SERIES: Part 3-The Many Challenges of Fashion Certifications

We recently dove into the world of fashion certifications in part 1 and part 2 of this series, highlighting benefits which included helping brands improve their social and environmental performance and setting industry-wide standards. We also discussed some of the most common standards and certifications in the fashion industry.

This third and final piece in our series on standards and certifications shows all is not rosy in this complex realm. If there are so many good things about standards and certifications, then why aren’t they more ubiquitous in the fashion industry? Can they really help the industry leave its much-maligned status as the one of the worst polluting industries in the world and better care for the one out of six people globally whose work touches this industry?

Standards and certifications are no substitute for relationships.

Facts and figures on paper can’t capture the ins and outs of a workplace. That is why it is critically important that you build relationships, even friendships, with your supply chain partners. Sica Schmitz, founder and curator of ethical boutique Bead and Reel incorporates this relationship-based approach into the homework she does on her brands.

“I do put weight into certifications and many of our brands have them, but I also know they aren’t the only measure of a brand’s standards. Some of the things I look for are certifications, stories and relationships with other stores and organizations, and also knowing the owners and employees of the company. You can tell a lot about how a company is operating by who is working there. We have personally visited many of the factories where our styles are made,” says Schmitz.

They are limited in scope, only touching one part of the supply chain or one aspect of social or environmental consciousness.

The fashion industry is filled with complex supply chains that are challenging to unravel.

“There is such little traceability in an apparel supply chain. A brand will go to a manufacturer who will source materials but won’t be able to tell you whether it’s an ethical fabric or not,” says Shama Amalean, Chief Operating Officer of Thinx. “From the supplier to the cotton manufacturer it’s nearly impossible and there’s almost no traceability there. A lot of fabrics are also mixed as well,” says Amalean.

A standard or certification may cover the factory a brand uses but then leave out the farm where raw materials are grown, or it may cover fabric but not hardware. Context is also critical. One challenge with the fair trade standard, for example, is that it was created with small, rural groups making handicrafts in mind rather than in the context of the fashion industry, which often has products made in large factories or urban settings.

“It seems fair trade is more recognized by consumers, but I have a hunch that the social compliance certification bodies for big factories (like WRAP, ISO, BSCI) actually affect more lives in a positive way,” says Corban Bryant, Founder of Purnaa.

Standards and certifications may also only account for one aspect of environmental or social impact. A certification may show a brand’s commitment to fair labor, but may not account for the need for strong environmental standards. Bryant believes that it’s actually difficult to cover everything from labor rights, to worker safety, to environmental sustainability. “Generally, companies that focus in on one of these areas tend to do better on the others as well,” adds Bryant.

All certifications are not created equal.

Some standards or certifications have lower overall protections and may be poorly run or even questionable. Amalean notes that “There’s an incentive to get the certification for marketing in many organizations, and a couple years down the line they may not be abiding by these standards at all but they still own the sticker.”

Standards that don’t require re-certification may be particularly suspect. Schmitz also notes that there are naturally conflicts of interest with certifying bodies: “I think any organization that relies on certifying brands to generate profits is inherently going to have some conflicts of interest, and I have come across a few certifying agencies that are poorly run or have questionable practices.”

Retailers may be in a tough situation when, unbeknownst to them, a brand they carry changes their practices and loses their certification. Schmitz describes this problem: “There have been several brands that have changed their ethical standards after we started working together – this may be moving where or how they manufacture, or even finding out that they were dishonest about their mission. We terminate all relationships with any brands found to no longer meet our standards, however, since we may have already invested in their inventory, we sometimes do have to continue carrying their products until we are able to liquidate them, often at a loss.”

There’s a strong argument that the industry should “police” this area more, weeding out the bad, highlighting the good, and consolidating anything confusing. According to Rebecca van Bergen, Executive Director of Nest, it’s important for the industry to self-police ‘certifications’ that are in name only and lacking in substance backed up with standards, otherwise, they risk losing the trust of the consumer.

They require resources to obtain and maintain, which may be particularly challenging for smaller suppliers.

It takes both time and money to become certified, both of which are scarce resources for smaller, grassroots organizations. Schmitz notes that some brands may not yet have the money, time, or data to qualify for certain certifications, but that doesn’t mean they are not operating under very high ethical standards.

Purnaa’s experience receiving certification shows how challenging it can be for a new, smaller ethical manufacturer to become certified.

“We started out pursuing WRAP, and it was just too complicated and expensive. Although we hope to one day be a big employer like a WRAP factory (an average WRAP certified factory has 800 people), it just wasn’t practical for us. WFTO has been comparatively easy. They even flew our Production Manager out to Thailand for free to help us finish the self-assessment process,” says Bryant.

Consumers still aren’t able to use them as a guide.

All of the groups I spoke with noted that consumers are increasingly demanding transparency but that there is a lag in the industry’s ability to provide them with adequate tools for them to take action around their purchases. One reason is customer confusion with the abundance of standards out there.

“I think that the many different Fair Trade and Social Compliance certification bodies need to consolidate,” says Bryant. Right now there are too many options: WFTO, Fair Trade International, Fair Trade Federation, Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade Foundation (UK), Fair Wear Foundation,  GOTS, ILO, ISO 14001, WRAP, BSCI, ETI, SAI, FLA, Blue Sign, Higg Index. Consumers are not going to be able to track all of this, so companies are not going to bother pursuing it because it is so confusing that their customers stop caring.”

Amalean sees an opportunity for another key player in the fashion ecosystem to step up here and engage with the consumer. She thinks the next step will be for manufacturers themselves “to start building their brand in the eyes of the consumer.”

What is the take home message here? Improving the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry isn’t easy. Standards and certifications are important tools, but at present they don’t hold all the answers. It is important for each brand, manufacturer, and consumer to educate themselves around the role standards and certifications play to do their part to move the needle in the global fashion industry. Without the right questions, we won’t get the right answers.

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 savvy, sustainable styles for women thoughtful about people and the planet at every step.