How to Use Sustainability Certifications

Here’s a way to make sense of the various ethical and sustainable certifications, and what they mean…

The lexicon of sustainable fashion and terms used are quite vague, especially when you look across different product categories.  Significant progress was made over the last decade in creating standards and certifications that provide some uniformity across the board and a frame of reference for consumers and buyers. 

Sustainable and ethical production can mean a lot of different things, however, and some companies may communicate one thing and do another.  Also, as many products are sourced and/or produced across the globe, there are regional and country differences between ethical and environmental regulations.  The third party certifications also help weed out a number of non-ethical production companies that are increasingly resorting to ‘greenwashing’ tactics by using a combination of vague terms and limited transparency to appear eco-friendly.   

Vague production terms to watch out for, and/or at least look further:

  • Handmade, artisanal, hand-crafted, produced by artisans – this doesn’t specify if they were ethically paid or not
  • Organic and sustainable farming – this still doesn’t specify if the farmers are ethically paid, or what their working conditions are, how much pesticides they can still use, and how they handle waste, water, biodiversity, and other criteria.
  • Women-owned businesses—are these women fairly paid?
  • Local manufacturing/Made in USA – how much of their product counts as local – if the materials are sourced elsewhere and just assembly is done locally, oftentimes companies can still have the label.

In an attempt to provide some uniformity and ensure that companies are actually following through what they say  with their actions, a number of certifications have cropped up that can serve as reference to consumers and buyers for ethical and sustainable production. 

These third party certifications and sustainability certifications are useful for providing a unified set of criteria and useful reference by which companies can be certified sustainable and ethical. 

Some of the certifications (like WRAP and B Corp) require a very rigorous auditing process, may take some time to complete, can be costly, and need to be renewed periodically.  Other certifications may be more environmentally-focused and/or socially-focused.  The more transparent the brand is in its communication about sourcing, production, and overall processes, the more confidence and trust they will instill in the consumer.

Here is a listing for all of them, and what they mean, for reference.  There are global certifications recognized and implemented internationally, and there are regional certifications, targeting a particular global market and/or region.