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The 3 Ethical Certifications You Can Trust (And 7 That Don’t Mean Much)

First and foremost, fair trade certification has a great goal: to ensure that workers in developing countries earn a fair wage, and work in a safe environment.

The problem? This goal is not always met.

Some factories that work under fair trade standards were found to have equal or worse conditions or wages than those without the same standards. This is unfortunately the case with Fairtrade International and Fair Wear Foundation.

Some of the organizations below have also received criticism. Several studies, cited below, concluded that fair trade certification doesn’t benefit the poorest workers, but rather the retailers, the rich, or even the fair trade organization itself.

Even though not all of the organizations below are the most trustworthy, it’s important not to throw the baby with the bathwater. Fair trade is complex and supply chains are difficult to monitor. However, many organizations are doing their best at improving the conditions of workers.

As for brands who choose to become members of a fair trade organization, this shows great initiative on their part and should most often be seen as a positive sign.

My goal is not to trash any of these organizations, but rather to approach them with a critical eye so we can choose brands and products that are truly ethical, and treat their workers well.

B Corp

Attributed by B Corp (B Lab)
What Brands
How B Impact Assessment, documentation
Where Worldwide
Examples The Body Shop, Frank and Oak, Allbirds, Organic Basics

This certification includes fair trade practices, but goes beyond fair trade.

A Certified B Corporation is a business that balances purpose with profit. As such, they consider their workers, customers, suppliers, as well as the environment.

To be certified, each company must take the B Impact Assessment (here’s a sample) which is then verified through documentation. A score is given to each company out of 200 points, and they must obtain at least 80 points to gain certification. This score is broken down into: environment, customers, workers, community, governance.

Of their website, B Corp shows all of its members’ scores, which includes the overall score out of 200, as well as the scores for each category. For instance, The Body Shop has a score of 82.6 and Organic Basics has a score of 92.8.

B Corp certification requires companies to dig deeper into their methods and scrutinize every aspect of their business. The score also allows them to pinpoint shortcomings and make improvements.

This is also the only ethical certification that systemizes all aspects (social, environmental, economical) so we can have clear guidelines for each company. Other certifications lack objectivity and transparency, and they’re left to be more subjective, at the discretion of the auditor or person making the decision.

Overall, the B Corp label shows consumers that the company certified is equally committed to ethics than it is to profits. The transparency aspect is especially helpful, since all scores are made public, and we can see exactly which aspects the brands excel at, and which aspects they could improve on. Of course, it would be even better if the scores were more transparent and allowed us to see exactly what the brands gained and lost points for.

Verdict: Trustworthy.

B Corp certification is therefore a good indicator that a company is committed to being ethical.

Ethical Trading Initiative

Attributed by Ethical Trading Initiative
What Brands, trade unions, NGOs
How Self-assessment
Where Worldwide
Examples H&M, Asos, GAP, Missguided, Burberry

This network of businesses focuses on workers rights. Although their name might indicate a more holistic approach, they make it clear that their mission is to improve working conditions in the global supply chains.

This is not to be confused with fair trade. While fair trade certification aims to improve both the salary and the work conditions of the workers, the “ethical” aspect of the Ethical Trading Initiative only focuses on work conditions, and not pay.

Many big coporations like H&M, Asos, Aldi, GAP, Missguided, Burberry and The Body Shop have joined this network. Although it’s a good initiative, these corporations have not been excempt from worker rights violations: H&M and Gap factory workers have been reported to be abused daily, and Asos factories have been compared to “dark satanic mills” due to the atrocious working conditions.

Verdict: Not so trustworhy.

For these reasons, although the Ethical Trading Initiative has positive intentions, we can’t necessarily trust that their members have an ethical supply chain.

Also, there is no mention of audits or in-depth screening for companies that apply. The application process, as stated on their website, consists of completing an application form, providing information, and receiving a decision based on the application.

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)

Attributed by GOTS
What Fibers such as cotton, wool, silk
How Audits
Where Worldwide
Examples PACT (Underwear), Coyuchi (Bedhseets), Yoni (Tampons)

Organic fibers are better for the environment, healthier for the workers, and possibly better for the end consumer as well. But how do ensure that brands aren’t just labeling their clothes as “made from organic cotton”, when they’re not? With such a complex supply chain, how can we be sure that “organic” is truly organic?

