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.

Collaborative purchasing of eco-friendly fabrics

I’ve been speaking to Rise Up Productions about manufacturing our first range. One of the challenges is that labels need to commit to spend a lot of money up front on eco-friendly/Fairtrade textiles and fabrics – as the minimums for these are quite high (e.g. 300 m2 for a single fabric).

Rise Up is trying to aggregate demand for such fabrics to enable smaller labels, such as myself, to be able to access such fabrics more affordably, and in smaller quantities.

I spotted this press release in a trade publication the other day, but couldn’t find it online, so I’m reproducing it here to help “spread the word”.

Opportunity to collaboratively purchase eco-friendly fabrics

Rise Up Productions is looking for designers interested in working collaboratively to source eco-friendly fabrics from around the globe.

Managing director Bronwyn Darlington said she hoped designers would collectively purchase eco-friendly fabrics to secure more reasonable pricepoints.

“By buying collectively, we might be able to introduce these fabrics into the market,” she said.

And she stressed the fabric sources she used offered a high quality that could easily be sought by after by local designers.

“We don’t deal with people who are working with experimental handicrafts, we are working with those who have been supplying Europe for years,” she said.

“The fabrics perform excellently and offer exceptional printability. We are also able to specify exactly the make-up of the fabric and we look at every step in the production process.”

She stressed volume buying was essential to secure an affordable price.

“Sustainable fabrics are not the cheapest,” she said.

Darlington is also determined to build a profit-for-purpose business creating clothing labels that have a minimal environmental footprint.

For example, pyjamas in the Rise Up range are made in Australia from Fair Trade certified cotton from India and any profit from their sale will be put towards an Oxfam donation. Similarly, sales of hoodies in the collection will lead to profits going to Opportunity International.

“The concept is eco-sustainability and a minimum footprint and that we give all our profit away,” Darlington said.

She plans to soon launch a second higher end fashion label called Ayoka.

Darlington suggested the significant consumer spending dollar was larger than funds competed for by charities.

“The consumer dollar is much bigger and we need to think more creatively to channel those funds into worthy projects,” she said.