Certifications – part 1

22 07 2011

If you agree with me that a third party certification is a way to give us the most unbiased, substantive  information about the environmental performance of a fabric, let’s look at third party certifications which are on the market and which test finished textiles.  It’s important to know what each certification is telling us, both to keep our frustration levels manageable and to be able to extract useful, trustworthy information.  But before we get to individual certifications, there are several issues that are unique to fabrics, which we should mention first.

The first issue has to do with the fact that people often think about what the fabric is made of and totally forget the long and complex process that has to happen to turn the raw material into a soft, smooth finished fabric  –  I mean, really, do you actually think that the cotton boll which you see in the picture is transformed into your blouse without some kind of serious work?  What about oil?  Think of crude oil and your new sheets – what do you think has to have happened to that crude to make it acceptable for your bedroom?

The market is absolutely rife with claims about organic cotton – and believe me, I have absolutely nothing against organic cotton.  But the focus (by marketers and consumers alike) is that if it’s made of organic cotton, then the product is sustainable.  That’s far from the truth.  We like to use the analogy of  “organic applesauce” – that is, if you take organic apples, then cook them with preservatives, emulsifiers, Red Dye #2, stabilizers and any number of other additives – do you end up with organic applesauce?  Just like bread – which is made from wheat which is grown (maybe organically), harvested, ground into flour, mixed with milk, yeast, salt and maybe other things, then baked – fabric undergoes the same type of transformation.

So the certifications which are often found on fabrics may only pertain to the FIBER, and not to the processing.  What they mean is the fabric started out with organic fibers – but the processing, like the organic applesauce mentioned above, results in fabric that contains a high proportion, by weight, of synthetic chemicals (such as lead or mercury, formaldehyde, chlorine, or phthalates).

So if only the fiber is certified,  you can assume that the chemicals used in processing may contain some of the highly toxic chemicals usually found in solvents, dyestuffs, and finishes.  And you can assume that the excess chemicals were released in the effluent and are now circulating in our groundwater.  Nor is any mention made of fair wages and safe working conditions.   In other words, a fabric made with “organic cotton”, if processed conventionally, is full of chemicals which may be prohibited in a truly organic fabric and which are known to cause all kinds of bad things to human bodies (especially really little bodies), and those harmful chemicals, released in untreated effluent, are now contributing to our own chemical body burden.

Besides the proliferation of certifications, further muddying of the waters happens because the textile supply chain is one of the most complex in all of industry – and some of the certification agencies can certify each step in the process.  In other words, each end product can be certified.  So if we deconstruct a piece of fabric, it’s possible (indeed necessary to certify the final product) to  have certification at each stage:   (1) growing and harvesting of organic fibers  (2) ginning or other preparation of the fibers to make them suitable for use in spinning;  (3)  spinning of the fibers into yarns; (4) weaving of the yarns into fabric   (5) dyeing and/or finishing and (6) final product (i.e., blouse, tablecloth, etc.).  So it’s not unusual to find a GOTS certification logo on a product – because it’s hard to get, and those who have it certainly want to display the logo.  But the certification may apply only to the organic fibers – the logo itself is not specific as to what is being certified.

It’s quite common to find  “organic cotton” fabrics  in the market – in other words, fabrics made of organic fibers.  But unless you do some probing, it’s common to find that the “organic” part pertains only to the fiber, while the fabric was made conventionally.

Certification agencies (the companies that verify the fibers/fabric meets the standards set for in the certification)  for fibers and textiles  include:

  • USDA organic

    United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program (NOP):  this logo certifies that the fiber is organic –  only the fiber.  According to a new Department of Agriculture memorandum dated May 20, 2011, textiles and textile products labeled as “organic” must be third-party certified, and all fibers identified as “organic” contained in the textile product must be certified organic to the NOP regulations. The policy memo confirms that textile products that are produced in accordance with the the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) may be sold as ‘organic’ in the U.S. though they may not refer to NOP certification or carry the USDA organic seal.

