are by no means the be-all-and-end-all, they are an excellent starting point and should help you on your ethical fashion journey.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

GOTS is considered to be one of the most important international standards for the sustainable production of clothing and textile products. It applies to organic natural fibres such as cotton and wool and covers their processing, manufacturing and trading. The standard is also verified by a third party which certifies the content of natural fibres from the organic farming of both intermediate and finished products; supply chain traceability; restrictions on the use of chemicals; and compliance with environmental and social criteria in all phases of the production chain.

    • GOTS Fast Fact: a textile product carrying the GOTS label must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres. However, products containing 95-100% organic fibres can be identified by a special mention of “organic”, found beneath the seal logo. Organic fabrics use natural fibres grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). If you are interested in learning more about how to identify organic materials, take a look at this useful reference that outlines the global standards officially endorsed by the Organic Movement.

Shop Talia's collection of GOTS-certified products:

Fairtrade Foundation 

Fairtrade is an international organisation that works to improve the conditions of agricultural producers and the environment in developing countries. It sets standards for farmers, workers and companies alike, monitoring the protection of workers’ rights and providing a guarantee of equal and liable commerce. It also protects the landscape by requiring agricultural workers to respect the sustainable standard of production. For example, if you want to be certified Fairtrade you can’t clear forests to plant cotton. Here you can find a list of Fairtrade brands.

    • Fairtrade Fast Fact: not only does Fairtrade protect but it also empowers, thanks to its Premium programme which feeds into a communal fund for workers and farmers to invest in the bettering of their social, economic and environmental conditions. Bill Gates in his latest book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, stated that innovation in agriculture is key to ensure a more sustainable supply chain in developing countries, which are the most affected by climate change – an endeavour that Fair-trade is working hard to support. To date, these have included education on agroforesty, training to reduce the use of harmful pesticides and adopt organic pest control, seed breeding, and innovative technology such as sensors and drones to detect the state of health of the land.

Shop Talia's collection of Fairtrade-certified products:

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) 

FSC is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting responsible forestry. The Council certifies forests all over the world to ensure they meet the highest environmental and social standards, spanning ten criteria that include community relations, indigenous peoples’ rights, employment conditions and conservation. Its three labels include FSC 100%, which denotes a product made entirely from FSC audited sources; FSC Recycled, applied to products that are verified as being made from 100% recycled content; and FSC Mix, which include products made using a mixture of materials from FSC-certified forests, recycled materials, and/or FSC controlled wood.

    • FSC Fast Fact: The use of tree-based textile fibres is growing rapidly as consumers call for more renewable and sustainable raw materials. Made of the cellulose found in their plant walls, they form the key components of materials such as viscose, modal, and lyocell. This is great news in one sense as natural fibres are traditionally less polluting than synthetic ones, but doesn’t necessarily mean they are sustainable. In fact, Canopy states that cellulose fibre production consumes approximately 120 million trees per year, endangering forests in Brazil, Indonesia, and North America, which is why certifications like the FSC are key in ensuring cellulose is sourced from well-managed forests.

Shop Talia's collection of FSC-certified packaged products:

Finally, I leave you with three tips to master your responsible shopping:

  1. Always check the materials of clothing and do your research into which are better than others. For example, viscose and lyocell are both derived from tree cellulose, yet the former employs a chemical-heavy production process that makes lyocell far more environmentally friendly.
  2. When it comes to recycled fabrics, always check the percentage (1% is bad, 50% is good!)
  3. Look out for certifications, such as those mentioned above. Whilst the labelling world can be confusing, many are excellent tools to aid you as best they can in your journey. If in doubt, consider reading reviews. Like any marketing claim, eco-labels are only as strong as the critics that back them!

Benedetta Barelli

Benedetta is a political scientist holding an MSc in International Relations. After several PR experiences in the sustainability sector across Europe and the MENA region, she launched a weekly newsletter in Italian, E-missioni Zero, on climate change. Every Saturday she picks up and reports interesting stories and articles about the world’s sustainability transition.