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A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications

A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications
While I don't subscribe to a consumption practice that demands certifications from every brand I support, there is no question in my mind that certifications are good for the garment and consumer goods industries.

Certifying agencies set a minimum standard for a particular ethos, such as fair labor or organic textiles, then require companies to pay for regular auditing in order to receive certification status. 

Of course, this strategy is not free of loopholes, and certifying agencies like Fair Trade USA have been accused of being too generous in their approval process - which led them to part ways with Fair Trade International in 2012 - because they let large scale brands like Starbucks take advantage of the fair trade label without fully understanding the complexities of the global fair trade coffee sourcing industry (Bruce Wydick, a journalist I really admire, wrote about fair trade coffee here). Fair Trade USA argues that their intention was to use the standard more consistently across industries, and having heard a representative from the agency speak at the Sustainable Fashion Conference I attended in September, I do think they are trying.

Despite inconsistencies and disagreements within agencies and from consumers, certifying agencies, at the very least, provide a framework for understanding what we mean when we use "ethical" terminology. And this also helps companies that aren't certified, because it means they have a set of metrics to weigh their process against.

So, certified or not, we can use the language of certifications to express what our goals are when producing and consuming goods, and that's a good place to start. (Note that I originally gathered this data for a post on garment industry certifications, so please let me know in the comments if you know of others that apply to food and other consumer industries.)

Labor Certifications (Fair Trade)

According to the World Fair Trade Organization, fair trade is:

"...a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South…”

The following certifications ensure that basic fair trade standards are being met:

Fair Trade Federation

US based, the Fair Trade Federation works to build sustainable, long term partnerships with marginalized artisan communities. Learn more here.

Fair Trade Certified/Fair Trade USA

“The leading independent third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in North America,” Fair Trade USA offers certification to producers of both food and textiles. Learn more here.

Fair Trade America

Fair Trade America is the US arm of Fair Trade International and operates under its standards. Members include food companies like Divine Chocolate and Ben & Jerry's, but they also certify cotton. Learn more here.

Fair For Life

Founded in Switzerland, The Fair For Life credential applies to both food and textile products, and currently boasts over 3,000 products under its certification program. Learn more here.

World Fair Trade Organization

Founded in 1989, WFTO is one of the world’s largest fair trade certifiers, with over 324 networked organizations across the world. All certified organizations must meet the WFTO’s Ten Principles of Fair Trade, which includes environmental stipulations. Learn more here.

Environmental Certifications

While fair trade certifications operate under a unifying set of values regarding labor rights and sustainable empowerment, environmental certifications tend to be more specific.

As you’ll see below, these certifications deal with a particular environmental concern and, as a result, eco-friendly companies are often certified under more than one standard.


Used internationally, OEKO-TEX is a textile certification program that ensures that fabrics are safe. The organization checks for toxic dyes, banned chemicals, and other toxic substances to ensure consumer and environmental health. Learn more here.


The leading certifier for organic textiles, GOTS, which stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, sets a universal definition for what constitutes the category “organic” when it comes to fibers like cotton and wool. In addition, textiles companies must make a commitment to exclude toxic dyes and chemicals. Learn more here.

Rainforest Alliance 

Rainforest Certified products that bear the green frog label must meet several standards that protect for biodiversity, safe pesticide use, natural resource conservation, human flourishing, and a commitment to continuing improvement. Learn more here.


The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certifies that palm oil distributed under its label is harvested sustainably and fully traceable throughout the supply chain. This certification is somewhat contentious, with critics arguing that it is actually impossible to fully trace palm oil. Learn more here.

Holistic Certifications

There is no question that fair trade and environmental certifications are useful. But while they build trust with consumers, they don’t always tell the full story. Businesses that seek to be sustainable in the long term must weave social responsibility into every aspect of their process, from corporate environment to textile sourcing to waste reduction.

These holistic certifications see the big picture.

Cradle to Cradle

With a focus on preventative measures, Cradle to Cradle certifies that businesses have made an effort to decrease energy, water usage, and waste in their supply chain in addition to using nontoxic processes and treating workers and communities fairly. Learn more here.


Based in the US but open internationally, B-Corp Certification is tailored toward for-profit social enterprises that seek to meet high transparency standards along with responsible labor and environmental practices. Learn more here.

A Quick Guide to Ethical and Environmental Certifications

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