How Green are My Clothes?

By CWR 18 April, 2011

There is a growing numbers of eco labels and associations promoting green clothes, China Water Risk summarizes (although by no means exhaustive) some of the best-known.

A global and local movement: Global initiatives like The Sustainable Water Group and Clean by Design to more localized initiatives like The EU Flower and the HK based Redress.

A growing numbers of eco labels and associations have been established to identify and promote textiles, apparel and footwear that have been produced using environmentally and socially friendly practices. Below, China Water Risk provides a brief description (although by no means exhaustive) of some of the best-known. For several, we have drawn heavily from, Sustainable Solution Design Association, “Guidelines: a Handbook on the Environment for the Textile and Fashion Industry”

Sustainable Apparel Coalition

Major apparel and footwear manufacturers and retailers, environmental and labor groups, a government organization and a university research group have joined forces to launch a tool aimed at helping consumers and businesses figure out the environmental impact of clothing.

The Sustainable Apparel Association (SAC) started with 33 big-name brands including Patagonia, Adidas, Nike, and Timberland, retailers Walmart, JCPenney’s, and Target, and well as Duke University, Environmental Defense Fund, and the EPA. Although initially limited to this group, the idea is to widen the global coalition later this year.

SAC will develop a comprehensive database to track the environmental impact of clothing at all levels of production, including manufacturing, distribution, and consumption. Eventually, the goal is for each garment to receive a sustainability score.

At the same time, the coalition will be looking for opportunities to improve social and environmental practices throughout the supply chain and promote technological innovation.

On its website, the coalition has posted a shared rationale:

  • Environmental and social challenges around the global apparel supply system affect the entire industry. These reflect systemic issues no company can solve alone.
  • Pre-competitive collaboration can accelerate improvement in environmental and social performance for the industry and reduce costs for individual companies.
  • This collaboration enables individual companies to focus more resources on product and process innovation.
  • Credible, practical, and universal standards and tools for defining and measuring environmental and social performance support the individual interests of all stakeholders.

Clean by Design

NRDC and The Council of Fashion Designers of America, are spearheading a multi-phased initiative called Clean By Design, which aims to revolutionize how the apparel industry operates, from fiber and dye selection to fabric sourcing to consumer care.

In phase one of the initiative, completed in 2007, NRDC reviewed factory performance in China and identified textile dyeing mills as major polluters.

In phase two, in 2008-9, NRDC experts audited five typical Chinese mills for use of water, materials, and energy. The goal was to find cost-saving methods that would increase efficiency and lower the factory’s footprint as well as to compile best practices for pollution prevention and efficiency opportunities. Phase two also led to identification of ten easy-to-implement best practices for textile mills that significantly reduce water, energy or chemical use and improve manufacturing efficiency.

Phase three, initiated in fall 2009, reached out to the fashion industry to galvanize concern about the impact of manufacturing and promote solutions. NRDC then established an advisory council of world-class designers and industry leaders.

Last year, NRDC began its final phase, which will culminate in the development of supply chain policy recommendations for multinational retailers, brands, designers and capacity building of China’s government officials via workshops, educational materials, and opportunities to work collaboratively.

NRDC emphasizes that all its best practices for responsible sourcing pay themselves back in less than a year. Multinational apparel retailers and brands, NRDC says, can reduce the footprint of their global supply chain by encouraging mills to adopt these best practices and reward those that do so with more business.

The Sustainable Water Group

In 1995, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) brought together global apparel and retail companies to develop and implement responsible practices around water use and wastewater discharge in textile and apparel supply chains.

Today this is a partnership of nine global apparel companies: Coldwater Creek Inc., The Gap Inc., H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB, JCPenney, Levi Strauss & Co., L.L.Bean Inc., Nike, Inc., Nordstrom, Inc. and Timberland.

The Sustainable Water Group has developed Water Quality Guidelines that aim to mitigate the potential harmful impacts and business risks faced by companies operating globally, where regulations and enforcement can vary dramatically from country to country.

Through this working group, BSR has worked with member companies to select and facilitate visits to factories to conduct informal surveys related to water use and discharge. The overall objective of the comparative study among factories was to understand and characterize the dynamics among global brands and their suppliers.


Redress is a Hong Kong-based non-profit with a mission to drive positive environmental and social change in the fashion industry in Asia. Redress acts via sustainable fashion shows, exhibitions, competitions, seminars and media outreach.

It collaborates with a wide range of stakeholders, including fashion designers, garment and textile manufacturers, retailers, schools and universities, multilateral organisations, government, NGOs, financial institutions and media organizations.

With its partners, Redress works to enhance, educate and enable the adoption of a more sustainable fashion industry.  Among the initiatives under development is a certification of recycled content in clothing, with the goal of reducing waste in the manufacturing process.

The EU Flower

The main purpose of the EU Flower is to stimulate both the supply and demand of products with a reduced environmental impact. The objective is to provide simple and reliable information for the consumer that a product has a reduced environmental impact.

