Certifications under criticism: Advantages and disadvantages of sustainability seals

Practical guide or misleading? Certifications are intended to help consumers find their way through the jungle of sustainability promises. But do the green labels really keep their promises, or do they perhaps even do more harm than good?

Certifications for sustainability

Author: House of Eden

The fashion industry has a huge impact on the health of our planet. From raw material extraction to production, sales and disposal, it leaves a deep ecological footprint all over the world. Due to increasing environmental awareness among consumers, most companies now use sustainability certifications to position themselves on the market as ecologically responsible. But how reliable are these Seal of approval really? We want to shed light on this in this article and take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of certification systems.

The triumph of sustainability labels

How important the Climate protection is becoming more and more popular in mainstream society. According to the “Voice of the Consumer Survey 2024” by PwC are increasingly looking for sustainable products that minimize negative impacts on people and the environment. 46% of respondents said they buy more sustainable products to reduce their ecological footprint. Over 80% of consumers also said they are willing to pay more for sustainably produced goods. On average, respondents were willing to spend 9,7% extra on products that meet certain environmental criteria and, for example, are made from recycled materials were produced locally or have lower CO2 emissions along the supply chain.

According to a Nielsen study from 2015, consumers also do thorough research before making any purchase. They check labels or search online for information about business and manufacturing practices. As a result, companies are increasingly interested in showing their credentials by having their products certified as sustainable by independent institutes. The number of different programs and voluntary initiatives has grown significantly in recent years. The Ecolabel Index, the largest global directory of eco-labels, currently lists 456 seals in 25 different areas worldwide. Most of them have been created in the last two decades. But how good are they really and is this "flood" of certifications an accelerator for positive change or can it really stand in the way of sustainable consumption?

Benefits of certifications:

Certifications are intended to provide consumers with clarity and orientation in the labyrinth of seemingly sustainably produced products. Outside of government regulation, there is therefore a whole universe of private, voluntary programs and initiatives to facilitate environmentally conscious purchasing decisions. These certification systems are designed to monitor the environmental and social practices of companies and to certify sustainable actions. They are intended to provide an easy way to easily identify responsibly produced products. Certifications can have these positive effects:

  • They can reduce environmental impacts and improve workers’ conditions by ensuring compliance with certain environmental and social standards.
  • By requiring disclosure of supply chains and production methods, they can hold companies accountable for their actions.
  • They can encourage the purchase of sustainable products by making it easier for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions and clearly highlighting the USP of these goods.

Why are certifications currently under criticism?

For a long time, certifications were considered the gold standard for categorizing sustainable companies. But research by the British NGO Earthside has currently sparked a heated debate about the advantages and disadvantages of green labels. In spring 2024, the NGO made serious allegations against the Better Cotton eco-label, which is used by H&M and Zara, among others. According to research by the NGO, the Better Cotton Initiative, one of the largest certifiers for sustainable cotton products, is said to have certified cotton from illegally deforested areas in Brazil. According to Earthside, this involves over 800 tons of cotton from two large Brazilian producers who are accused of corruption, land grabbing and illegal deforestation. These are said to have been delivered to Asian textile manufacturers who produce for the two largest fashion retailers in the world, H&M and Zara.

Disadvantages of certifications:

Not only because of the current incidents, many experts and NGOs are critical of certifications. They doubt that it is possible to bring about real changes in the consumer behavior and in sustainable production, as most sustainability labels are not controlled by the state and offer many loopholes for companies. Critics see the increasing number of environmental labels as an illusion of progress rather than a mechanism to really drive it forward. The following arguments support this:

  • Certifications often focus on specific aspects of the manufacturing process or certain parts of the supply chain and do not take the entire production process into account. In some cases, companies can pick out specific aspects in which they perform particularly well as a basis for assessment.
  • Compliance with standards is not always effectively monitored or enforced, and companies generally do not face financial consequences if they fail to comply.
  • Many certification systems are non-transparent regarding their methods, criteria and financing.
  • Conflicts of interest may arise because companies are often involved in the development and financing of the initiatives themselves.
  • Some certifications are criticized for having too weak standards or Greenwashing This can lead to a general loss of trust in the credibility of certifications.
  • Green labels are not a remedy for overconsumptionRather, they deceive consumers about the fact that every type of consumption, including products certified as sustainable, contributes to resource consumption.

