The attempt to give corporate buyers and end consumers more sustainability data about the clothes they are purchasing is clearly beneficial for society. Eco-labeling is an effective way of informing consumers and customers about the environmental and social impacts of products.

It also empowers consumers to identify products that are harmful, which in turn promotes competition among manufacturers and brands and encourages a corporate commitment to continuous environmental and social improvement.

Given the number and diversity of available labels, it can be difficult for the average consumer to navigate the vague and sometimes misleading plethora of designations used to distinguish more “responsible” products in the marketplace. This can lead to confusion, and even skepticism, about the real meaning and value of these products. Indeed, while many follow a thorough and data-driven process often involving third-party certifications, there are others that are simply buzzwords or deceptive green marketing.

Environmentally friendly. Eco-conscious. Eco-friendly. Nature-friendly. Ethical. Organic. Sustainable. Green. Responsible. Ecologically clean. Envirosafe. Ecologically innocuous. These are terms referring to goods, laws, guidelines, policies or buzzwords that claim reduced, minimal, or no harm upon ecosystems or the environment.

Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen

Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen 

But which ones can you actually trust? And what do they mean? Is it even possible to summarize the different sustainable attributes of a product in a label?

For example, saying that a product is “green” because it is made with recycled content could be deceptive if the environmental costs of sourcing and repurposing the recycled material exceed the benefits of using it. Product manufacturers and retailers tend to use any responsible aspect of a product as a marketing tool, disregarding the other non-sustainable aspects of a product.

Given the ambiguity and confusion, it might be beneficial to share a short list of the “best in class” labels that you can trust, explained in a simple and accessible way. If you only had to remember a handful of labels, which ones would they be? Here is a selection:

The Better Cotton Initiative promotes a comprehensive set of production principles and criteria for growing cotton in a more sustainable manner: socially, environmentally and economically. A member-based organization made up of players from the entire cotton supply chain, BCI had its first harvest of “Better Cotton” in 2010.

BCI has a system in place to trace Better Cotton from the farm to the gin. The organization’s goal is to catalyze the mass market production of cotton produced more sustainably, by creating demand on a global scale for a new mainstream commodity, Better Cotton. BCI is complementary to other initiatives like Certified Organic, Fairtrade cotton and cotton made in Africa.

Fairtrade is an ethical trade system that puts people first. Fairtrade offers farmers and workers in developing countries a better deal, and the opportunity to improve their lives and invest in their future. Fairtrade gives consumers the opportunity to help reduce poverty and instigate change through everyday shopping. When a product carries the Fairtrade certification mark, it means the producers and traders have met Fairtrade Standards. Fairtrade Standards include social, environmental and economic criteria, as well progress requirements and terms of trade.

The Standards are designed to support the sustainable development of small-scale producers and agricultural workers in the poorest countries in the world. Fairtrade International is an association of 25 organizations around the world, including national initiatives that promote and license the Fairtrade mark and producer networks that represent producers at the highest level of decision-making in the international Fairtrade system.

The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is a globally uniform testing and certification system for textile raw materials, intermediate and end products at all stages of production. The certification covers multiple human-ecological attributes, including harmful substances, which are prohibited or regulated by law, chemicals which are known to be harmful to health, but are not officially forbidden, and parameters which are included as a precautionary measure to safeguard health. Textile products may be certified according to Oeko-Tex Standard 100 only if all components meet the required criteria without exception.

A tested textile product is allocated to one of the four Oeko-Tex product classes based on its intended use. The more intensively a product comes into contact with the skin, the stricter the human ecological requirements it must fulfill. Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is found on millions of products around the world in almost all retail segments based on more than 65,000 certificates issued to date.

The Global Organic Textile Standard was developed with the aim to unify the various existing standards and draft standards in the field of eco textile processing and to define worldwide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer. Processors and manufacturers shall be enabled to supply their organic fabrics and garments with one certification accepted in all major selling markets.

Basic features of GOTS:

  • require the use of certified organic fibers;
  • provide both demanding environmental and social criteria;
  • include criteria that is applicable to all processing stages, and
  • has certification based on independent on-site inspections.

The Global Recycled Standard is intended for companies that are making and/or selling products with recycled content. The standard applies to the full supply chain and addresses traceability, environmental principles, social requirements and labeling. Developed with the textile industry in mind, the GRS may also be applied to products from any industry.

Certified Vegan signifies that products are vegan, defined as containing no animal ingredients or by-products, using no animal ingredients or by-products in the manufacturing process, and not tested on animals by any company or independent contractor.

This selection of labels does not imply that all other labels are not trustworthy. Next time you shop for clothes that you think will save the world, be aware of these six labels. Ideally, check on the brand’s web site as well to find additional information about the product’s sustainability attributes.

Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen is a sustainability consultant, working at Salterbaxter in New York, specializing in helping apparel and luxury companies to develop sustainable brands.