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New Report Says Textile Certification Programs Offer False Promise of Sustainabilty

Many certification programs that purport to help customers make environmental friendly decisions when buying apparel and textiles, may instead stand in the way of sustainability and are in need of significant reform, a new report from the Changing Markets Foundation charges.

Looking at eight of more than 100 green labels for its report, “The False Promise of Certification: how certification is hindering sustainability in the textiles, palm oil and fisheries industries,” Changing Markets identified several short-comings.

Based on qualitative research, interviews with nongovernmental organization (NGOs) experts and an extensive review of the academic literature, the report said, “there is no single initiative or label that ensures transparency, traceability and sustainability at every stage of the supply chain.”

“Certification schemes are failing the environment and consumers, who increasingly want to make ethical and sustainable choices,” said Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at Changing Markets, which partners with NGOs on market-focused campaigns to expose irresponsible corporate practices and drive towards a more sustainable economy. “It’s time for a serious rethink about how we achieve sustainability because the current system is broken.”

The report said most of the textiles programs used by the fashion industry to display their green credentials, such as the Higg Index and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), “are run by multi-stakeholder groups including industry associations and NGOs and suffer from a lack of transparency.”

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It said other groups, like Oeko-Tex or MADE-BY, “offer many different certification modules a-la carte and suffer from a lack of completeness.” Many initiatives, the report went on, “are so focused on getting all industry players on board, or meeting the growing demand for certified products, that they are willing to lower their standards in order to get more players on board.”

In response, the Oeko-Tex Association told Sourcing Journal it considers the report “to be proof of the success” of its policy.

“The continual adjustments to certifications and product labels in line with new scientific findings and legal specifications that are required within the Oeko-Tex concept have always been a key factor in the credibility promise of the globally active standards organization,” the organization said.

Oeko-Tex general secretary Georg Dieners emphasized that the requirements of the organization’s standards “sometimes even significantly exceed statutory requirements.”

The interaction of independent international textile research institutes ensures that the Oeko-Tex standards always take into account the latest scientific findings, Dieners said. At the same time, he refuted the general claim made by the study that certifications would impede sustainability rather than support it.

“Sustainability starts with corporate responsibility and is impossible without it,” Dieners said.

The report was also critical of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, which is widely used by fashion brands for self-assessment and transparency.

The Better Cotton Initiative was called “one of the worst schemes, which could have undermined the growth in organic cotton,” the report said. It charged that the BCI’s “tolerance of the use of pesticides and GM seeds has resulted in farmers switching from organic to GM cotton.”

On a positive note, the report found that the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the EU Ecolabel were the best programs because they use a life-cycle approach to textile certification. However, it said the EU Ecolabel does not cover water pollution indicators for viscose manufacturing, “which is a major oversight.”

The report, which noted that the textile industry uses 25 percent of the world’s chemicals and has been blamed for 20 percent of industrial water pollution, called for abolition of the least ambitious programs and for significant reform of others based on the principles of transparency, independence, holistic approach and continuous improvements. The report also warned that voluntary certification schemes should not replace strong governmental and international regulations.

In short, according to Changing Markets, “Certification has lost its way and…its contribution to creating a more sustainable world is minute.”