Well-known green labels in the sustainability check

Do the major sustainability labels really keep what they promise? Changing Markets Foundation In its report “The false promise of certification”, it took a closer look at and evaluated some of the best-known certifications for sustainable textiles. We have summarized the results for three of the most prominent initiatives below:

  • OEKO-TEX

OEKO-TEX is an association of independent testing institutes and offers several certifications with high standards. However, these can sometimes be confusing for consumers. For example, the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 only guarantees that no harmful chemicals remain in the finished products, and not that products with the label have been produced sustainably. Contrary to what the name might suggest, the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 also says nothing about the use of GMOs, pesticides or organic cotton. The STeP and MADE IN GREEN certification system could also easily give consumers the misleading impression that a certified company is sustainable overall. However, it is possible that textile manufacturers only have one stage of the process or one factory certified, while other areas of the company do not comply with ecological standards.

  • Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)

The BCI certification mentioned above is intended to make cotton cultivation more environmentally friendly - but it only monitors production and not processing. To achieve this, the initiative relies on training and support for farmers. However, the standards are low: the use of pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified cotton is permitted and a minimum wage for workers is not prescribed.

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

In contrast to the BCI, GOTS prohibits genetically modified cotton and sets strict rules for chemicals, water and energy consumption. The criteria apply to the entire supply chain and are monitored by unannounced inspections. However, the social requirements for raw material production are weak. The main criticism is that GOTS only requires the legal minimum wage, while other NGOs demand a living wage that covers the actual cost of living.

What should be improved in certifications?

In order to prevent greenwashing and make real progress, a reform of the current certification systems seems urgently needed. The sheer number of initiatives makes it possible for companies to choose which standards they want to comply with or not - even within the same program. In order to operate with reliability and credibility again, certifications need a robust basis. The following principles should therefore apply to all green labels:

  1. transparency: Certification programs should operate in a completely transparent manner and the exact award criteria should be publicly available. Each initiative should be required to clearly state what it certifies and what it does not. It should also be clear what a particular company can improve and what criteria it does not meet. In cases where a company loses its certification, there should be an obligation to publish information. There must also be an opportunity to submit public complaints.
  2. Independency: Many of the current certification initiatives have an inherent conflict of interest: higher membership numbers lead to higher revenues. As a result, the checks to accept a new member are sometimes not carried out as strictly as they should be. Ideally, the revenue required to run the initiative should therefore no longer come from the companies being assessed themselves.
  3. Holistic approach: Certifications should cover the entire product cycle. Many existing programs only provide evidence of sustainability for a small part of the supply chain or the quality of the final product. Such initiatives must clearly communicate what they certify and what they do not, and make it clear that good performance at one stage of the supply chain does not mean that the entire company or product is sustainable.

Small initiatives can achieve great things

The work of the large certification programs is often limited by what the companies, as their members and customers, are willing to do or pay. Smaller organizations and local grassroots initiatives could provide a solution. For example, with FARFARM in Brazil, the Oshadi Collective in India, the Cotton Diaries or cooperative models such as the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), there are numerous alternative systems that companies could use for certification. These programs actively involve the local population, take into account the specific local challenges, can react quickly to problems and develop constructive solutions. Unfortunately, these movements have so far received little visibility due to the overwhelming presence of the larger platforms.

Conclusion: Certifications as a double-edged sword

While certifications can contribute to greater sustainability in the fashion industry, they are not a panacea. To bring about real change, not only must companies and consumers rethink, but political stakeholders must also further expand their influence. Instead of industry-funded certification initiatives, we need legal regulations, with non-compliance that can be punished accordingly.

Companies must also take their due diligence obligations seriously, create transparency about their supply chains and consistently sanction violations of environmental and social standards. Ultimately, however, it is also up to us as consumers to critically question the origin and production of products and to rethink our consumption. Less is often more. Repair, exchanging and purchasing Secondhand clothing can be more sustainable than using certified products. Certifications are a tool for driving sustainable change, but reforms to existing structures are needed to ensure their continued credibility.

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