Shopping in the 21st Century has become a complicated process. For those of us who are committed to ethical fashion and beauty, choosing which brands to shop with can be a challenge. There are so many different aspects to consider, from environmental impacts to workers’ rights. But the idea of carrying out in-depth research every time we need to stock up on moisturiser or buy a new pair of jeans is exhausting.
That’s where certification schemes come in. While there isn’t, sadly, one single label that can tell you whether an item reaches every ethical standard, there are several different schemes out there that give us a quick way to identify whether the brands we shop with share our values.
Why so many different labelling schemes?
Not everyone has the same priorities when it comes to ethical fashion and beauty. Some put more emphasis on animal rights, some on reducing the use of plastic or carbon emissions, some on workers’ rights, fair pay and safe working conditions. The different certification schemes out there have been developed in response to these varied concerns, as well as addressing some of the specific needs of different sectors.
Do certification schemes really mean a product is ethical?
Each scheme has different criteria for assessment. Some involve a robust audit and verification process, while others are voluntary membership schemes that rely on the honesty of the companies they work with. Some certifications only cover a single issue, such as animal testing or organic materials. Others have a wider remit and look more holistically at environmental, social, and economic issues.
It is important to note too that not being certified won’t necessarily mean that a brand is not meeting the criteria for ethical fashion or beauty. Most certification schemes involve a lot of reporting and a registration fee, which can mean they are out of reach for smaller businesses. However, many smaller brands have strong ethical values and may actually be going considerably further than their larger counterparts, despite not having any certifications to their name. It is always worth reading into statements made by individual brands to see how they are prioritising people and the planet, as well as profit.
However, with so much greenwashing out there, third-party certifications can certainly act as a useful indicator that the ethical claims made by a brand are backed up by some form of independent verification.
Which certification schemes you especially look out for will depend on your own values and criteria for ethical shopping. We’ve listed the main certification schemes you may come across here, with information on what each of them covers and what companies must do in order to join or be certified.
As you might expect from animal rights campaigning group, PETA, their globally recognised Beauty without Bunnies certification scheme is aimed at protecting animals. Used by cosmetic and beauty brands, PETA’s label certifies that a product is cruelty-free, which means it hasn’t been tested on animals.
To use the Beauty without Bunnies label, companies must sign a legally binding assurance that their products and their raw ingredients aren’t tested on animals. However, PETA does not carry out any audits to check that companies are keeping their promises.
There are two levels of certification available:
- Animal-test free is the basic level, assuring shoppers that none of the ingredients in products carrying this label have been tested on animals.
- Animal-test free and vegan goes a step further, recognising companies whose entire product lines are free from animal products, as well as not using animal testing.
The Leaping Bunny label was launched in 1996 and is overseen by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics, which operates in the US and Canada, although they also certify brands from outside North America.
The Leaping Bunny standard applies to cosmetics and household products. To be certified, companies cannot test their products on animals and all the raw materials must also be cruelty-free. Companies must recommit to the standard every year and agree to occasional third-party audits.
Run by US-based charity, Vegan Action, the Certified Vegan logo is used globally to indicate items that don’t contain any animal products or animal by-products, and are not tested on animals.
Goods carrying the label must also not use animal products in their manufacture – for example, for food items or cosmetics containing sugars, these sugars must not have been refined through bone char. For clothing, there must be no use of fabrics or materials taken from animals, such as silk, leather, wool, feathers, or shells.
Companies pay an annual licencing fee and must show that their certified products meet the criteria on animal testing and raw materials. Vegan Action do not carry out audits.
The Vegan Society are based in the UK and launched their Vegan Trademark in 1990. The trademark can be used on anything from food to cosmetics to clothing. Products must not contain any animal products and testing on animals is also forbidden. The manufacturing process must be vegan-friendly.
To be certified, companies go through an application process, which includes payment of a service fee. Individual products are certified rather than the full company. The licence lasts for either 12 or 24 months, at which point the licence must be renewed. The Vegan Society do not carry out audits.
RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. As the name suggests, this certification scheme is aimed at regulating palm oil, which is known for its links to deforestation. Palm oil is found in many foods and is also a common ingredient in cosmetics.
The global standard is monitored by accredited certifying bodies, who interpret the umbrella Principles and Criteria of the standard for individual countries. These criteria are reassessed every five years and put in place requirements for environmental and human rights protections in the production of palm oil.
