How to avoid confusion when reading Eco-labels – The fashion industry example

Over the last few years, the concepts “sustainable” and “corporate social responsibility” have gained a lot of traction. Businesses began to feel compelled to demonstrate that they employ sustainable practices and consequently, a slew of “Eco-labels” arose as a voluntary label to designate a product as ethically sound.

What is the role of eco-labels then? They should provide information about a product’s environmental and social impact during its manufacture, use, and disposal; most of them prioritize environmental concerns such as recycling, carbon content, and organic components over social concerns.

Going deeper in the fashion industry, organizations such as the Fairtrade Foundation, the Global Recycled Standards, and Certified Vegan usually collaborate with brands and manufacturers to provide information on labels about environmental effects and ethical problems such as workers’ rights.

Including that information on clothing tags is meant to clear up these questions… but the existence of many eco-labels creates confusion instead. 

The ground of this confusion lies in the definition of what constitutes “ethical” clothing manufacturing, as it is subjected to interpretation from many different viewpoints, obfuscating industry-wide standards. 

In order to avoid uncertainty with eco-labels it is therefore important to take into account three elements: the issuer, its reputation and formalized rules of labels.  

  • Are you trusting the issuer? Any manufacturer, technically, can design its own ecolabel; In 2017, Selfridges introduced a “Buying Better” labeling scheme that assigned color-coded tags to indicate sustainable production practices, and in 2016, Net-a-Port launched its Net Sustain Edit to highlight clothing that checked off five sustainability attributes, such as made locally or reduced waste.

These two examples helped improve sales, but surveys reveal that only one out of every five consumers believe information provided by the company itself, with third-party authentication coming out on top as the most reliable method of guaranteeing that a product meets ethical standards.

  • What is the issuer’s reputation? The most iconic trustworthy eco-label is Fairtrade, which was founded 27 years ago and has succeeded in the difficult goal of building a reliable reputation. The label was built from the principle that workers deserve to earn a fair wage for the goods they produce and although associated with the food industry, it offers certification to textiles companies. There are contrasting opinions on whether it is better to outsource labeling to third parties such as Fairtrade, but what is sure is that external parties are publishing the information of the supply chain, while private retailers don’t.
  • Are eco-labels following some formalized rules? Governments have been asked to act as a coordinating body for a patchwork of sustainability requirements, but too little has been done until now..

The European Commission stated in its Green Deal policy proposal that it “would step up its regulatory and non-regulatory efforts to combat fraudulent green claims,” and that all claims of environmental benefit should be evaluated using an uniform methodology.

Government intervention could help level the playing field by ensuring that apparel is graded fairly in contrast to other types of clothing.

To conclude, it is easy to get confused by the overwhelming amount of labels that are coming out in the market, but following these three guiding questions could help the customers in determining which label to trust and which not. 

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