While certifications are often viewed as the hallmark of a brand who takes sustainability seriously, are they everything they’re cracked up to be? The best are far from perfect, and the worst are downright counterproductive according to Ana Kristianson.

Sometimes a question or discussion hits the nail on the head. Comments and opinions then follow freely. One such example was when I recently asked this question on Linkedin: ”Are certifications bullshit?” I knew before I posted it that this would stir things up, but I had no idea it would go viral and have such fiery engagement in the comments field.

The backstory of my post is that in the past couple of months, I’ve had some discussions with our clients, suppliers and manufacturers. Most of them are saying certifications are indeed “bullshit”: That they give you nothing but empty promises, end consumers don’t actually know what they stand for, the price is too high with virtually “nothing” in return, and manufacturers are “forced” to get them.

This near-unanimous agreement caught me off guard. While I was aware of existing challenges, I had always seen certifications as a positive and reassuring aspect of sustainability practices.

Now, however, I found myself uncertain. So, naturally I wanted industry experts to “pitch in” on the situation. Below is my conclusion, based on the several hundred comments my post received.

The reality behind certifications

All certifications are rooted in a good intention. The outcome and action, however, is varies greatly. There are “good certifications” and “bad certifications,” some are managed very well, others not so much. Some organizations/certification bodies are doing a lot of very valuable and necessary work within the supply chain, others are more like a box ticking exercise.

There’s also an abundance of certifications and many overlap. This creates a burdensome situation for suppliers and manufacturers who face constant audits consuming both time and financial resources. Consolidation would simplify things for consumers, brands, retailers, suppliers and manufacturers and give them more legitimacy. Streamlining them would arguably be a sustainable action in itself.

Overall, certifications are expensive. This prices smaller organizations out of using certified fabrics and manufacturers, and then of course gives a market advantage to the bigger brands who can afford to use them. This creates a system that is also unfair.

Standardization was supposed to help the entire supply chain

Certifications are created to give value. If your intent is to build sustainability into your brand, you will need assurances. This will in turn cost you, either by your own working hours or by getting an external resource to work for you.

Certifications may or may not be made to have a “return on investment” for the end customer, but instead give us the opportunity to standardize the control of the supply chains.

Most of the industry certifications are important and essential to a more sustainable way of operating in the apparel industry and ensure a more equitable and better way of life for the staff, the sewers, the vendors and more… as there a third party checks to ensure that these companies are up to code.

They are also needed in today’s situation where we work with a constant lack of knowledge and information about the materials and processes we utilize and the impacts we create through our supply chains and businesses. We underestimate the amount of knowledge, energy, time and money it takes to have full control of our supply chains – certifications are there to aid this pain.

Certificates are confusing

But let’s face it: There are too many certifications out there. Consumers often confuse one certification with another, and are generally uninterested in them.

There is also a huge amount of confusion and misunderstanding among brands and retailers regarding what the certifications actually mean and what part of the supply chain they refer to:

  • Does the certificate refer to good working conditions for the workforce?
  • Or the environmental impact?
  • Is it reliable or just a marketing instrument?

 

People should not be required to take an “encyclopedia of textile certificates” with them when going shopping in order to make their decision.

Certifications should be CLEAR, not CLEVER. They are often used as a signal to help consumers understand the brand they are supporting, and make decision about if they want to buy from it. However, the majority of certifications are clever…not CLEAR.

Who pays the bill?

It is also extremely hard to calculate the ROI of investing in and using certifications. The pressure gets pushed down the supply chain where growers/suppliers/producers/manufacturers and even brands are pushed to implement “certifications,” but who pays the biggest price?

It seems that the furthest down you go in the supply chain, the manufacturers bear the cost. In other words, brands push the certification costs to manufacturers. Manufacturers get frustrated because they have to do the work and pay the bill, but don’t necessarily get compensated for it.

From a brand perspective, certificates are very helpful. It can save you time, energy and money to find the right materials and partners to operate sustainable practices. However you still have to do your own due diligence and get in-depth information. The closer you work with your suppliers the better. So, some questions brands need to ask are:

  • What are your intentions with certifications?
  • What is your intended use, what is the value for you and the customer and how do they match it with their services?
  • What flaws do you see in certifications/labels? You need to understand their limitations.

There are no perfect certifications

You do not need certification to do things right but working with the right ones will help. Those with simpler, more linear supply chains (few products, few material sources etc) can do much of this work themselves and build credibility through radical transparency.

Real sustainability is giving correct working conditions, paying fair wages, adapting the factories to be more efficient in terms of energy and water usage. It is not paying a lot of money to have “a seal” that should guarantee the same standards for everyone in every country, but does exactly the opposite.

There are some certifications mentioned above that do great work, such as Oeko-Tex, GOTS, Bluesign and ZCHC’s work on MRSLs. Neither are these “perfect,” but they are worth mentioning. By embracing complexity, fostering transparency, and prioritizing impact over symbolism, stakeholders can pave a way towards a more equitable and environmentally sustainable future.

It is time to move beyond the limitations of certifications and cultivate a holistic approach to sustainability assurance—one that empowers stakeholders, fosters collaboration, and drives meaningful change at every level of the supply chain.

 

Lead image: iStock

SUSTON
jonathan.eidse@norragency.com
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