There are two different certification systems. One is aimed at the growers of palm oil, and the other at the supply chain. Third-party verification is required before certification is granted and growers are re-assessed every 5 years. Recognising the role of smallholders in the palm oil industry, the RSPO has a dedicated pathway for small growers to become certified.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
The Rainforest Alliance’s frog logo is a familiar sight on many products worldwide. This certification scheme is based on what the organisation refers to as the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental. As well as covering groceries and cosmetics, the Rainforest Alliance certify tourist businesses and wood-based products.
Both farmers and those further up the supply chain can be certified. Small farmers can form a group to be covered under one certification. The use of pesticides is strongly discouraged (but not banned). GMO crops cannot be certified but can be grown on certified farms, although this is also discouraged. Deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats are forbidden, and the standard also protects human rights, including banning child labour and enforcing a living wage for workers.
The standard is enforced by a system of third-party audits.
Non-GMO Project Verified
The Non-GMO Project Verified label is offered by NSF International, who are responsible for developing global certification schemes to protect public health. This certification scheme is used mainly for food products, but you will also find it on cosmetics, bath products, vitamins, and supplements.
The label indicates that products have passed the NSF International’s verification process and are free of genetically modified organisms. The verification process can include lab testing for high-risk ingredients. There is also an audit system to ensure compliance along the supply chain.
The International Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association run the Natrue certification scheme for cosmetics and other body care products. They have two different logos available, depending on whether the product contains a significant amount of plant/animal-based ingredients or not.
Those that are made mainly from plant or animal ingredients can use the Natrue Organic label. They must be made from 95% organically grown materials, be free from harmful chemicals, and may not be tested on animals.
Products that are made mainly from ingredients that can’t be certified as organic, such as clay or salts, can use the Natrue Natural label instead. This certifies that products are made from natural ingredients, are free from harmful chemicals, and are not tested on animals.
Soil Association Certified
The Soil Association are one of the official certifying bodies in the UK that can label products as organic. As well as food, their certification scheme covers beauty products and naturally derived textiles, such as cotton, linen, hemp, silk, and wool.
The Soil Association work with other internationally recognised certification schemes, including COSMOS and the Global Organic Textiles Standard. They are mainly concerned with how raw materials are grown, restricting the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers. GMOs are forbidden, as are artificial hormones for animals.
To achieve the organic certification run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), raw ingredients must be grown without the use of restricted synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides. The use of GMOs and hormones are also banned. The land used to grow crops must be free of the restricted chemicals for at least three years before harvest.
Products, including cosmetics, can be labelled as either organic (if they contain at least 95% organic ingredients) or made with organic (for those that contain at least 70% organic raw materials). Using the logo without meeting this requirement can result in fines.
The internationally recognised COSMOS Standard is used to certify cosmetics that are made with natural or organic ingredients. To become certified, companies put their products through an application process that includes an audit visit. Occasional audits are then carried out on an ongoing basis.
There are four different labelling schemes available from COSMOS. Two cover the raw materials used to make cosmetics and two cover the cosmetic products themselves. The four labels are:
- COSMOS Approved: for natural raw materials that cannot be classed as organic, such as clay or minerals.
- COSMOS Certified: for ingredients that are derived from plants or animals and are produced organically.
- COSMOS Natural: for cosmetics made without harmful chemicals, GMOs, and animal testing but that contain too high a percentage of ingredients such as water, clay, or minerals to be labelled organic
- COSMOS Organic: for cosmetics made with at least 95% organic materials, not tested on animals, and free from harmful chemicals and GMOs.
The Global Organic Textile Standard
Certifying the textiles used by the fashion industry, as well as other fabric goods like home furnishings, the Global Organic Textile Standard identifies fabrics made with organic plant or animal fibres. To qualify, textiles must contain a minimum of 70% organically grown fibres. There are restrictions on the chemicals that can be used for processing and dyeing, as well as guidelines around environmental impact and water usage.
GOTS do not look specifically at the raw materials but instead at the processes used to turn them into fabric. Factories and manufacturing plants seeking to become certified go through an application process that includes site inspections. Additional audits may be carried out on an ongoing basis.
