Certificates are supposed to provide security. Among other things, because compliance with the criteria is checked by official, independent parties. But are you immune from greenwashing if you use labels like Oeko-Tex, GOTS or Fairtrade?


Experts and seal providers see little greenwashing risk in the use itself. Although exceptions prove the rule, as seen with the big GOTS scandal. In 2020, the organization uncovered extensive fraud in India involving fake certificates for organic cotton.

Oeko-Tex lable Heimtextil
Photo: Imago-Hoffmann
Oeko-Tex lable Heimtextil
Fairtrade board member Claudia Brück also says she cannot completely rule out misuse of the Fairtrade seal. It is not uncommon for consumers to ask whether this or that labeled product is really Fairtrade. "But we have a very good control system throughout the supply chain and check everything closely. We ourselves are certified according to ISO 65, which means that our audits are also checked again externally."


Stumbling blocks in communication
Apart from possible criminal machinations, however, there are quite a few stumbling blocks in communication. "Ten years ago, I still thought it was nice that so many partners were advertising positively with us. But now there are so many players in the field that you have to be all the more precise in your communication," says Brück.


Not all certificates and standards are product seals. Take the Fair Wear Foundation, for example. It is a membership initiative that works to improve social conditions in the textile industry and to ensure living wages. It formulates guidelines based on ILO requirements, carries out inspections and reports on the progress of its member companies. These companies can advertise with the corresponding logo, which, however, says nothing about their actual performance. But most consumers are unaware of this, says Katharina Schaus, founder of the It fit's consultancy and co-founder of GOTS. "There should be a statement about this in the sustainability report, but not a hangtag on the product."


A real product seal and widely used is the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, but this only says that the finished products have been tested for harmful substances. It does not stand for sustainable materials or fair production. "The certificate does, however, convey the feeling of eco to the consumer," says Schaus. She thinks this standard alone is not enough. Combined with the Step test, however, companies can obtain the Made in Green by Oeko-Tex certificate, which goes much deeper into the process chain.


Schaus is also critical of material seals, such as those from the Better Cotton Initiative or Textile Exchange, which have developed the RCS (Recycled Claim Standard) and OCS (Organic Cotton Standard) standards for fiber blends. The latter, he said, only require a 5% content of organic cotton or recycled fibers. "If a group H&M uses the OCS blended standard, I still see it as positive. Although the percentage is small, the absolute amount of organic cotton used is large. This has mainly advantages for the farmers, not for the consumers." Incidentally, there is also no GOTS-certified cotton, which is always popularly advertised, Schaus said.

BCI cotton grower
Photo: BCI
BCI cotton grower
Better Cotton is quite heavy greenwashing for her. "Yes, the initiative helps to improve cotton cultivation, but in the end you don't know for sure in which products how much Better Cotton is contained." This was precisely one of the grounds for the warning issued by the Rhineland-Palatinate Consumer Center against Hunkemöller. The lingerie provider had advertised the Sustainable Collection as using more sustainable cotton from the Better Cotton Intiative. BCI member companies are supposed to cover their cotton needs from at least 10% Better Cotton. This percentage would be blended with conventionally produced cotton in the supply chain. Which garments actually contain this environmentally friendlier cotton in the end is completely arbitrary, the consumer organization complained.


The Otto Group, which also advises Schaus, has since removed Better Cotton from its guidelines for sustainable sourcing. The situation is different with Cotton made in Africa (CmiA). The standard of the non-profit organization Aid by Trade Foundation helps around one million cotton farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to help themselves and promotes more sustainable cotton cultivation there. Where the CmiA label is on it, this more sustainable cotton is also in it, says Schaus.


Missing definition
"The problem in communication is that the terms 'sustainability' and 'organic' are not defined. Unlike in the food industry. Where it says 'organic', there must also be organic cultivation behind it. If a pair of jeans contains organic cotton, I can simply advertise it as 'organic'. But dyeing processes, chemicals, social standards and other productive steps are not taken into account," criticizes Heike Hess of the International Association of the Natural Textile Industry (IVN). She heads the office in Berlin and is responsible for the areas of press, public relations and educational work, politics and certification.