The Global Organic Textile Standard offers a solution to this problem, and with their worldwide presence and thorough regulations, they’re succeeding.

In order to become certified, a company must have their facilities, from farm to final supplier, inspected on-site. To gain certification, the production process must comply with international and national organic guidelines.

Some of the environmental guidelines include: chemicals and dyes passing the toxicity and biodegradability standards, no use of certain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde or heavy metals, no PVC for accessories or packaging materials, and so on.

There are also human safety standards and social standards for the workers, such as a safe and healthy work environment, no child labor, and no forced labor.

Verdict: Trustworthy.

Because of their strict guidelines, thorough auditing, and global presence, GOTS is a good certification to look for.

OEKO-TEX Standard 100

Attributed by OEKO-TEX
What Textile products
How Chemical testing
Where Worldwide
Examples Fruit of the Loom, Reformation

This certification measures one thing: chemicals on the end product. If you see the OEKO-TEK label on a product, it means that everything, from the textiles to the buttons to the threads, has been tested for harmful substances and is in compliance with European REACH guidelines.

Substances such as carcinogenic ingredients, harmful dyes, formaldehyde, and heavy metals are either banned or heavily restricted.

It’s important to note that OEKO-TEX certification is not organic certification. Unlike GOTS, this certification allows GMO crops, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and doesn’t have standards for treating waterwaste (a source of pollution).

Furthermore, OEKO-TEK is not an ethical certification. They do not take into account worker safety and have no fair trades practice standards, also unlike GOTS.

Another interesting fact to consider is that OEKO-TEX is owned by The Hohenstein Institute, a leading organization for synthetic textile research. Given this, OEKO-TEK might have a slight bias towards synthetic fibers, which makes it less reliable when it comes to natural fibers such as cotton.

For example, Rayon (or Viscose) can be OEKO-TEX certified while being one of the most disastrous fibers for the environment.

Verdict: Trustworthy when it comes to product safety. However, it’s not an ethical standard.

OEKO-TEK is a trustworthy way of ensuring that no harmful substances are on textiles and garments, but it’s insufficient as an overall sustainable and ethical certification. Although the end product might comply, it doesn’t consider the full production chain, environmental impacts, and worker conditions.

Better Cotton Institute

Attributed by Better Cotton Institute
What Brands
How Membership
Where Worldwide
Examples H&M, GAP, Levi’s, IKEA, Adidas, Nike

The Better Cotton Institute promotes better standards in cotton farming and manufacturing practices. It describe itself as a “sustainability programme”, however this shouldn’t be interpreted as an environment-first approach.

Unlike GOTS-certified textiles, the Better Cotton Institute doesn’t have environmental or social standards. Rather, they seek to educate companies and farmers about better practices, and make small changes in the supply chain.

“This Better Cotton Initiative is absolute bullshit: Pure greenwashing.”

Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia Founder

But is this enough? We know that cotton is one of the worst offenders when it comes to water usage, and we also know that organic cotton uses 4x less water than conventional cotton. Organic cotton also uses less chemicals, therefore causing less pollution. It’s the true sustainable option.

It’s no wonder that the Better Cotton Institute is being accused of greenwashing. It consists of giants like H&M, GAP, and Levi’s, who are willing to make just enough of an impact, as long as it doesn’t affect their bottom line. True positive changes, such as switching to organic cotton, would cost too much.

This is a label that big corporation might be able to slap on a website or commercial for greenwashing purposes. There are not standards and no certifications.

Verdict: Not trustworthy.

For these reasons, we don’t see the Better Cotton Institute as a label to look for when shopping sustainably.

Fairtrade

Attributed by Fairtrade International (FLOCERT)
What Products: Food, Textiles
How Audits
Where Worldwide
Examples Some coffee, chocolate, bananas

The Fairtrade Mark attributed by Fairtrade International is the most popular and recognized ethical certification. Coffee is by far the #1 certified product, though we also often find it on other foods or cotton items. The wellbeing of the workers and farmers behind the products is at the core of Fairtrade certification. As such, their primary goal is to ensure that they’re paid a fair wage for their labour.

