SERIES: Part 2-The Social & Environmental Impacts of Standards and Certifications

We recently examined the relationship of standards and certifications to the fashion industry’s social and environmental impact in Part I of this three-part series. There, we defined the terms “standards” and “certification” and gave a brief historical overview of the well-known fair trade standard. We also shared two contrasting examples of how standards and certifications may have helped and hurt in the global fashion industry. There are no easy answers here, and we want to equip you with the tools to make your own decisions and act accordingly.

This second piece delves into the potential social and environmental benefits of standards and certifications and explores some of the more commonly used in the fashion industry. We’ve spoken with four individuals from different parts of the industry (a manufacturer, a retailer, a brand, and a nonprofit) to get their take on the opportunities as well as challenges in this arena.

Image: Nest’s Global Artisan Advancement Project

Standards and certifications help brands improve their social and environmental performance

Let’s say that you are a brand looking for supply chain partners (aka vendors). You want all of your partners to have high standards in terms of their social and environmental footprint so standards and certifications may be a good place to start. According to Rebecca van Bergen, the Founder and Executive Director of Nest, a nonprofit committed to the social and economic advancement of artisans and homeworkers, “Standards and certifications play a fundamental role in helping brands move towards improved environmental and social impact, as long as they are developed in-context to acknowledge the nuances of the specific type of supply chain they are meant to serve.”

One great example of this is the Global Artisan Advancement Project developed by Nest and discussed further below.

Sica Schmitz, founder and curator of the ethical boutique Bead & Reel, agrees and notes that standards and certifications are helpful both initially and over time as a brand evaluates its impact.

“I think standards and certifications can help fashion brands outline clear criteria and goals in their supply chain. They can help show what a brand is doing well and where it needs improvement, and can lead to more universal definitions and standards for certain parts of the supply chain.”

Image: Patagonia’s Fair Trade Certified program

They may be especially helpful for smaller brands seeking ethical and sustainable supply chain partners

A large, well-established brand (e.g., Patagonia) will both place larger orders and have greater predictability and visibility into their future orders than smaller, newer brands. Many suppliers require large orders for customization, and large brands are more likely to order sufficient quantities to orders sizeable enough to specify parameters around social and environmental impact. Through their demand large brands could potentially even scale the creation of more ethical, sustainable materials that could be used by others.

If you are a smaller or newer brand you have fewer resources to trace and potentially change your supply chain, and you may be limited to what is already available. You may also not have the resources to conduct audits of your supply chain as regularly as you would like. According to Corban Bryant, founder of Purnaa, an ethical manufacturer in Nepal, “Certifications [make] it so quick and easy to trust a new supplier. Without certifications, we don’t really know what their definition of ‘ethical’ is and it requires expensive visits and time.”

Many standards and certifications have databases and other programs to help you connect with manufacturers that meet those specifications. For example, the Global Organic Textile Standard has a free public database of certified entities online.

They set industry-wide benchmarks and a common language for all players, including suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, brands, and consumers

Standards and certifications are helpful to all parties involved in the global garment industry and give a common language. Shama Amalean, Chief Operating Officer at Thinx, a company creating period panties for the modern woman, believes that “more than anything [standards and certifications] allow for benchmarks the industry can follow at all steps, whether you are a consumer or a buyer or a supplier.”

Want to learn about some of the most commonly used and well-regarded standards and certifications?

Check out Fair Trade, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Bluesign, the Global Artisan Advancement Project, and B Corps below:

Fair Trade: There are many fair trade groups out there. What they all have in common is that they support the 10 Fair Trade Principles. Some of them provide certifications, while others promote the standard without formally auditing and certifying. As Amalean states, “Fair trade has been a good [standard]…used across various industries, and they have done an excellent job actually communicating what they do to the end consumer who can recognize the label.”

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): The GOTS standard is the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. The standard covers the entire production cycle, from farm to factory, and only textiles that are a minimum of 70% organic fibers can become certified. GOTS also includes key social criteria based on the key norms of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which includes criteria around forced labor, freedom of association, child labor, and living wages.

Bluesign: The Bluesign standard is one of the standards in the textile industry that can be used to help move toward industry sustainability goals.  Bluesign is a global partner for a sustainable textile industry and was founded in 2000. The certification has more than 200 industry partners that have gone through the certification process including EILEEN FISHER and Patagonia.

The Global Artisan Advancement Project (developed by Nest): This standard focuses on cottage industries and the artisans who fall outside of the traditional factory production model. According to van Bergen, “[E]stimates indicate that as much as 60% of garment production alone is likely to be taking place outside these regulated, four-walled facilities. Traditional factory audits do not properly address decentralized supply chains that are often structured as cottage industries and which involve complicating factors like subcontracted labor and piece-rate payment models…In partnership with a diverse steering committee of brands…Nest has created a standards, assessment, and most importantly remediation tools, designed specifically for artisans and homeworkers.”

B Corps: B Corporation (B Corps): For-profit companies are certified by the nonprofit B Labs under rigorous standards for social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Unlike the other three groups here, the B Corps standard can even be used by a wide array of companies, including some that only provide services and not products. There are nearly 2,000 B Corps in 50 countries in the world today across a wide range of industries, including fashion (e.g., Patagonia, Indigenous, Eileen Fisher, Reformation, Apolis). Amalean points out a particular strength of this standard: “What I really like about B-Corp is the insistence, or really the mandate, to recertify every two years. You lose your certification if you cannot score the same number or points or more every two years.”

Also read:
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.

Author 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.