The benefits of certification

Originally posted on the Green Loves Gold blog.

When I was thinking about starting a sustainable business one of the things I looked into fairly early on was certification standards. In the clothing business there are a growing number of standards and certification programmes that need to be considered.

Standards in the textile industry

In the industry that I’m entering with Arketype, there are a number of potentially applicable standards – to name just a few:

  • Fairtrade Cotton – Fairtrade certification for the raw fibre and textiles production
  • Certified organic cotton schemes, such as USDA National Organic Program or EU 834/2007 (which takes effect in Jan 2009) – covering raw fibre production using methods that are much less impacting on the environment
  • Oeko-Tex – testing and certification to limit use of certain chemicals
  • Homeworkers Code of Practice – an Australian programme that accredits garment manufacturing as “No Sweatshop” (which is part of the Fairtrade cotton standard for garments manufactured in Australia)
  • NoC02 – programme for auditing, reducing and offsetting carbon emissions

Of course there are many standards and logos which can be quite overwhelming for business owners and customers alike. The good folks at Eco-Textile News have produced an excellent guide for the TCF industry that outlines the major standards for that industry.

Even so, businesses can’t carry out all of these certifications, especially so during the start-up phase where capital (and time) are often limited. So the challenge is to be discerning about which programs we engage in.

Of course, we can also incorporate the principles of the various other programs into our practice, even if we’re not in a position to carry out certification against those standards.

Certification counter-acts the tyrrany of distance

I attended a talk recently by a member of a local food co-op and talk turned to “certified organic” produce. Many of the local growers are using organic methods, but not all are seeking certification.

In discussing this, the member explained that one of the aims of the co-op was to connect local growers with their customers directly. In breaking down this distance – creating a direct, personal connection – he argued that the need for certification is greatly reduced as a relationship is built up and trust develops.

If customers can talk directly to the farmer about their methods, perhaps even visit the farm etc., the farmer is less likely to break that trust as their customers are people they know.

In other words, it’s when distance is introduced – when the supply chain gets between the customer and the producer – that certification becomes increasingly important. The longer the supply chain, the more important certification becomes. I find it a thought-provoking alternative “approach” to achieve the same goal as certification.

For example, at a recent event held by my primary supplier, Rise Up Productions, the makers of our products were there at the event, and were introduced to us. Bronwyn Darlington, Rise Up’s founder, often visits the manufacturers and suppliers of our textiles in India – she has a personal connection to the producers – radically reducing the distance between producer and customer.

This builds confidence in me (the customer) that Rise Up are doing the right thing.

Why should we certify?

Interestingly, though, Rise Up are provide certified organic and Fairtrade cotton products, and are accredited under the Homeworkers Code of Practice. So why, given her close connection to producers, is Rise Up going through the certification process?

I can’t speak for Bronwyn and her team, but for me, certification is still important even under this circumstance for one reason: customer confidence.

Thanks to the effects of greenwashing – essentially an abuse of trust by companies who do more talking than walking – certification is essential to build confidence that what we’re doing is not just a marketing pitch and that our claims have been verified by an independent third party.

Without it, we risk being tainted with the same brush as other companies that aren’t as committed to social and environmental outcomes, but are trying to jump on the bandwagon of growing consumer interest in sustainability.

A brief history

This post is a bit of background about the reason I’m embarking on the ethical clothing project again. It’s far from definitive, but I hope it sets the scene for posts to come.

A couple of years ago I had a crazy idea of starting what I called a “fair trade fashion label”. The basic idea was simple: producing fashionable clothing using environmentally friendly materials ensuring that manufacturing was carried out ethically – “from seed to sale” was a bit of a tag line. After initially dubbing the group FWV – “Fashion Without Victims” – eventually we settled on “Huméco”, a made up word reflecting the environmental and social values we were aiming to uphold.

At the time I mentioned the idea to a few friends and we started researching the idea – we were talking to a designer, researching fabrics, looking into the No Sweatshop label. I left the business I was working for to pursue the venture but then stumbled upon the opportunity to work for WWF-Australia which was too good to pass up.

