You need to know that the materials going into your garments have been sourced and manufactured in a safe, eco-friendly and ethical manner and these certifications are one way to ensure just that.
We’ve summarised the important details for the commonly used certifications for T-shirts and other garments.
Use of Harmful Chemicals
So what do they all mean?
Many crops, including cotton, are often sprayed with pesticides during growth to prevent the crop from being damaged by pests like insects or bacteria, that would feed on the crop themselves.
Pesticides aren’t that specific though and affect other wildlife, including humans. They are concentrated up the food chain (e.g. the crop may be munched on by aphids, which are then eaten by insects, which are then eaten by birds, etc) and can affect many species, regardless of whether they even come into contact with the sprayed crop.
Pesticides also contaminate water sources and have been linked to respiratory illnesses and cancers. Particularly high amounts of pesticides are often used on cotton because it is not cropped for food.
For this reason, it is often dubbed the dirtiest crop, and cotton farmers are particularly hard hit. The UN estimates that 200,000 people die per year from toxic exposure to pesticides but the effects of chronic exposure and suicides from ill health affect many more.
In the UK there are three organic certifications that you are likely to see.
The Soil Association is the UK’s leading organic certification body and they certify 70% of the organic market, from textiles to food, drink and beauty products. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Organic Content Standard (OCS) are the two organic textile standards that are valid in the UK and the Soil Association certifies to both schemes.
If a garment is certified by the Soil Association, it will automatically be certified GOTS and OCS and be able to carry all three standards.
Soil Association certification involves a fair bit of work, measuring and recording key performance indicators and keeping a very strict inventory of all organic vs. non organic stock although any eco-friendly business should be doing these things anyway. Soil Association certification costs around £1,500 per year, which means that small businesses may not be certified, even if they’re doing all the right things.
OCS certification shows that the garment has been made using organic fibres and this has been traced through the value chain from growth of the crop to the finished article. There are two types of certificate: OCS100 for 100% organic cotton and OCS blended for items that are blended with a non-organic fibre (often recycled polyester).
GOTS certification also covers the organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials and through the manufacturing process.
However it goes further to ensure that textiles are also processed in an eco-friendly and socially responsible manner. This means workers’ rights are protected, working conditions are safe and hygienic, only low impact dyes and inks are used, wastewater is treated properly, and energy and water use is monitored.
GOTS provides credible assurance to the end consumer that the garments have been manufactured in an environmentally and socially responsible way.
Only textile products that contain a minimum of 70% organic fibres can become GOTS certified. There are different certificates, depending on the percentage of organic fibres used, so a company might have a GOTS certificate covering those items that are 100% organic and then a GOTS 85 to cover those items with 85% organic content.
Accessories, such as labelling, tend to be plastic-based, but are considered during the certification process.
GRS certification is for products with recycled content, where the recycled materials must be authenticated by the Textile Exchange, a non-profit organisation based in the US.
The GRS aims to provide brands with a tool for labelling but they also aim to encourage manufacturers to be innovative in the use of reclaimed materials, to establish more transparency in the supply chain, and to provide better information to consumers.
Use of Harmful Chemicals
REACH is an EU regulation that was brought into effect in 2007 to help protect human health and the environment from harm by chemicals. REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals.
In summary, all chemicals used during manufacture must be declared, some chemicals are banned completely and, in the case of harmful chemicals, it must be shown that there are no alternatives that are more environmentally sound. All garments manufactured or sold in the EU must conform to REACH.
If a product is labeled as Oeko-Tex certified it is considered free from harmful chemicals and safe for human use. To attain Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification, the fabric has been tested and certified to be free from harmful levels of more than 100 substances known to be harmful to human health.
Harmful substances banned under the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 include:
- Specifically banned AZO dyes
- Carcinogenic and allergy inducing dyes
- Chlorinated phenols
- Chloro-organic benzenes and toluenes
- Extractable heavy metals
- pH value
- Phthalates in baby articles
- Emission of volatile components
- Organotin compounds (TBT) and (DBT)
Within the certification process there are three product classes.
Product class one: Textiles and textile toys for babies and small children up to the age of three. Permaset inks
Product class two: Textiles which, when used as intended, have a large part of their surface in direct contact with the skin, e.g. polo shirts, sweatshirts, shirts, blouses etc.
Product class three: Textiles which, when used as intended, do not come into contact with the skin, or only have a small part of their surface in contact with the skin, e.g. jackets, coats.
Confidence in Textiles certification should ensure that your garments don’t leach dangerous chemicals into your skin. Ideally, you would want to use inks that are certified under Class One, whatever the end purpose is, so that you are not using harmful chemicals in the production of the garment at all.
EarthPositive is not a global standard in the same way that the other certifications are. EarthPositive is the trade name of a range of clothing by Continental Clothing Company, who are based in the UK. However, the innovative work they've put into this range deserves recognition.
EarthPositive garments have a 90% reduced carbon footprint (compared to a standard T-shirt) through a combination of innovative product design, low impact organic agriculture, efficient manufacture, and by replacing standard grid electricity with renewable wind power.
The carbon footprint calculations were certified by the Carbon Trust Certifications in the U.K. between 2007-2009. It has been calculated that a single EarthPositive® T-shirt saves around 7 kilograms of CO2 compared to a conventional T-shirt, whereas a hooded sweatshirt saves up to 28 kgs.
Having taken the greenhouse gas emissions to pre-industrial levels, all the EarthPositive® products carry the registered mark “Climate Neutral”.
A carbon neutral footprint is where the sum of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide emissions) produced is offset by natural carbon sinks and/or carbon credits. Carbon Trust Certification certifies organisations and products to standard PAS 2060, which is internationally recognised as demonstration of carbon neutrality.
A full audit must be carried out by a professional, which takes into account energy use, the whole lifecycle of all the consumables used by the business, as well as travel and deliveries.
The cost of this audit (which is likely to be annual and is estimated to cost around £5,000) and certification (annual fee approx £1,500) may be prohibitive for small businesses. However, the Carbon Trust write lots of free guides that may be useful for businesses looking at measuring their carbon footprint and making changes themselves.
The process creates initial benchmark measurements, highlights carbon hotspots for efficiency. Then a plan is created to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to offset the rest using high quality carbon credits. It takes 3 years to gain certification as the Carbon Trust require long-term commitment to the process.