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How to make sense of sustainability certifications

How to make sense of sustainability certifications

Understanding what labels and certifications mean can help you learn how to shop for clothes more sustainably

Want to make a positive impact on our planet? You’re not alone. But when it comes to your wardrobe and shopping for clothing, it’s not always easy to make the right choices.  

That’s where sustainability standards and certifications come in. You know those little symbols and badges you sometimes see on websites and clothing labels? They certify that the product was made following some guidelines around ethical or sustainable production. But what do they mean in practice? 

Let’s take a look. 

Sustainability Certifications: What Are They and How Can You Use Them? 

Understanding sustainability certifications goes a long way to shopping sustainably

Sustainability standards and certifications are voluntary guidelines businesses can follow to make their operations more responsible. As customers, they also give us an idea of what a brand’s values are and how committed they are to those values. 

“These certifications help customers who are looking to shop consciously to assess their options,” says Alice Cracknell, cofounder of Origin, the UK's first 100 per cent not-for-profit sustainable fashion business. “They provide them with proof points to validate the claims a brand might be making.” 

Put simply, they help us make better choices about which brands to buy from. 

"Consumers are rightly demanding more transparency, and basic certifications are just one snapshot of the full picture"

They’re not without caveats, however. As Alice says, these types of certifications should be considered a “hygiene factor” and not definitive evidence of a brand’s true ethics. “Certification is one step of multiple that assesses the really important elements of what is actually happening in an organisation’s activities,” she says, adding that brands who are truly committed will always offer more information. “Consumers are rightly demanding more transparency, and basic certifications are just one snapshot of the full picture.” 

So, what can you do? Look for certifications as a way to narrow down which products to choose from—and dig deeper into a brand’s values and practices if you want to know more about its commitment to caring for the planet.  

Now that you know what they’re all about, let’s look at six of the key ethical fashion and sustainability standards to watch out for.  

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) 

In order to be certified as 'organic', clothes have to be made with a minimum of 70 per cent organic fibres

GOTS is one of the most reputable of all textile standards—with good reason. Not only does it cover both the environmental and social side of textile production, but it covers the entire supply chain as well. That means that everything from the raw materials to the final product must meet stringent criteria before getting the GOTS stamp of approval.  

To earn a GOTS “made with organic materials” badge, textile products must contain a minimum of 70 per cent organic fibres. To be certified as fully organic, the minimum is 95 per cent.  

GOTS is the leading standard for organic cotton, so it’s a useful one to look out for if you want your cotton garments made without hazardous pesticides and toxic dyes. GOTS criteria also covers fair labour conditions, making it a pretty comprehensive standard.  

Established in 2006, GOTS now has over 12,000 facilities around the world operating under their conditions. To find which brands stock GOTS-certified products, you can use their searchable database

Bluesign Standard 

Bluesign signifies that clothes are both safer for you and the environment

Bluesign-certified products leave the smallest possible ecological footprint. Since the beginning (the year 2000), chemicals have been a particular focus: part of Bluesign’s mission was creating the most complete list of chemical substances in the world (called the Restricted Substances List). This list has helped the textile industry replace hundreds of tons of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. On top of that, adhering to the Bluesign Standard helps brands minimise water use, reduce energy use, and foster safe and ethical working conditions across the whole supply chain. 

In short, the Bluesign Standard lets you know that the clothes you’re buying are safer for you, for the environment, and for the workers who made them. 

Cradle to Cradle 

Over a million tonnes of clothing end up in landfills every year

What happens to a product once you’re done with it? Even if it was responsibly made, tossing it into landfill isn’t an ideal end to its lifecycle.  

Enter Cradle to Cradle, a standard that promotes a circular economy via the use of safe and circular materials. It also assesses areas like social fairness, renewable energy use, and more.  

While there’s no magic pill for the landfill crisis, Cradle to Cradle is valuable in that it focuses on driving innovation and finding solutions. Look out for the Cradle to Cradle Certified logo to know a product was designed to minimise environmental impact and reduce waste. 

OEKO-TEX Standard 100 

Clothes are often dyed and finished with toxic substances

If you see an OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certification, it means the product was thoroughly tested for harmful substances before it hit the shelf. That includes every part of the garment, from stitching to zips to buttons, through every processing stage.  

"There are a lot of substances that go into every textile garment, many of them potentially harmful"

OEKO-TEX is not the same as organic. Organic certification has to do with how raw materials are grown (for example, use of pesticides and fertilisers), while OEKO-TEX looks at how fabrics are processed (like dyes and finishes). Yes, there are a lot of substances that go into every textile garment, many of them potentially harmful! The OEKO-TEX Standard 100 badge is a helpful shorthand for knowing which garments are certifiably non-toxic—especially when found on products that are also certified organic.  

OEKO-TEX has a buying guide where you can search for certified suppliers 

Global Recycled Standard (GRS) 

Without a GRS certification, you can't guarantee that clothing is genuinely recycled

Sure, those shoes say they’re made from recycled materials—but how do you know they really are? If they have a certification from the Global Recycled Standard (GRS), you can breathe easily. They’ve been independently tested across the supply chain, from raw materials to final product, and they do indeed contain at least 50 per cent recycled materials.  

The GRS is run by the Textile Exchange, which also manages a range of other textile-related standards.  


B Corp status is a step in the right direction for companies that want to be more sustainable

B Corporations are for-profit companies that want to do good. To be certified, they must meet a long list of standards around their social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability.  

"Every business should consider its impact on its workers, the community, and the planet—not just its shareholders"

While there are certainly limitations to B Corp status, it’s a step in the right direction. Every business should consider its impact on its workers, the community, and the planet—not just its shareholders. And that’s what the B Corp badge is all about. 

Ready to shop smarter? 

There are hundreds of sustainability certifications, but understanding some of them goes a long way to shopping sustainably

These are just some of the most common ethical fashion and sustainability certifications out there (there are literally hundreds so we can’t go through them all!). Next time you’re shopping, whether online or in person, don’t forget to look on the label and do your research on any you don’t know. They may not be perfect, but they’re a great tool for guiding you in the right direction when it comes to making smarter, more responsible purchasing decisions. 


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