The association has with IVN Best one of the strictest textile certificates in the market. Substances hazardous to health as well as synthetic fibers are prohibited. The natural fibers must come from organic production. For cultivation and processing, IVN defines strict social standards.

Hess recommends the ESEO communication strategy: Serious - Strategic - Honest - Open. "Brands should be able to substantiate all statements, have a strategy for the entire company and also admit when something is not yet working and address risks. Submit to the seal system, this is at the same time a good quality control for you," she appeals to fashion suppliers.


Brück also sees it that way. "The seal system has the advantage that there is a concrete catalog of requirements. For us, it's 130 to 140 criteria that have to be clearly provable." Schaus adds, "With certificates, you can always prove what you're doing. However, that costs money. If you want security, you have to invest. But you also do something for your own quality assurance. But many companies want to avoid these costs."


It is not possible to say exactly how high they are across the board; among other things, it depends on the number of companies to be certified. Brands Fashion, which specializes in eco-corporate wear, works with all the usual certifiers and gives some data.



"For our own GOTS/OCS/GRS/FSC certification, we pay around €9,000 annually. For the Green Button, we pay around €3,000 a year in certification fees. For Cradle-to-Cradle, we pay 1€,500 in license fees annually, and the actual certification of the collection and supply chain cost a higher five-digit amount," enumerates Rabea Schafrick, head of sustainability.


Rejecting certificates on cost grounds is not something Georg Dieners, secretary general of the Oeko-Tex testing association, accepts. "Those who use certification tools correctly can increase their efficiency, save resources and thus also offset costs." Not to mention the greatest possible transparency that can be proven. "Greenwashing means more words than deeds when it comes to sustainability. The be-all and end-all is evidence in the supply chain. I have to be able to back up my statements." A lot of education is still needed, he said. And the danger for consumers of falling for certain buzzwords is great. Widely used, he said, are advertising claims about a more sustainable material, but which put the whole product in an eco-light. "This is leading the customer around by the nose, which is the worst form of greenwashing," Dieners said.

Georg Dieners, Oeko-Tex
Photo: MFS
Georg Dieners, Oeko-Tex
Green Button meta-seal
The Green Button is considered a meta-seal because it refers to other certificates on the product side. It was launched by the government three years ago to provide credible guidance to consumers. Therefore, great efforts would also be made to avoid greenwashing. For example, the external auditors and their reports are controlled. The seal itself is currently undergoing a procedure at the German Accreditation Body (DAkkS), the national accreditation authority of the Federal Republic of Germany. With an accreditation, this confirms that "organizations can competently perform their work in accordance with the requirements of internationally valid standards, legal foundations and relevant rules," it says on its homepage. "Getting a standard accreditable is a big effort. But this then underpins international recognition once again," says Ulrich Plein, who heads the office of the state textile seal in Berlin.


The regulations for version 2.0 have been in place since August 1. The most important development is that it no longer only takes into account the manufacturing and wet processes, but also the rest of the supply chain, right down to the fiber. Behind this progress was two years of work. In terms of product testing, the Green Button is a meta-seal, which means it is based on existing certificates such as GOTS, Fairtrade and Made in Green by Oeko-Tex. There are currently eleven official certificates for ready-to-wear and wet processes that meet the credibility criteria of the German government and, alone or in combination, satisfy the extensive content requirements of the Green Button. Further seals are currently being examined.


The Green Button may be used for three years after successful testing and licensing, and the labeled products are registered. "We conduct market monitoring and check advertising and products with the Green Button. If there are discrepancies, we contact the companies," explains Florian Tiedtke, team leader at the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), where the Green Button is based. To ensure that the companies use the logo correctly, he adds, there is also a logo manual with binding specifications as well as text modules for communication. A must, for example, is a QR code or further link on the hangtag that reveals details about the certificate. The goal, he says, is not to overload consumers with info, but still be precise to avoid misleading them.


Six types of greenwashing
The website csr-einfach.de defines six types of greenwashing: the false statement, the pretextual property (when a less relevant but positive property covers up another negative one), the fake seal, the emphasis on irrelevant, positive properties, unclear formulations that tend to confuse consumers, and the green paint job, in which harmful products are trimmed to look eco.