Unfortunately, those claims are not always true. In recent years, Fairtrade International has been accused of favoring their own interests as well as the retailers’ interests over the actual workers’:

Valkila and Nygren (2009) examine information from interviews from 11 coffee cooperatives in Nicaragua over six months in 2005/2006. In total, the authors interviewed 94 producers and 64 hired workers. They found that although the records of Fair Trade farmers indicated that they received higher prices for their coffee, their qualitative research indicated no evidence that workers receive highe wages or benefited in any way from certification. Like the rest of rural Nicaragua, workers were paid the minimum wage and were not given benefits like social security, medical care, vacations, pensions, paid sick leaves, etc.

Dragusanu and Nunn (2013) come to similar conclusion in their study of the impacts of Fair Trade coffee in Costa Rica. Examining a sample of over 110,000 individuals between 2003 and 2010, they find that while Fair Trade certification is associated with significantly greater incomes for farmers [130% increase], it is not associated with increased incomes for hired workers [7% increase].

The Economics Of Fair Trade

Other criticisms Fairtrade International has received includes lack of transparency, failure to monitor standards, and failure to benefit the poorest workers. There’s a whole Wikipedia article dedicated to the Fair Trade Debate.

Another thing to point out is that it’s expensive for companies to gain this certification. FLOCERT, who works with Fairtrade International, is responsible for the certification process. Their website provides a cost calculator. For one small artisan factory with 20 workers and 10 products, the first year of getting certified would cost $4,915 and the subsequent year $3,630.

So we raise the question: is Fairtrade International serving the interest of the workers, or its own interests, first and foremost?

Another issue is that Fairtrade International certifies products, and not brands. This means that Nestle, which is far from the most ethical company, could offer a fair trade Kit Kat boasting the Fairtrade mark. And they did.

Verdict: Not so trustworthy.

For all these reasons, the Fairtrade mark is not necessarily a certification to look for when you’re shopping.

Fair Trade Certified

Attributed by Fair Trade USA
What Mainly textiles, food
How Audits
Where Worldwide
Examples Patagonia and REI products

Originally, Fair Trade USA was part of Fairtrade International. In 2012, Fair Trade USA branched off in order to allow bigger organizations into their program. Fairtrade International opposed this view, as they claim that it would distance them from their goal of helping small producers.

Verdict: Not so trustworthy.

Otherwise, Fair Trade USA is essentially very similar to Fairtrade International. For these reasons, it shares the same criticisms as Fairtrade International. We could also argue that given the larger size of the producers they certify, there’s a bigger risk of the end worker being disadvantaged.

World Fair Trade Organization

Attributed by World Fair Trade Organization
What Enterprises (brands, retailers, producers, etc.)
How Audits, peer visits, public scutiny
Where Worldwide (based in Netherlands)
Examples Dr. Bronner’s, Commerce Equitable France, Dekor Asia 

Unlike Fairtrade International, the WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) certifies enterprises rather than products. This ensures that the company is ethical throughout the whole supply chain, and as a whole. The WFTO is also democratically-run on a “one member, one vote” basis and consists of everything from retailers to producers or any type of social enterprise.

See Also

Each company that becomes certified must adhere to 10 principles, which include: creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers, transparency, fair trade practices, fair trade pay, no child or slave labor, non-discrimination including women’s empowerment, trade union rights, good working conditions, helping producers improve their skills, promoting fair trade, and respect of the environment.

Although not all principles are mandatory for members, they must at least ensure that they’re working on every principle to eventually meet the requirement fully.

If you see the WFTO Mark, it means the brand as a whole is guaranteeing fair trade practices across all of its products and all of the supply chain.

To join, members must demonstrate that they prioritize social and economical justice and adhere to the 10 principles above. This is verified through audits and peer visits.

Companies that join the WFTO have these goals at the core of their business, unlike companies that only offer some Fairtrade-labeled products. Giant multinationals that are overall unethical can sell one or two Fairtrade-labeled products, while their company as a whole is not.

[WFTO members] are also more likely to embrace ecological innovations, such as upcycling and recycling. One social entrepreneur from the WFTO community recently told me: “Because we are not [solely] about growing our profits, we can invest into reducing our environmental footprint more readily, even when it does result in increased costs. Our competitors cannot do this if it hits their bottom line.”

Common Objecive

Verdict: Trustworthy.