  • Soil Association Certification Limited (SA Certification) is the UK’s largest organic certification body. It’s also the only certification body linked to a committed charity, promoting organic food and farming.  As a member of the Global Standard GmbH, the managing body of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Soil Association now uses the GOTS certification for all new textile products.
  • OneCert:  OneCert provides organic certification worldwide. Certification and inspection programs include the US National Organic Program (NOP), European Organic Regulations (EU 2092/91), Quebec Organic Standards (CAQ), Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS), IFOAM, and Bio Suisse. Services include organic certification, organic inspection, export certificates, transaction certificates, on-line record keeping, answers to certification questions, and presentations of organic topics.
  • Peterson Control Union:  Control Union is a global one-stop-shop for a range of services in all aspects of the logistics chain of many commodities, including certification programs.   It certifies to the standards of The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and the Organic Exchange.
  • The Institute for Marketcology (IMO): IMO is one of the first and most renowned international agencies for inspection, certification and quality assurance of eco-friendly products. IMO offers certification for organic production and handling according to the European Regulation (EU) Nr. 2092/91, GOTS, Organic Exchange and for The International Association of Natural Textile Industry, known as IVN.  IVN is an alliance of more than 70 businesses involved at some level in the textile production chain, with the goal of countering abuses by having a clearly defined “ecologically oriented and socially accountable business practice.”    If a company meets their standards they are awarded a quality seal, which is called Naturtextil IVN certified or certified Best.  According to the IVN, GOTS is the minimum standard that distinguishes ecotextiles.  Read more here.

The third party certifications which we think every conscious consumer of fabric should be aware includes:  Oeko-Tex, GOTS, C2C, GreenGuard, Global  Recycle Standard and SMART.  Each one has its own set of standards and we’ll take a look at them next week.

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How do I know a fabric is “green”?

13 07 2011

copyright Scott Adams, Inc. / Dist. by USF, Inc.

It’s been almost two years since we talked about certifications (click here to read our earlier post), so I think it’s time for a refresher, because, as one pundit said, “our product is green” is joining “the check’s in the mail”  as one of the most frequent fibs in our modern times.  According to TerraChoice, there were 73% more  “green” products on the market in 2010 than in 2009 – and over 95% of those claims are false or misleading.[1]  Greenwashing – the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly – is the order of the day.  One corporation after another has jumped on the “green-your-corporation-for-a-better-public-image” bandwagon,  doing things such as starting partnerships with legitimate green groups, which is good, while continuing business as usual, which is bad.   Manipulating public perception is the name of the game.   This is so ubiquitous that Steven Colbert, for one, can’t resist:  he says that they now have a “Green Colbert Report”  –  they’re reducing their emissions by jumping on the bandwagon.

So why is this necessarily a bad thing?  Doesn’t really hurt anybody does it?

Actually, it does hurt us all.  As advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather puts it in a new report, greenwash is actually “an extremely serious matter…it is insidious, eroding consumer trust, contaminating the credibility of all sustainability-related marketing and hence inhibiting progress toward a sustainable economy.” In other words, it’s very hard for customers to know what choices make a difference when some marketers are muddying the waters for all. When buyers throw up their hands in confusion, we all lose.[2]  And it results in consumer and regulator complacency – if one corporation in a particular industry gets away with greenwashing, then other corporations will follow suit, leading to an industry-wide illusion of sustainability, rather than sustainability itself.

This year, Cone Inc.’s Trend Tracker found that nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) will stop buying a product if they feel misled by environmental claims – and more than a third will go so far as to boycott a company’s products.[3]

With textiles specifically, we see environmental claims that are just as outrageous as the new “Natural Energy Snack on the Go” from Del Monte – individually wrapped bananas. [4]

Packaged bananas from Del Monte

The problem is that the issues involved in evaluating a claim are often complex, and they vary greatly by product.   In addition, there is a raging debate about what constitutes green practices – for example, recycled polyester is considered a “green” choice in textiles,  yet what yardstick is being used to make that claim?  We have done numerous blog posts on why any kind of synthetic has a much greater environmental impact  than any naturally raised fiber (click here to read the first of these posts).  If we compare synthetics to organically raised fibers, do we also include the benefits of supporting organic agriculture, or is that a benefit that gets lost in the equation?