A few months later work and other life commitments meant that I wasn’t able to focus enough on the project to work through some of the challenges we faced, so I reluctantly disbanded the group to focus on other things.

Fast forward a few years. The market for organic clothing is beginning to explode. As an avid reader of Treehugger, it seems that every day a new label is entering the “green” space – and well known designers are jumping on the “green” bandwagon by the minute. Reading Fast Company highlighted Nau – joining Patagonia in doing very interesting things in the performance wear space.

(As an aside: I’m a big fan of both companies – be sure to check out Nau’s Grey Matters and Patagonia’s The Footprint Chronicles for some of the challenges running an ethical business in this space.)

While the internet technically makes many of these labels available here in Australia, and even though there are even some great folks in Australia creating ethical clothing, none are quite the style I’m into and very few are available local to where I live; on the clothing strips where I shop, the options simply aren’t there.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of purchasing over the net – I like to try things on, check them out, get a feel for the fabric and the cut.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking very hard about my future direction – what really makes my heart sing? What am I passionate about enough to get me through “The Dip“, as Seth Godin calls it.

I’m a big fan of sustainable (in the broad sense of that word – environment, social, financial) business, and am bullish on the impact that good design can have creating a sustainable future. I’ve read Cradle to Cradle and I’m a convert.

And then Anita Roddick passed.

Anita was a huge inspiration to me – and her passing really got me thinking about what I was doing with my life – what impact was I actually having…

I brainstormed a bunch of business ideas and the one that stuck in my mind, that wouldn’t let go of my imagination, was the ethical clothing idea. This is not new – I’m far from the first and likely (hopefully) to be far from the last. But I feel it important to give it a shot – to try and make this happen – and I hope I have a few innovative ideas about how to make the business work.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t like talking – I prefer to do. So early next year I have arranged a change in work arrangements to free up 1-2 days per week to apply to this goal.

The label will likely be starting in an obvious place – t-shirts. I’m a big fan of Threadless, band merch and I’ve become a bit of a “t-shirt snob” – so it is fitting that I should start there. But I hope to link up with like-minded people that want to participate in building a business like this to expand the range and ideas that we can explore – focusing on smart-casual mens wear. Stuff you can wear to work and then to a pub or a club.

Although ethical and social concerns will be a major part of the business – the focus will be on great designs that people will want to wear first and foremost. As fashion designer Gary Harvey says:

“The future of Eco fashion depends on designers concentrating on great design and not letting the Eco cause become the only component…after all people wear clothes not causes.”

I know I can’t do this alone, nor do I want to. For those of you that don’t already know me – if you happen across this blog and are interested, please get in touch. If you do know me already and you know someone you think might be interested, please do the same.

I’ll be using this blog to record the journey, a place to share what I learn as I work towards this goal (regardless of the outcome). My hope that sharing my thoughts as I learn and explore might provide value to others.


I received an email the other day from Suzanne at EthiCool – she’s a member of ActNow and she’s started up an ethical clothing label.

The EthiCool range is primarily organic cotton tees and shopping bags, both featuring Suzanne’s graphic illustrations. All of the products are sweatshop free – the EthiCool site has a page that features the producers of the items, including edun, Ali Hewson and Bono’s famous brand. (It seems that edun have launched a blank t-shirt service).

It’s really cool to see more options, especially Australian-run, coming onto the market. And props to Suzanne for getting this off the ground – speaking from experience, that’s not small feat…

In honour of Anita

If Anita can whip up an empire, you can too

I heard the news about Anita Roddick’s passing last night on JJJ’s Hack program. I have to admit I was quite shocked to hear it – in fact emotionally touched and saddened… still am.

As Dave so eloquently put it “She left the planet and it’s inhabitants with a much better chance of survival than if she had not been born…”

Anita was absolute hero of mine. I first heard about the Body Shop’s “different” way of doing things, and thought I’d read Anita’s semi-biography “Business as unusual“. It was tremendously inspiring to read about Anita’s journey from the small shop recycling bottles because she had to, to the spread of the Body Shop internationally.