For these reasons, the WFTO Mark is a postive sign to look for when shopping ethiacally.

Fair Wear Foundation

Attributed by Fair Wear Foundation
What Process and supply chain
How Audits
Where Worldwide (based in Netherlands)
Examples Acne, Nudie Jeans, Stanley and Stella

Fair Wear Foundation is a non-profit that works with several types of enterprises, from retailers and brands to factories and trade unions. Currently, they have over 80 members which represent over 120 brands.

Their goal is to make the clothing industry more ethical. To become a member, you must comply with their 8 labor standards, which are based on ILO conventions and UN’s Declaration On Human Rights.

These labor standards are: no slave labor, no discrimination, no child labor, freedom of association, payment of living wage, reasonable work hours, safe working conditions, and legally-binding employment relationship.

Through audits on 3 different levels (the workplace, the company, and the organization), they ensure that the companies are working towards these standards.

It’s important to note that FTF does not certify products, brands, factories, or any organization. Instead, they focus on the process. As long as companies are showing signs that they wish to improve their process and work towards the FTF’s standards, they can be a part of the FTF. This means that members are not necessarily ethical, and their process might not yet be in place.

Although it might be a good initiative to help members raise their ethical standards, this can also cause problems if they don’t actively pursue this goal. For instance, an FTF member was recently caught working with an exploitative low-wage factory in Bangladesh.

Also, a study involving 43 FTF members concluded that “codes of conduct improve (although marginally) worker rights on an overall level but that few significant results are found for specific worker rights.” In addition to this, they found “factory audits seldom are able to identify process rights violations (such as those affecting freedom of association and discrimination), and that auditing is thus is more fundamentally flawed than assumed in previous research.”

Verdict: Not so trustworthy.

Unfortunately, for these reasons, looking for Fair Wear Foundation members is not necessarily a good indicator of an ethical brand. It does however show great initiative from the brands who seek to join.

Fair Trade Federation

Attributed by Fair Trade Federation
What Brands
How Self-assessment
Where USA & Canada
Examples Causegear, Rover & Kin, Global Mamas

The Fair Trade Federation is a network of companies based in the US and Canada who are committed to 9 core principles, including creating opportunities, paying fairly and promptly, and promoting fair trade.

Verdict: Not so trustworthy.

Members can join by self-assessing, and there are unfortunately no audits. For this reason, it might not be the most reliable label to look for. However, please keep in mind that most members are smaller companies and artisan brands.

Fair Labor Association

Attributed by Fair Labor Association
What Companies, suppliers
How Audits
Where Worldwide
Examples Nike, Adidas, Patagonia

Fair Labor Association is a non-profit who aims to help businesses comply with international and national labor laws. In order for a company to be FLA-compliant, they have to begin the implementation process across their entire supply chain, which takes 2 to 3 years. The FLA’s Code of Conduct first and foremost aims to ensure safe working conditions for workers.

Big companies like Nike, Adidas, Apple, P&G Chemicals, and Puma are FLA-compliant. Other notable brands include Patagonia, Gymshark, and Tom’s Shoes.

The FLA has been accused of having “a weak code that fails to provide for women’s rights, a living wage, the full public disclosure of factory locations, or university control over the monitoring process.”

This would explain why some brands that are FLA-compliant have been exposed for poor working condition.

One example that comes to mind is Apple. In 2012, the New York Times published an article exposing an Apple factory in China. The report accused the factory of multiple violations of worker rights, and stated that at least 19 workers attempted suicide or fell from buildings in a way that suggested suicide attempts.

Verdict: Not so trustworthy.

For these reasons, although the Fair Labor Association might have good intentions, it’s not necessarily an organization we should fully trust.

Conclusion

To sum it up, the best certifications to look for are B Corp, GOTS, and WFTO (Word Fair Trade Organization). On the other hand, Ethical Trading Initiative, Better Cotton Initiative, the Fairtrade mark, Fair Trade Certified, Fair Wear Foundation, Fair Trade Federation, and Fair Labor Association aren’t necessarily the best certifications to look for.

Again, this doesn’t mean that any of the “less trustworthy” organizations are never to be trusted. Most are making an effort in the right direction and trying to solve a complex problem.

Do you agree or disagree with the decisions above? Let me know your opinion in the comments.

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