The remit of globally recognised certification scheme, OEKO-TEX, is to monitor the use of chemicals in textile production that harm human health and the environment. They offer several different certification schemes to identify finished textiles that do not contain chemicals which are harmful to human health. Some of the labels go further to look more holistically at the environmental and social impact of textile production, including:
- OEKO-TEX® STeP: textiles carrying this certification have been manufactured in factories that use safe, environmentally friendly processes.
- OEKO-TEX® Made in Green: textiles carrying this label have been manufactured using sustainable processes by workers whose rights and wellbeing are protected.
- OEKO-TEX® Detox to Zero: as part of a campaign launched by Greenpeace, this certification recognises textile producers who are working to reduce and eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals throughout their manufacturing process.
SA8000® Standard Certified
Social Accountability International (SAI) are the organisation behind the globally recognised SA8000® standard, which can be used by companies working in any sector to demonstrate their dedication to the fair treatment of their workers. It includes a system of independent audits to ensure that companies are keeping their promises.
For the fashion industry, which has become well-known for the mistreatment of garment workers, becoming SA8000® certified indicates a commitment to good working practices. This includes paying a fair wage, caps on working hours, no child or forced labour, proper health and safety precautions, and protecting the rights of workers to organise.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certified is the labelling scheme used by Fair Trade USA. Individual standards are in place for each different industry, recognising the unique challenges of the various sectors. Independent audits are carried out.
For clothing and home goods, there is a dedicated Factory Standard. This puts criteria in place for workers rights, health and safety, fair pay, and environmental management. Buyers must pay a Fair Trade Premium that is used by the producers to invest in improvement programmes. Buyers must also pay a fair price – either the minimum set by Fair Trade USA or the market price, whichever is higher. The growing of raw materials is covered by the Agricultural Standard.
Guaranteed Fair Trade
The World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) certifies companies that meet their criteria for fairly traded products, under the Guaranteed Fair Trade labelling scheme.
To qualify, companies must treat workers fairly by complying with the International Labour Organisation’s conventions and must also work to the 10 principles laid out by the WFTO. These include protections for workers’ rights, paying a fair price for goods, working to reduce poverty, and environmental management.
Fair Wear Foundation Certified
The Fair Wear Foundation works with fashion brands and clothing manufacturers to tackle labour conditions and poverty for garment workers. Brands can join as members to work towards enforcing 8 labour standards in the factories where their clothes are made. These include paying a living wage, no forced or child labour, reasonable working hours, good health and safety practices, no discrimination, and the right to organise.
Brands can join as basic members if the standards are not yet in place, and the Fair Wear Foundation will work with them to meet the criteria. The Foundation also run a complaint line for workers and carry out an annual Brand Performance Check on all their members.
1% for the Planet
1% for the Planet was founded in 2002 by Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard and Craig Matthews, founder of Blue Ribbon Flies. It is now a global movement, bringing together brands and individuals to raise money for projects that protect the environment.
For businesses, membership is open to companies that commit to donating the equivalent of 1% of their gross income to a non-profit partner working to protect the environment. The donation can include both money and donations of time, expertise, or promotional support. 1% for the Planet independently verify all donations.
Plastic Pollution Coalition
As their name indicates, the Plastic Pollution Coalition are concerned with tackling plastic waste, with the aim of reducing the usage of single-use plastics. They bring together a wide range of companies and organisations across 75 countries. Companies can join as members if they commit to working towards eliminating single-use disposable plastics, both within their own organisations and more broadly.
The Climate Neutral certification can be used by all sorts of different companies to indicate that they offset their carbon emissions. To become certified, companies calculate their annual carbon footprint and then offset this through ‘carbon credits’: 1 credit to offset 1 tonne of carbon emissions.
Companies purchase carbon credits by investing in offset projects. Projects are first verified by Carbon Neutral to ensure they meet the criteria for suitable carbon offset.
Companies that are certified as B Corporations are those that balance profits with ethical values. To join the scheme, companies undergo an assessment process that looks at their company’s entire environmental and social impact. This includes workers’ rights and benefits, supply chains, charitable giving, governance, and impact on the wider community and environment.
Companies that become certified B Corporations must score a minimum of 80 points in the assessment process. They are reassessed every three years.
With so many different certification schemes out there, it can be difficult to know what each label means. We hope this guide has demystified the various labelling schemes and given you an idea of which ones to look out for when you are shopping for brands that meet your own ethical values.