Through the Body Shop she was a pioneer of what was to become known as Fair Trade, took an activist stance on animal testing and women’s rights, all the while building a successful international business. Proof positive that profits do not have to trump people and the environment – they can happily work together.

Throughout her life she was a passionate human rights and environmental activist, who really was alone for many, many years in her role as ethical business-woman. (Business-woman period, for that matter.) Her later books were a call to action for us all to take a stand, to “take it personally”, and to make our voices heard and our actions count.

I found myself quite emotionally low last night. I feel I personally owe her a debt of gratitude, even though I’ve never met her in person.

But I think about what her advice might be – I think (I hope) it would be “keep fighting the fight and make whatever difference you can, in work and life”. Hopefully I can do that sentiment justice…

To paraphrase Augie March: Anita, thanks for the memes. Your life is an inspiration.

Anita Roddick

P.S. both images on this post were taken from the home page of, Anita’s personal website. Check it out and help Anita’s legacy live on…

Update: Philippa over at ActNow posted a great opinion piece on Anita. “However, the loss of this figure should not bring us to look hopelessly at the sky but requires consumer’s attention to be cast on other businesses and their actual intentions towards their stakeholders.”

Ethical footwear

So, I’m getting close to needing a new pair of shoes for work. The last pair I bought are starting to get a bit ragged and worse for wear. So I’ve started to do a little bit of research into ethical footwear, to see where things are at on that front.

SA8000 and K-Swiss

My first thought was to check out K-Swiss who were SA8000 accredited last time I checked. SA8000 was intended as an independently verified standard for labour rights. I can’t seem to find any reference to SA8000 related to K-Swiss now, so I can only assume they’ve slipped off the wagon.

The information I found last time I checked (about 3 years ago) was hard to find, and the Social Accountability International website remains pretty much useless to actually find out consumer-beneficial information about accredited companies and/or products.

In the time since I last spent time researching these things I’ve also heard and read some bad things about SA8000 – along the lines of ‘nice idea, but didn’t quite hit the mark’. So no luck there…

So I checked out some other popular footwear brands I like such as Merrell and Salomon. Neither of these companies has any information about their CSR policy that I could find, nor could I find any reliable research or information via Google (except for this little tidbit related to Salomon about shoe companies disclosing their audits.)

Worn Again and No Sweat sneakers

So I started looking around. Dave at work pointed me to Worn Again, a UK company that makes shoes from 99% recycled materials, including seat belts and firemens uniforms.

They have a limited range that look kinda cool, but it’s very hard to tell without seeing the product in real life (a difficult proposition in Australia). They’re also very expensive – around $200 (incl. shipping) for a style of shoe that usually goes for between $50 and $100 less than that.

I also recalled the No Sweat sneakers which are union made and a styled after the popular (though decidedly un-ethical) Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. I’m not exactly a fashion victim, but Chuck Taylors have never really suited me, so I’m not so keen on the No Sweat offering.

What about Nike?

I remembered that Nike had done some interesting stuff with their Considered products – significantly reducing waste and chemical use, as well as experimenting with recycled materials. I saw the Humara at a store in Sydney and I wanted to find out more.

I also recalled hearing somewhere that after the successful campaign against the treatment of workers who produced products for Nike (among others) that Nike had actually made good progress to improve their track record. So I did a bit of research and found Nike’s corporate sustainability report for the 05-06 financial year.

It’s an interesting read, with clear targets for carbon emissions (carbon neutral for Nike owned facilities and business travel by 2011), environmentally friendly production (17% reduction in footwear waste by 2011 and 30% reduction in packagin) and supply chain auditing – for working conditions (eliminate excessive overtime in all contract factories by 2011 and 30% of their supply chain being properly audited).

What’s interesting about Nike’s statement is they acknowledge that monitoring alone isn’t working and that to change practices the entire industry needs to engage. So they’ve publicly published the details of all their factories and called on other companies to do the same so they can work together to improve conditions.

