Is certification the answer to fashion’s ethical issues?

03 : 09 : 2018 Ethical Fashion : Susntainability : Certification

The rise of ethical fashion is positive – but are the certificates designed to ratify, support and promote brands' claims really worth it? Olivia Pinnock, founder of The Fashion Debates, takes a closer look.

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How valuable is certification to fashion brands when 60% of Millennials say they are interested in certified clothing but only 37% have actually purchased it.

Olivia Pinnock, lecturer and founder of The Fashion Debates

Fashion labels becoming more sustainable is undoubtedly a positive thing. Yet the challenge is more than just rethinking supply chains, it’s also convincing cynical consumers that they are actually doing good.

It’s here that certification becomes an appealing option for brands to communicate the complex topic of ethics in a succinct and visual way. But certificates come with their own complex issues, too.

Firstly, while verification of a brand’s practices and the marketing of certification can be beneficial, ethical certification should also challenge the industry and be a tool to help companies improve their standards. When this is the case, everyone benefits. But sometimes it isn’t.

When using a certificate to promote a product, it invariably draws questions around why other products in the range don’t carry the same promise.

For example, in 2013, the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) was criticised for not including NGOs in its certification scheme that could help its member brands to leverage their CSR initiatives in-line with global goals. More recently, it has had to crack down on companies using its logo who are members but have not been through the certification process. Issues such as this damage not only the awarding body, but also all brands using the certificate, so it remains crucial for companies to do their research and aim to be linked with a certification program that maintains high standards.

From a consumer perspective, the fragmentation of issues within the ethical fashion world can also be confusing and overwhelming. There are certificates that relate to environmental friendliness of the textiles, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), those that endorse the protection of animal rights in the supply chain, such as PETA, and others such as the Fairtrade mark that validate human working conditions. In the case of fashion, this could refer to both cotton farmers or those making the clothing.

In my view, these narrower classifications are best used by brands with a strong message around a specific value, which brings together a community of shoppers who share it. However, when using a certificate to promote a product, it invariably draws questions around why other products don’t carry the same promise, and this can backfire on brands that carry garments with and without such certification within their range.

Ethical certificating bodies could work with NGOs and governments to provide incentives for companies that use ethically-certified manufacturers and suppliers.

And then there’s the question of how valuable such accreditation actually is. Certification programme Oeko-Tex found in a research study that 60% of Millennials are interested in certified clothing but only 37% of Millennials had actually purchased it, suggesting that certification is valued, but not always essential.

This may be reassuring news to start-up labels who find certificates prohibitively expensive, with fees generally starting at around £2,000 per year for small brands and increasing with the turnover of the company. However, working with certified suppliers and focusing on a marketing strategy with authenticity and transparency can be just as powerful.

As such, one of the biggest opportunities for ethical certificating bodies is placing heavier focus on increasing the number of suppliers and manufacturers adopting their standards and working with governments and NGOs to provide incentives for companies who use these partners to increase business for them.

Marketing fashion is a unique discipline with a vast number of thought processes and decisions taking place in consumers’ minds before they make a purchase. When it comes to making a more sustainable future for the fashion industry, selling clothing and accessories will demand a multi-layered approach that can’t be solved by certificates alone.

Olivia Pinnock is a writer, lecturer and founder of The Fashion Debates.