Fashionista's Complete Beginner's Guide to Ethical Fashion Certifications

A handy cheat sheet for keeping straight what labels like Fair Trade, Bluesign and B Corp mean.
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Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

If you're aware that there are ethical issues baked into making clothes but don't have time to do in-depth supply chain research every time you need a new pair of socks, there's a good chance you've thought at some point: "If only someone could just tell me for sure if this brand is ethical or not."

You wouldn't be alone in that desire. In years of writing about both sustainability and ethics, it's a sentiment I've heard from fashion consumers a lot. While many people want to be more conscious with their consumption, they also wish it were easier to tell which brands are truly being kind to people and planet.

If you fall into that category, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that a one-size-fits-all ethical fashion certification will probably never exist, partly because not everyone agrees on what qualifies as "ethical." Should that word refer to job creation in impoverished communities or animal welfare? Should it mean making clothes from organic materials or recycled synthetic ones? Not every ethical fashion fan has the same standards or priorities, and that will always make a one-size-fits-all approach to ethical fashion certification difficult.

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But the good news is that there are a host of certifications out there that can help consumers get a sense for which brands meet certain standards, whether they relate to the toxicity of dyes, carbon emissions, fair pay for artisans or something else entirely. Here, we rounded up a dozen of the most important certifications that apply to fashion ethics to help you quickly decode the priorities of any brand that uses them. The point of this guide is not to debate the relative merits of one certification against another, but to give a quick intro to some of the ones worth knowing.

B Corp

What it is: B Corp certification is a general "stamp of approval" awarded by non-profit B Lab to companies that have proven a commitment to doing good across a wide range of categories. B Corp certified companies are "legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment," according to the B Corp website. (Read a full explainer on B Corps here.)

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are generally committed to "doing good," though individual brands may emphasize different practices to get there. 

Brands that use it: Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, Allbirds, Kotn, Helpsy 

Better Cotton Standard

What it is: The Better Cotton Standard is awarded to cotton producers by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which is the largest cotton sustainability program in the world. According to its website, the Better Cotton Standard System is concerned with environmental, social and economic sustainability in cotton production. It pursues those aims by trying to reduce the environmental impact of cotton farming, improving livelihoods and encouraging brand adoption of the initiative.

What it's best for: Identifying companies that want to make a public commitment to more ethical cotton sourcing, but aren't committed to going fully organic or GMO- and pesticide-free.

Brands that use it: Asos, Nike, Levi's, Inditex, Gap Inc., Tommy Hilfiger 

Bluesign

What it is: Bluesign is a standard awarded to textile manufacturers that ensures they're producing in the most environmentally-friendly, health-conscious way possible and is backed by Swiss organization Bluesign Technologies. Bluesign certification takes into account everything from water conservation to chemical usage to dye toxicity in an effort to protect both the workers involved in manufacturing and the consumers who will purchase the final product.

What it's best for: Identifying textile mills that are using processes and materials designed to reduce environmental impact, with an emphasis on minimizing toxicity.

Brands that use it: Adidas, Columbia, L.L. Bean, Asics, REI, Outerknown, Burton

Sheep on a ranch that is part of Fibershed's Climate Beneficial program. Photo: Paige Green Photography/Courtesy of Fibershed

Sheep on a ranch that is part of Fibershed's Climate Beneficial program. Photo: Paige Green Photography/Courtesy of Fibershed

Climate Beneficial

What it is: Climate Beneficial verification is awarded to farmers by non-profit Fibershed as a way of ensuring that the process of creating the material in question — at this point, it's usually wool, though other materials may be coming soon — is contributing to a net positive impact on the climate. This is done by raising sheep in such a way that the farming process actually sequesters more carbon than it emits.

What it's best for: Identifying wool sources that don't just minimize negative outcomes from farming, but are actually helping sequester excess carbon.

Brands that use it: The North Face, Coyuchi, Huston Textile Company, Brooklyn Tweed and more

Cradle to Cradle

What it is: Cradle to Cradle certification is granted to specific products that are composed solely of either natural materials that can safely return to the earth to decompose, or synthetic materials can be used over and over in perpetuity without downgrading their quality. Awarded by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the certification comes in levels (i.e. Gold, Silver, Platinum) that demonstrate how close a given product comes to hitting that goal.

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are thinking about the end-of-life impact of their product, not just the ethics of material sourcing on the front end.

Brands that use it: G-Star Raw, Wolford, Pendleton

Fair Trade USA

What it is: Fair Trade Certification is awarded to products that are made under conditions that prioritize worker safety and fair pay. According to certifying body Fair Trade USA's website, goods with the Fair Trade seal are made by people who "work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities."

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are placing an emphasis on garment laborers' rights in their supply chain.

Brands that use it: Madewell, Athleta, Outerknown, Prana, J.Crew

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

What it is: GOTS is a certification which helps verify that a given textile was made using organic materials, and/or that a mill, dyehouse, farmer or other producer used organic practices to create its textiles. It can be awarded by a number of different certification bodies that all operate using the same set of standards dealing with organic fibers, dyes, chemicals and bleaches, in addition to upholding the labor standards set forth by the International Labor Organization.

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are committed to sourcing organic.

Brands that use it: Stella McCartney, H&M, Kowtow, The Summer House

Leather Working Group

What it is: The Leather Working Group certifies tanneries and leather traders with Gold, Silver or Bronze rankings based on their adherence to guidelines intended to protect the environment. Like GOTS, LWG certification can be carried out by numerous third party auditors that follow the established protocol, and takes into account things like waste management, chemical usage and energy consumption.

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are seeking to source leather from environmentally responsible suppliers.

Brands that use it: Nisolo, Timberland, Everlane, Dr. Martens, Aldo

Inside a tannery. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Inside a tannery. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft

What it is: Created by Nest, a non-profit focused on artisan work, the Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft communicates that a product has been made handmade under fair and ethical conditions. According to Nest's website, brands are evaluated based on "worker rights and business transparency, child advocacy and protection, fair compensation and benefits, health and safety and environmental care." Since the seal is relatively new, it's currently in the process of being adopted by fashion brands, with more to roll out soon.

What it's best for: Identifying brands that work ethically with artisans in home or workshop settings rather than mass-producing.

Brands that use it: West Elm, others in process.

Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex

What it is: While the organization behind Oeko-Tex (full name: International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile and Leather Ecology) issues a number of different certifications relevant to fashion, the Standard 100 is the most commonly encountered by consumers. It certifies that textiles are free of substances that can be harmful to humans.

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are committed to keeping toxic dyes and chemicals out of their textile processing and final products.

Brands that use it: Reformation, Outland Denim, Calvin Klein, Van Heusen

Regenerative Organic Certification

What it is: Though it's still in the pilot phase and won't be widely available for awhile, the Regenerative Organic Certification created by the Regenerative Organic Alliance will certify that agricultural products like wool and hemp were produced on farms that promote soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. The ROC is based on the concept of regenerative farming, which is designed to sequester carbon by nurturing healthy soil.

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are working with fiber farmers who are aiming to draw a maximum amount of carbon out of the atmosphere through agriculture.

Brands involved: Patagonia, Prana

USDA Organic

What it is: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal certifies that an agricultural product like cotton or cashmere was produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or GMOs. (Worth noting: this label applies to the fibers themselves, but doesn't necessarily cover dyes, finishes or other treatments that might be applied to a textile.) The USDA allows GOTS-certified textiles to be sold in the United States as organic, too.

What it's best for: Identifying brands that are using natural fibers that are GMO-free and grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Brands that use it: Pact, Groceries Apparel, For Days

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