They also claim that the Considered ethos is being brought into their general operations, rather than continuing as a distinct product line. I think this is positive and negative: positive because it means their entire product range will (eventually) become more environmentally friendly, and that it recognises the principle that environmentally friendly can improve their bottom line; negative because it will become harder for the conscious consumer to determine which products are good for the environment, and which ones aren’t.

I also think it’s a shame because it means it’s harder to “vote with your dollars” – at least with the Considered line, a purchase pretty clearly indicates that you care about the environmental benefits of the product. If I buy the next Air Zoom Affinity, am I buying it because I want the next Air Zoom Affinity, or because I care about the environment?

In steps the cynic

For a giant like Nike to be developing an agenda that, on the surface at least, is very promising and progressive is great to see. But that’s when my cynicism kicks in. How real is all of this? How much of this is just marketing spin, and how much is real progress? Why will it take a whole 5 years to clean up just 30% of the supply chain? And so on…

The Clean Clothes Campaign includes this tidbit in their press release relating to Oxfam’s Offside! report:

Sportswear is big business and brands like Nike, Reebok, adidas, Puma, ASICS and FILA make big profits and spend hundreds of millions of Euro on marketing and sponsorship of big-name athletes. Meanwhile, the Asian workers who make the sneakers and sports gear are doing it tough. They struggle to meet their families’ basic needs and many are unable to form or join unions without discrimination, dismissal or violence.

Makes you wonder what would happen if they funneled a few percent of their sponsorship budgets towards solving the issue – would we see faster progress?

What to do?

So I’m left with a dilemma. Do I go for a pair of shoes I don’t like but know their ethically OK? Do I risk $200 on a pair of shoes I can’t try on or check out? Or do I give Nike the benefit of the doubt and support their efforts to clean up their act?

I’m still undecided. If you have any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them…

P.S. as some of you know I’ve been interested in ethical clothing and footwear for some time. In my reading travels I’ve recently found Nau – I read about them in Fast Company. Very cool – worth checking out. I’d really like to try on their cleanline jacket and courier windshirt. If only they had a store in oz…

Threadless are now producing their own tees. They claim they’re “sweatshop free” (though no indication of any accreditation or auditing scheme) and that they’re a blend of the two different types of tees they’ve used in the past – which sounds tops (the American Apparel ones were too thin, the Fruit of the Loom were too boxy).

My favourite t-shirt company just got better 🙂

Trademark madness

Oxfam Australia: Starbucks opposes Ethiopia’s plan to trademark specialty coffee names that could bring farmers an estimated $116 million annually: “Starbucks opposes Ethiopia’s plan to trademark specialty coffee names that could bring farmers an estimated $116 million annually”

Ethiopia attempts to trademark the names of its renowned specialty coffees that giant’s like Starbucks use to get premium prices in their stores. Starbucks intervenes and blocks the application. These names belong to the people of Ethiopa – Starbucks has no right.

I hope that Oxfam puts together a good online action for this – I’m sure they’d get a lot of support.

ActNow! website launch

Part of the reason I was in Melbourne yesterday was to attend the launch of the ActNow! website.

The website was created by the Inspire Foundation as a means for young people to express their views and have a say on the issues that are important to them.

WWF-Australia is one of the many, many partner organisations (101 at the time of writing) providing actions and information for the site. So far we only have one action up there, but more are in the works.

Some friends of mine at Massive Interactive had a big part to play in developing the site. It looks great and there’s lots of cool features for both the people acting, and for those of us providing information and support. Worth checking out even if you’re not a youngen’ 😉

It was also great to talk to the team behind it. The development of the site has very much been driven by young people volunteering their time. It’s clear that the team at Inspire have learnt a lot, and some of the things we chatted about last night were applicable to anyone encouraging people to act on issues. I’ll hopefully be able to catch up with them soon to learn more.

Update: Leisa, one of the team who worked on the project, has a great write-up on the site and the development process. So does Damian.

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