As consumers become increasingly aware of unsustainable fashion production processes, certifications are important in assuring them that their purchases are indeed sustainable.
While there aren’t many certifications, and they don’t necessarily cover the entire process, they do showcase a certain level of transparency which is evidence that the fashion industry is slowly but surely looking to make a positive change.
Sustainable textile certifications exist to protect and inform the consumer about the quality of what they are buying, whether the textiles were produced and manufactured in a manner that protects the environment and whether the textile mills have working conditions that are ethical i.e, respect the rights of workers.

Roughly 100 global labels consider environmental sustainability, social sustainability or consumers’ health, in the textile and clothing industry. The standards are created by public institutions, private certification companies, NGOs, textile industry federations, or even retailers themselves.

The following are a few key certifications and standards that responsible companies can use to certify their products as evidence of using sustainable practices in certain stages of product manufacture.

1. Sustainable Textile Production (STeP) by OEKO-TEX®

STeP certification is given to companies to show that they promote good working conditions, environmental protection and safety during fibre production, spinning, weaving, knitting, treatment and finishing. The certification ensures adherence in the following areas:

  • Health and safety of workers
  • Proper use and handling of chemicals
  • Quality management
  • Environmental impact of production and waste disposal

The certificate, which is renewable every 3 years, is issued after an audit of production facilities by an official from OEKO-TEX®. Even after certification, OEKO-TEX® will still carry random audits to ensure that the certified company is still in compliance with the terms of the certification.
The certification scores companies from level 1 to level 3, with level 3 indicating highest compliance. The scoring allows the public to compare results of one company with those of another.

  • Level 1 = entry level
  • Level 2 = good level of implementation but has more potential for improvement
  • Level 3 = exemplary implementation/ best practice example

A key advantage of STeP is that it connects suppliers to brands and retailers looking for textiles and textile products that are produced ethically.

Minimum requirements for step certification

To get certified, a company must meet the following conditions:

Proper chemical handling

Under this requirement, companies should:

  • Comply with set guidelines for using restricted chemical substances
  • Regulate the use of chemicals and communicate to the public if any are used and the risks involved.
  • Train workers periodically on the use of chemicals

Environmental protection through:

  • Efficient use of resources
  • Use production processes that are resource efficient, and that reduce carbon footprint
  • Handle waste and emissions responsibly

Quality assurance

Social Responsibility

Companies can demonstrate this by:

  • Respecting the rights of employees as stipulated by the UN and ILO
  • Offering training and fair appraisal to workers

Health and safety through:

  • Providing workers with safety clothing and equipment
  • Implementing safety measures within the buildings to prevent risks and enhance safety

2. Eco-label certification e.g STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX®

Eco-labels exist in the hundred but among the most globally recognised certifications in this category is the Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX.
The Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX is concerned with consumer safety by ensuring that health standards are upheld during production. Textile and garment safety is guaranteed by testing of raw yarn, finished textiles, garments and accessories used on garments, such as buttons and zippers.
Standard 100 certification tries to limit the occurrence of banned substances such as Azo dyes, heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and Nickel, and other harmful substances such as formaldehyde and pentachlorophenol in raw fibre, semi-finished yarn and finished textiles or ready to wear garments.
Minimum requirements for certification
To be certified, sample products have to be tested. The thoroughness of product tests depends on how much contact an article will have with the skin, what the product will be used for and how sensitive the wearer’s skin is likely to be.
For example, baby clothes are tested more thoroughly testing because babies tend to have sensitive skin. On the other hand, products like curtains and upholstery, which have little contact with skin have fewer tests carried on them.

The certificate is only issued after testing if:

  • The product and all its parts and accessories meet the required safety standards
  • The garment and its parts have to meet quality assurance standards
  • The manufacturer sings a conformity declaration stating that future products will meet the quality standards of the tested samples during the period of the certificate
  • The company passes audits of its production processes

Even after certification, control checks of products already in the market are carried out to make sure the manufacturer is compliant.
Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX® is valid for 1 year.

3. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is a certificate that sets global standards for natural fibres to ensure that yarn, fabrics and apparel that are considered ‘organic’ retain this authenticity from harvesting, processing, exportation to selling. The certificate is issued collaboratively by trade bodies and textile associations from countries like Japan and the USA in an effort to increase transparency in certification organic textiles globally.
GOTS certificate is issued after wastewater from processing sites is tested for chemical substances such as fungicides, formaldehyde, ammonia, complexing chemicals, solvents, heavy metals and chlorophenols among others. Though natural fibres may start off as organic, treating them with any of these chemicals means means they are no longer 100% organic.
GOTS also imposes social responsibility requirements to ensure that workers are not subjected to forced labour, denied fair wages, held against their will or exposed to unhygienic and unsafe work conditions.

1 NSF/ANSI 336 certification
This certification assures end users that social and environmental standards are maintained during production of textile products meant for commercial use. That is, during production of fabrics used for beddings, draperies and upholstery in hotels, offices or hospitals.
Pre-certificate evaluation is done based on:

  • How the fibres were sourced
  • If the fabric is safe
  • If manufacture took into account energy and water conservation, social responsibility, recycling, among others.

4. Global Recycle Standard
This certificate ensures transparency the amount of recycled material used to make end products. Bronze certification means clothing contains less than 30% recycled material, silver contains 70% to 95% recycled material, while gold certification is issued for products that are 95% to 100% recycled.
The certificate also upholds restrictions imposed by OEKO-TEX 100 & GOTS on harmful manufacturing practices and dangerous processing chemicals. Manufacturers are also required to observe workers’ rights.

5. Fair Trade Certification by The World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO)
Fair trade labels are issued to certify that cotton farmers have been compensated fairly for their raw product. The certification also requires companies to adhere to social responsibility standards during processing and manufacture of the cotton. It does not however cover garment production.
Garments that carry the Fair trade label are made with 100% cotton.
The label does not require compliance through from the production process. Fair trade certification denotes that the item was made from at least 50% of verified materials. Non-cotton textiles and accessories do not have to comply with fair trade.
WFTO is looking to create a compliance that extends through to the entire process.

Using the fair trade certification means an organisation needs to adhere to the following 10 Principles of Fair Trade in in the use of cotton cultivation through to processing

1: Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producers
2: Transparency and Accountability
3: Fair Trading Practices
4: Payment of a Fair Price
5: Ensuring no Child Labour/ Forced Labour
6: Commitment to Non Discrimination, Gender Equity as well as Freedom of Association
7: Ensuring Good Working Conditions
8: Providing Capacity Building
9: Promoting Fair Trade
10: Respect for the Environment

6. Fibre, Water, Energy & Chemical Usage Benchmarks by Made By Consultancy
Made By is an award-winning not-for-profit organisation, working to improve the poor environmental and social conditions in the fashion/textile industry.
They play the role of a consultancy to brands and provide them benchmarks and tools to ease them to be more sustainable.
Their benchmarks include monitoring sustainable fibre production as well as ensuring efficient Wet (water, energy, chemical) usage. They also provide monitoring tools to allow brands a platform to be completely transparent in their processes.

7. Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI)

ETI is an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that promote respect for global workers’ rights.
Companies who want to be members and use the logo in their brands have to adopt the ETI code with regard to ethical practices when it comes to workers rights. The code consists of the following 9 principles and are closely monitored for all member brands.
1. Employment is freely chosen
2. Freedom of association
3. Working conditions are safe and hygienic
4. Child labour shall not be used
5. Living wages are paid
6. Working hours are not excessive
7. No discrimination is practiced
8. Regular employment is provided
9. No harsh or inhumane treatment is allowed

Benefits of textile certification

Regulating the fashion industries environmentally and socially harmful practices has become imperative. Lack of transparency in the textile industries systems and supply chains makes it difficult for brands to be sustainable even if they want to! Certifications, standards and benchmarks assist brands in overcoming these challenges.

1. They allow a company to meet their objectives for sustainable production
2. They improve the reputation of a company
3. They prove to customers that companies involved in the clothing value chain are socially and environmentally responsible
4. They improve a company’s prospects by showing that a company meets procurement standards of private and public institutions
5. They foster accountability and promote continual improvement by conducting regular audits and checks