SERIES: Part 1-How Helpful Are Standards and Certifications?

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The 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza should have never happened, and it’s even more appalling that the workers themselves pointed out issues beforehand and were forced to go back to work or be fired. Photos from Rana Plaza continue to haunt us all, and just last month we saw a continuation of worker deaths from fires in Bangladesh. How can something like this happen in our modern world with so many technological advancements, where extreme poverty has been halved over the past 20 years and education has dramatically improved?

There are a multitude of reasons why the death and destruction at Rana Plaza should have never happened. Arguably one of these is because the two of the five factories that collapsed were audited by the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI). In their own words, the BSCI was created to “provide companies with a practical and efficient system to improve social compliance in global supply chains.” The audits failed to identify the illegal structural issues that led to the collapse in two BSCI-registered buildings. In fact, BSCI audits did not cover building safety at all.

This information is enough to give anyone pause about the viability of such an audit and the standards behind it. Are standards and certifications even helpful to creating positive social impact that improves the lives of those who work in the global garment industry? Can they play any role in helping fashion drop out of its much-maligned status as the second worst polluting industry in the world?

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This multi-part piece aims to dive deeper into the complex world of standards and certifications. To start, let’s define what standards and certifications are as they relate to social and environmental impact. Let’s use fair trade as an example, as it’s one of the earliest and most well-known standards around social impact.

The fair trade story begins just after World War II, when a group named Self Help Crafts (formerly Ten Thousand Villages) purchased needlework from Puerto Rico. The first fair trade shop selling these items opened in 1958, and the growth of fair trade (or alternative trade, as it was first called) grew by marketing craft products from producers in the developing world to promote poverty alleviation.

In the 1970s, fair trade expanded to include coffee, and the first fair trade label was developed in the 1980s by a priest working with smallholder coffee farmers in Mexico. A standard is a set of criteria by which a member of a supply chain or producer group can be measured. Think of standards as guidelines or rules that a group seeks to follow. The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) has put forth a standard based on their 10 Fair Trade Principles and conventions by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

A certification takes place when a third party conducts a compliance assessment and determines that a group is properly following a standard. This will help a group ensure they are properly following the standard and also give consumers assurance that a particular product really is made in line with a certifying process. It’s not uncommon for a certification to cover much, but not all, of the supply chain used to make a product.

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Fairtrade International’s recent report cites numerous benefits to workers through the fair trade standard including greater satisfaction with their standard of living and a decrease in poverty, increased savings and food security, and improved employee-management dialogue. Fashion companies have also applied the fair trade standard in their work and seen success. For example, Patagonia shared that their fair trade program’s successes included increased wages for workers, resulted in the opening of a free daycare center, and improved worker morale and engagement.

When the day is done social impact is all about treating people and our planet well. However, the fashion industry as a whole is sadly very far from both of these. Are standards and certifications helpful for improving the lives of workers and reducing the fashion industry’s environmental footprint? Can they assist designers in creating a socially conscious supply chain? Do they help make it easier for consumers to purchase clothing made in a way that is thoughtful about people and the planet? And are there any particularly good standards to look out for?

The next two articles in this series will be a deeper dive into the challenges and benefits of standards and certifications based on interviews with sustainable fashion and NGO leaders. We will delve into some of the most commonly discussed standards and certifications in the fashion industry, like fair trade and the Global Organic Textile Standard’s work around organic cotton, and give you tools to make your own decisions.

Also read:
SERIES: Part 2-The Social & Environmental Impacts of Standards and Certifications
SERIES: Part 3-The Many Challenges of Fashion Certifications

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.

Rebecca Ballard is a lawyer, advocate, and the founder of Maven Women, which creates socially conscious, elegant workwear for women thoughtful about people and the planet at every step. She encourages you to check out their inaugural collection and move it forward by voting on your favorite styles. This month is Domestic Violence Awareness month and Maven Women is donating $1 to Becky’s Fund for each new person who votes!

Image: Ramdlon, Tama 66, Joey Kiber