Following the “clean food” and “clean beauty” movements, there’s now a growing number of consumers who are demanding “clean apparel.” But, according to a consumer survey from the Oeko-Tex Association, 40 percent of respondents are unaware of how fibers, textiles and apparel are produced.
“Between 4,000 and 8,000 individual chemicals enter factories in countless formulations, and they exit either on the products or as waste that negatively impacts the environment,” noted a spokeswoman for Oeko-Tex.
Here, Ben Mead, managing director of the Hohenstein Institute America, which is one of the founding members of the Oeko-Tex Association, discusses the certification process and why it is critical for the environment as well as human health.
WWD: As consumers become more cognizant of what goes on their bodies (along with what goes inside), what do brands, retailers and manufacturers need to do to educate and better-inform shoppers?
Ben Mead: Once people are aware of the chemicals that go into textiles, they are motivated to find out which brands are safe and sustainable. To appeal to these conscious consumers, brands and retailers need to tell their story and make it easy to verify. Consumers want to know what brands are doing from a sustainability standpoint. Studies show that consumers give brands credit for taking even small steps toward being environmentally sustainable. They want to see companies take action, and do not demand perfection.
Consumers want to do the right thing but are overwhelmed by all the information that is out there and strapped for time. They look to brands and retailers to help by having consistent labels, both on items and online, so that they can quickly and easily choose the right products. People are increasingly on the lookout for “greenwashing.” Unverified claims are confusing and misleading, which can damage brand image. Customers trust third-party certifications, and the most zealous consumers will verify those certifications.
Brands and retailers need to proactively mention their certifications/labels when talking about their products whether online, in stores, in ads or catalogues, or through social media and sustainability statements. When telling their story, brands need to admit that there are concerns but also solutions. Third-party certification enables brands, retailers and manufacturers to be part of the solution, showing consumers the steps they are taking to ensure products are safer and more responsibly made.
WWD: What is at stake in regard to chemicals in textiles? What can be harmful?
B.M.: Whether in clothing, bedding, furniture, cars or carpet, textiles are in constant contact with our bodies. The textile industry uses thousands of chemicals in production, which come out of factories either on products or they are released as waste into the environment.
Certain chemicals used in textiles and during textile production can be harmful to the health of those who work in textile manufacturing plants and can cause ailments to people who wear the clothing made with them. Babies, young children, the elderly and allergy sufferers can be especially sensitive.
WWD: And why is certification critical in addressing these hazards?
B.M.: Anyone can make a claim, but it needs to be verified by an independent, third-party to warrant consumer trust. In fact, a global study we conducted found 52 percent of people check to see if eco-claims are true, and U.S. consumers are especially skeptical of claims. Brands and retailers must protect consumers, and also their own reputations.
There are more than 196 countries with differing and changing laws that affect textiles, production processes are constantly being updated and new materials/chemicals come to market frequently. Thus, it is nearly impossible for a brand, retailer or manufacturer to stay ahead of all of these changes while also focusing on their product designs and running their core business.
Oeko-Tex updates standards, limit values and restricted substance lists annually and is constantly monitoring legal, NGO, industry, health/scientific and technical information. With a third-party that is committed to creating rigorous and up-to-date testing methods, consumers have a comparable standard against which all products and processes can be measured.
WWD: What is involved in Oeko-Tex testing and certification?
B.M.: To ensure safety, it is not enough for brands to just make a claim. Oeko-Tex partner institutes conduct standardized testing in controlled conditions to verify and back up claims. Companies can apply for product and process certifications. Product certifications look at harmful substances on finished goods, product components, input materials, quality management and intended use.
Process certifications examine quality management systems, social responsibility, health and safety, chemical management, wastewater management, environmental management and environmental performance.
Oeko-Tex testing considers all the ways a substance can be absorbed and account for real-use situations — not just new conditions in a lab environment. All of the tests are based on the latest scientific data on health and manufacturing methods, and Oeko-Tex consults with several independent toxicologists to determine ecological safety.
Sensitivity to chemicals can differ based on skin contact and the age of user. For example, babies are more sensitive than adults, so the limit values are lower. Similarly, the limit values will be lower for direct skin contact items like undergarments or sheets than outerwear or curtains.
Every single component, down to zippers, sewing thread, fabric, lining, care tag, etc. is tested. For product certifications, even if each component was pre-certified, the finished good must go through the Oeko-Tex certification process as well, which is not true for all certifications in the market. The end-product must be evaluated because sometimes a company is unaware of a contaminant, or a supplier may change a part of their manufacturing process without informing the retailer.
If all tests show that substances are below the allowed limits, a certificate is issued for one year. Annual retesting and certification is required to ensure compliance with new standard updates, account for supply chain or product changes and for quality assurance.
Oeko-Tex’s modular system supports quality management and more sustainable sourcing. More than 206,000 certificates are owned by more than 14,500 companies — covering countless products. Quality assurance is built in with control testing/spot checks, at Oeko-Tex’s own cost, to protect consumers, the Oeko-Tex system and the reputation of Oeko-Tex’s and the certified products, brands and companies.
Oeko-Tex purchases items from retail shelves to test and pulls products to retest during company audits to validate that quality systems are in place and the company is doing what they say.
Oeko-Tex is made up of 18 independent testing institutes with representatives in all the major textile producing and consuming countries. These institutes contribute scientific expertise and market/industry knowledge to shape the standards and conduct the testing for the Oeko-Tex standards and certifications. Oeko-Tex audits each of the institutes, and auditors participate in annual training to ensure a uniform application of the standards.