According to Heike Hess, false statements can be made intentionally or accidentally. She experiences the latter more often. "For example, a brand buys a GOTS-certified shirt and processes it further. But the printing is not certified. Then the GOTS label shouldn't be attached to the product." In general, certified prepress does not automatically mean certification for the final product.


Also a popular means of communication, "Designers or labels rely on storytelling. They tell about their trips to the production sites and show how the farmers work." Certainly an emotional marketing, but it does not stand for provable sustainability. Schaus also knows the situation well. "Many idealists fall into the trap of lulling themselves into a sense of security because they 'know their producer in Portugal so well,' after all." That is naive, says the expert.


The issue of child labor is another example, says Brück of Fairtrade. "The fact that a standard prohibits child labor does not mean that I can write 'Free of child labor' on the product. Because that can't be guaranteed - by any certification system in the world." Fairtrade wants to protect the certified companies and therefore coordinates their external communications with them and checks whether consumers could misunderstand anything. "Whereas in the past the main question with licensees was what a labeled product meant in the collection and whether it possibly devalued the other, non-certified items, today the focus is much more on detailed questions and expert knowledge around sustainability." For example, whether environmental criteria are also climate criteria.


Even with Fairtrade, there are gradations in certifications that could be confusing. Brück points out, for example, that the Fairtrade Production Standard primarily takes social aspects into account. Organic materials should not automatically be assumed here. This is different from the Fairtrade Textile Standard, which was launched in 2016 but - due to delays caused by Corona - has only been awarded once, to Brands Fashion.

Fairtrade certfied cotton
Photo: Fairtrade
Fairtrade certfied cotton
To be allowed to label products with this textile standard, the entire supply chain must be certified - from ginning mills, spinning mills and fabric production to dyeing mills and garment manufacturing plants. The cotton used is grown by Fairtrade producers and certified and traded according to the Fairtrade Cotton Standard. About 70% of it is also organic. In addition, each product must carry a label indicating how far along the particular company or brand is on the path to living wages. "You can't get the whole chain certified within two months. I hope companies won't be deterred by that."


Issues with greenwashing potential
The experts also see great greenwashing potential in recycling. Dieners describes everything to do with recycling plastic, but also cotton, as "highly intelligent greenwashing" and "consumer deception." The criticism is well known; Greenpeace also repeatedly points out how unsustainable it is, for example, to remove PET bottles from a functioning cycle and use them for yarn production. Products that contain recycled materials are themselves no longer recyclable at the end of their life.


Then there's the keyword vegan. Which usually means using environmentally harmful plastics instead. "Many products that are declared as such are not vegan at all, because, for example, microorganisms can be used in finishing or dyeing processes. And the other day at Innatex I saw a supposedly vegan shirt, but it had horn buttons," says Hess.


Dieners' pulse also rises when it comes to self-invented labels: "In the case of We Care programs, behind which there are no real certificates, the marketing aspects predominate, not the company's own progress. Besides, there are umpteen examples of brands that make an eco-capsule, but 99% of the other products remain conventional. For me, this is also on the edge of consumer deception."


Brück has equally clear words to say about this: "I am stunned by the way the industry is behaving. Since the Rana Plaza disaster at the latest, everyone should know that it's not just about eco-materials, but about working conditions and wages. But very few care about fair pay. But if people can't live off their factory work, a product can't be sustainable."


When it comes to the big picture, Dieners hopes that sustainability will soon be the new normal and no longer a feature that is advertised. "It has to be a requirement that products are fairly made, durable and environmentally friendly." Schaus sees the biggest transformational opportunities coming from large corporations. "Companies like Adidas also have weak points, but their sustainability measures have a greater impact than those of small eco-labels. Walmart, for example, has made a big difference by using organic cotton and certifying several hundred suppliers to the GOTS standard."


Brück sums up, "Unfortunately, it is often the companies that try to do well that are accused of greenwashing. Those that completely avoid the issue are not prosecuted. Our company is moving in the right direction, but voluntary action alone will not get us there. That's why I eagerly await the detailed criteria of the Supply Chain Act."


This article was published on 13 October 2022 by textilwirtschaft.de






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