All producers and importers who market their products throughout the member states of the European Union and in Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein may use the Scheme. The aim of the criteria for receiving the eco-label is defined so that 5 to 30% of the products marketed will be able to meet them.

The specific criteria are defined according to the stages in the life cycle of the products taking into consideration the most essential environmental problems. In the case of textiles the focus is put on a reduction of waste water pollution during the various links in the chain of production.

There are also requirements for emissions into the air, toxicology and the properties of the product when put into use. There are no requirements that the fibres should be organic. New criteria are laid down every third year, requiring that new applications be submitted proving that the product meet the new criteria. A fee will be charged when the new application is submitted. A fee will also be charged for the use of the label. The fees are set according to the turnover.

The Nordic Swan Label

The scheme was established in 1989 by the Nordic Council of Ministers, and both Nordic and non-Nordic organisations may apply for the Nordic Swan Label.

The aim of the label is to stimulate more environmentally friendly consumption by guiding the consumers in their purchases and to stimulate the development, marketing and use of products with less environmental impact than other similar products.

The criteria may involve all stages throughout the lifecycle and the aim of the criteria stipulated is that they are met by not more than one-third of the relevant products marketed in Scandinavia. Specific criteria are set for textiles throughout all the production stages including the end product.

No criteria stipulate that the fibres shall be organic but if organic fibres are used the criteria for wet treatment are easier to meet. An application fee and a fee based on turnover will be charged when using the label.

The EKO-label

This is the official quality label in the Netherlands awarded for organic production. The aim of the label is to meet the consumers’ demand for products that are produced according to the principle of sustainability.

Farming, animal breeding and forestry and also manufacturers of food products, textiles, trade associations and importers are involved in this scheme, which applies to textiles made of naturalfibres. These must be produced in accordance with the EU standards for organic production.

The products shall also meet a specific standard for sustainable textile production, which is a supplement to the EU regulations as it includes all the production processes from weaving to after treatment.

The criteria also consider the company’s internal environmental conditions, including the environmental management system, waste water discharge. The EKO label is the only eco-label that also includes criteria for working conditions.

Environmental Choice

A Canadian eco-label awarded to both products and services. The purpose of the Environmental Choice program is to encourage environmentally friendly development, to help consumers gain more knowledge about the environment and to give consumers a basis for identifying the most environmentally friendly products.

When prioritising product groups, focus is put on avoiding major, long-term environmental impact. The criteria are based on a life-cycle assessment although are often limited to one stage. The aim is to award the label to no more than 20% of the marketed products.

The label involves exclusively organic cotton textiles.  Apart from the organic growing standards and certification of the cotton, the product must be made from 100% organic cotton. In addition, it must not contain dyes. Only approved additives may be used for production.

Bra Miljöval (Good Environmental Choice)

This label was developed by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Swedish retailers . The programme means that the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation lends its name to approved products’ environmental properties.

In practice that the programme excludes certain chemicals such as laundry softeners for textiles. A general requirement is that the contents of the products must be easily degradable.

The requirements are divided into three categories covering fibres, manufacture and end product. The standards for the fibres are optional whereas the standards for the manufacturing and the end product must always be met. The aim is that 10-15% of marketed products shall qualify.

Oeko-Tex 100

This involves only standards for ready-to-sell products involving maximum concentrations of specific chemical agents and physical/chemical parameters. The permissible values depend on whether the products are in direct contact with the skin. Standards for baby products are especially rigorous.

Oeko-Tex is an international program but the label is primarily renowned throughout Europe. A new standard was developed in 1995 that involved production but so far only a few companies have been accredited by this certification.

Organic Crop Improvement Association

OCIA was established in 1984 by organic farmers to stimulate and improve organic farming. The association operates worldwide and certifies its members by awarding the label “certified organic”.

The label gives the consumer a guarantee that the product is organically grown. The certification applies to all the production stages and is adjusted at regular intervals e.g. to meet new knowledge.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements

IFOAM is not an eco-label, rather it is an NGO operating worldwide.  By sharing knowledge among members, the federation has gained considerable knowledge about organic farming, including also organic cotton growing.

The purpose is to inform the general public about organic farming and to establish an international guarantee for the quality of organic produce. IFOAM has issued detailed standards

both for the growing, manufacturing, packaging and storing of organic produce to ensure the quality and other certification programmes are accredited and evaluated from these standards.


The purpose of the label is to establish a reliable labelling of organic products making it simpler for consumers to improve their environmental performance. The KRAV programme is Swedish and both companies and products can be certified. The criteria involve the production stage and also manufacturing.

Requirements are also made for storage and distribution. The KRAV label is divided into two levels: A-products comprising 95% KRAV certified raw materials that may use the label “Organic” and B-products comprising 75-95% KRAV-certified raw materials. The B-products may not use the label “organic”.

The Blue Angel Label

The official German eco-label, which guides consumers on buying products that pollute less thanother comparable products. There are no requirements that products should be made from organic materials.

The focus of Blue Angel is on, for example, whether the product can be reused or is made from recycled materials and does not contain polluting agents, or as few polluting agents as possible

Author: CWR

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