The other day, I was on the phone with my mum, when she declared that she will, from now on, try to buy only organic cotton clothes.
I felt a sense of pride. After years of me talking about sustainability, fashion, the importance of making better choices, and buying better clothes-it seems like I finally did some change. I mean, she didn’t say she will stop shopping from big brands. But considering how stubborn my family is, every tiny win is a win. Again, I spent years trying to convince them into changing anything!
Then my mother asked a critical question: “But how can I tell that it’s really organic cotton? These days, they put such words everywhere, they don’t have to mean anything”.
And she’s right. Claims like “eco-friendly”, “green”, “sustainable”, and to a large extent “organic” and “bio”, can mean different things. For the most part, there are no legal regulations. Thus all the greenwashing we see, especially in fashion.
And this is where we come to the idea of certifications. These are official and controlled claims about a product or a company. But do they really mean anything? And do they even matter in sustainable fashion?
Well, they do. But things aren’t that simple.
I feel like we need to tackle this.
I told my mother to look for “certified organic cotton” the next time she shops.
Because I do think that certifications in fashion generally matter. Just like when shopping for food or other items, we are facing a lot of choices. And things can get confusing, especially when you don’t have much time to invest in understanding different options and brands. This is where certifications come in handy, they can help you navigate.
The thing is, fashion (like most industries) lacks clear definitions, directions, or even regulations. A lot is left to the free market and free trade, and companies are expected to largely self-manage their businesses. This is why it’s possible for companies not only to grow beyond their or any planetary capacity but also to do business in very unsustainable and ethically problematic ways. The exploitation and abuse of human rights in the industry is possible because it’s not illegal. We should question this from the moral point of view but the companies have little obligation towards their suppliers. Many of us have been advocating for years for clearer and stricter regulations because of this. Both on local and international levels, we need better guidance and rules that will limit what a company can do for profit.
Now, most certifications aren’t coming from the governments but, instead, from private bodies. Still, they are a step in this direction. Internationally recognised and independent certifications do signify that there has been a certain audit, check, and some regulations have been followed. It’s an indication that there’s a body or an organisation that can testify for a claim that a brand makes.
Yet, certifications are far from perfect. Certifications are a great first step, especially if you’re just starting your sustainable fashion journey. But they are a bad place to stop.
The question of certifications in fashion is a complex one. But I usually like to bring up 5 main points around this topic. Here they are!
1. Trust third party certifications first
Brands can and do create their own certifications and labels. Which means that they audit and inspect themselves. While self-evaluation isn’t always a bad thing, it sort of beats the point of certifications in fashion. Because it means that certification is given by their own rules, which aren’t always clear or are made to fit the needs of the brand.
Instead, third-party (meaning, independent) certifications come from an outsider perspective. There’s usually a trusted body that makes a decision. As such, they are a much more reliable source of information.
Here are some third party, globally recognised certifications, with high standards:
Of course, these aren’t all certifications that exist but are those I usually recommend to people. They all guarantee high standards, though standards vary between them, as well as between different products.
For the rest of the text, I’ll be primarily referring to the above certifications and using them as examples.
2. Know what certifications mean
Each certification means a different thing. Some are specific to the textile industry (like GOTS), or even fabric (BCI). Moreover, some certifications will focus on labour conditions (Fair Trade), the source of the material (FSC), or the chemical component and safety of the product (Oeko Tex).
What I mean to say with this is that it’s important to know what the certification is telling you. As I said above, a certification is a sign that there’s somebody who can confirm a claim made by a brand or a business. It’s good to understand which statement is that. Sustainability is a wide area, and certifications usually focus on one aspect of it.
3. The certified product doesn’t mean a sustainable company
At least not always.
Most certifications are accredited for each product. That means that a product can be, let’s say, made with GOTS-certified organic cotton (which is a pretty high standard) but it doesn’t mean that the company that made the product is sustainable. It just means that they carry one or more products made from organic cotton.
Clearly, not a lot of companies can certify each product they make (more about this later). In some cases, even a slight change in the product will require a new certification process. It means that a company must have a good plan and somebody who can take care of the process for them. And even when they do have, most certifications speak about the composition, ingredients, chemicals, or origin of the material that goes into the product. They don’t say much (or anything at all) about the brand behind the product or their business. A company can carry organic cotton t-shirts and still overproduce, exploit their workers, or greenwash, and so on.
A clear exception from this is the B Corporation label that looks at the business as the whole (and not just a product or production stage). So if you see a “B Corp-certified”, you may know that the company has been questioned and audited, not just their products.
4. Most certifications don’t speak about the labour rights
With some exceptions, of course!
I’m coming back to the idea of checking what the certification guarantees. Many of them will speak about the fabric and the product but won’t speak about the social or economic conditions in which the product was made.
For example, Oeko Tex, which is popular everywhere but especially in Europe, is possibly the highest guarantee you can get that the clothes you’re about to buy are safe for your health. Yet, there’s nothing it can tell you about whether the same clothes are good for the people who made them. Were they paid well? Did they make the clothes in safe conditions?
Other certifications may tell us something about the working conditions, like Fair Trade, BCI (which focuses on the farmers), or GOTS. And of course, B Corp looks at the entire supply chain.
5. Certifications are expensive. Like really expensive.
Some certifications require an annual membership that can easily reach several thousands of dollars. That is, in addition to having to pay for the certification process in the first place.
Even more, as mentioned above, many certifications are product-specific. Each new or altered product calls for a new process. For many small brands, this is beyond their capacities. Though many small brands have shorter and more transparent supply chains, they simply cannot afford the certifications.
The same is with small factories. Unless the manufacturers are working with bigger brands, holding a certification is unatonable for them.
To sum it up…
Just like the presence of a third-party certificate isn’t always an indication of a company’s sustainability, the lack of the same isn’t an indication that the company isn’t sustainable.
Certificates are a good orienteer and companies should consider them. But they are not the ultimate indication of anything. I always encourage people to look beyond certifications and ask questions. It always comes down to transparency: what can a company tell you about their fabrics and people involved in their supply chain?
If we take a look at Meüne, you will see that they choose to work with an Italian company that makes GOTS-certified denim fabric. This guarantees that the textile Meüne produces is certified organic cotton. Yet, this alone doesn’t tell us about how their products are made nor how the company works.
Luckily, Meüne is a highly transparent brand. You can read all about how they source and manufacture their clothes. And if you have any questions, you can always get in touch.
I'm an anthropologist, activist, and ethical fashion writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I'm endlessly curious and restless, and always looking to challenge the way we think about fashion, style, and sustainability. Through my writing business, Thinking Threads, I work with small to medium ethical brands, helping them redefine the standards of the fashion industry, one word at a time.