Even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines for environmental claims, these guidelines are not law, and are only enforceable if a complaint is lodged to the FTC and there is enough evidence to get a court order forcing the company to remove the claim.  But what if people simply don’t have enough knowledge to lodge a complaint?

I’ve spent years reading about the issues involved in textile production (one of the most complex supply systems in all manufacturing) but don’t feel capable of evaluating other products.   That’s where transparency on the part of manufacturers comes in:  Consumers have to understand that there are no green products – every product uses resources and creates waste.  And there are tradeoffs.  But beyond that understanding, third party certifications give us all certain measurable standards by which we can compare products, and are a useful tool.

But even certifications need some kind of knowledge base on the part of the consumer in order to be valuable.  (What’s being measured?  Who’s doing the measuring? Which environmental claims are relevant, and what are subterfuge?)

Certifications  (not to be confused with labels and standards) fall into three categories:  first, second and third party certifications:

  1. In first party certifications, a person or an organization says it meets certain claims; there is not usually an independent test to verify those claims.  These are usually a fairly simple claim, such as that the product will last for at least a year.  An example of this type of certification is that of  Kravet’s “Kravet Green” collection,  because Kravet itself is telling us that their fabrics are green.   There is no mention of any other certification bodies corroborating their statements.
  2.  In second party certification, an association or group provides the assurance that a product meets certain criteria.  This type of certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest.   Under new FTC guidelines, companies that are members of the trade organization or group that certifies their product must disclose that relationship to the consumer.  An example of second party certification can be considered that of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s Encouraging Environmental Excellence (E3) program, which has developed a set of standards and which awards use of their logo if companies comply with these standards.
  3. Third party certifications are issued by independent testing companies based on impartial evaluation of a claim by expert unbiased sources with reference to a publicly available set of standards.  Third party certification is considered the highest level of assurance you can achieve.  A third party certification is represented by the Global Organic Textile Standard,  which has a public set of standards and which is administered by independent testing labs around the world.  In other words, you can’t pay these labs to misrepresent their findings, since their business is testing and certification only (such as Peterson Control Union or Oeko Tex).

Like green claims, there is also an abundance of seals and labels that assure environmental worthiness, experts say.

“About once a week, I have a client that will bring up a new certification I’ve never even heard of and I’m in this industry,” said Kevin Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Sustainable Business Consulting, a Washington-based company that helps businesses plan green marketing strategies. “It’s kind of a Wild West, anybody can claim themselves to be green.”

Mr. Wilhelm said the plethora of labels made it difficult for businesses and consumers to know which labels they should pay attention to. “There’s no way for the average consumer or even for a C.E.O. to know which ones to go for or what they should get,” he said. [5]

Okay, which certifications apply to textiles and what do they tell us?  Tune in next week.


[1] “The Sins of Greenwashing”, Terra Choice, October 26, 2010, http://blog.terrachoice.com/2010/11/08/the-2010-sins-of-greenwashing-study-is-here/

[2] Winston, Andrew, “Avoiding Greenwash and Its Dangers”, Harvard Business Review, April 15, 2010. http://blogs.hbr.org/winston/2010/04/avoiding-greenwash-and-its-dan.html

[4] According to James Harvey, Del Monte’s UK managing director, “Del Monte’s new CRT packaging is designed to provide significant carbon footprint savings by reducing the frequency of deliveries and the amount of waste going to landfill. The packaging is also recyclable.”

[5] Vega, Tanzina, “Agency Seeks to Tighten Rules for ‘Green’ Labeling”, New York Times, October 6, 2010.