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Going green

December 24, 2009

A new German study of organic and ethical fashion shows the growing industry isn't all it's cracked up to be - especially when it comes to verifying adherence to "green" standards.

three models wearing t-shirts
These shirts look good - but how were they made?Image: AP

Recent years have seen a boom in the the organic, socially conscious textile industry. Small ethical t-shirt companies are shooting up left and right, and even big producers like Hennes & Mauritz have jumped on the bandwagon, making a line of organic cotton clothes.

In light of this, the German non-profit organization Suedwind tested these companies to see if they delivered what they advertised - and to what extent. Questionnaires were sent out to 240 companies whose ecologically or socially conscious products can be ordered online in Germany. Just 23 companies - 17 of them German - responded.

Verification is an issue

Suedwind said the aim of the study was to see how closely the companies complied with generally accepted industry standards for ethical production, such as widespread International Labor Organization conventions and fair-trade labelling rules, among others.

Fair Trade logo
Fairtrade is one of several groups out to verify compliance

"Many companies call themselves green, or ethical or fair," said Dominic Kloos, who ran the Suedwind study. "But are they really ethical or ecological? That's what we wanted to find out."

Kloos acknowledged that the low rate of response meant the study shows "tendencies" rather than giving a full picture of the industry. But overall, despite progress, he said the results showed that "many … complied with some of the most important standards, but not with all of them."

Seven 'green' criteria

The Suedwind study examined seven criteria, from checking ecological standards (are all components certified organic?) and social ones (does the company comply with the "Clean Clothes Campaign" code of conduct throughout its entire production chain?). It also looked at verification measures, transparency levels, raw materials sourcing, and the chemical content of the clothes, among others.

"The main outcome is that ecological standards are easier to verify than social ones," Kloos said.

While environmental standards can be verified by certification agencies, social standards can only be upheld if a company is a member of a so-called multi-stakeholder initiative, or if they are a cooperative, "which means the work standards are in the workers' hands," Kloos said.

Overall, the study showed that 69 percent of the companies said they fulfilled basic social conventions, while 22 percent in accordance with listed ecological standards. Of those, 35 percent had external verification procedures for ecological standards -- but only four of the 23 companies said they externally verified social standards.

Raising the bar

Kloos acknowledged that his job is to "raise the bar very high" when shining a light on company behaviors. But the fact that eco-clothing companies exist at all is a good sign for the future of the textile industry: "It's great that these niche companies exist - they put pressure on the market, so that bigger companies, like H&M, come out with organic clothing," he said.

Ultimately, though, we don't need to improve social and ecological standards on a voluntary basis, Kloos said. "What we need is legally binding rules."

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Sam Edmonds