With “fast fashion” coming to a screeching halt due to coronavirus lockdowns, consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental and social impact of the contents of their closets.

Even before the global pandemic, the fashion industry needed to make changes to preserve the future of our planet. At 1.2 billon tons annually, total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production is greater than the emissions that result from all international flights and maritime shipping combined. If the fashion industry continues on its path, it could use more than 26 percent of the carbon budget associated with a 2-degree Celcius global warming limit by 2050.

Between 4,000 and 8,000 chemicals enter textile factories in countless formulations. The chemicals exit the factories either on the products or as waste that can negatively impact the environment. Textile wastewater pollutes rivers, oceans, wildlife and horticulture within miles of processing facilities. Studies show that the treatment and dyeing of textiles is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution globally. In addition, certain chemicals used in the manufacturing of garments are potentially harmful to the health of those who work in textile manufacturing plants and can cause ailments to people who wear the clothing.

People want to make the right choices for the Earth, but it can sometimes be a challenge — and overwhelming — for shoppers to clearly know which brands are genuinely committed to product safety and sustainability. With consumers on high alert for “greenwashing,” people want credible proof that their clothing has been manufactured in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible way.

Conscious consumers will drive what is next in fashion by voting with their wallets to support brands that are making a transparent effort to protect the planet. But how can people know which brands are making these conscious efforts? Third-party, independent certifications and product labels have become powerful tools that help consumers align their purchasing power with brands that demonstrate a verifiable commitment to making clothes that are safe for customers, textile workers and the Earth.

In the same way that people have come to look for, and trust, certified food labels, these traceable clothing labels let consumers see that an independent research and test institute has evaluated the product.

With certification from outside experts, buyers are assured that brands’ practices are being monitored in an unbiased manner and the latest legal, NGO, industry, and health and science information is considered. They can be confident that the product is safe for them to wear and not harmful to the environment.

Organizations behind these certifications and labels set standards for safer textile and leather production and products. The most rigorous certifications and labels require the testing of every component — from the thread to the buttons — for harmful substances and ensure that the garment is made with sustainable and socially responsible manufacturing practices. They conduct audits and ensure the facilities offer proper safety measures to protect textile workers and provide fair working conditions and wages.

As consumers look for the fashion industry to commit to a more sustainable future, it will become increasingly important for brands to easily communicate to the public how they are making clothes and home goods that protect people and the planet. As shoppers become more educated, and conscious consumers demonstrate a preference for brands that prioritize safety and sustainability, the value of third-party certifications and labels will become more important and more prevalent.

Ben Mead is the managing director for Hohenstein, a founding member of OEKO-TEX, a worldwide association of 18 independent research and test institutes, which tests for harmful substances and certifies sustainable manufacturing practices to ensure products are safe for human health and the environment.

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