Sustainable Fashion Brands Look To Certification As A Competitive Differentiator

With more brands touting sustainable initiatives as part of their brand stories, it might make you wonder: How can you distinguish a brand that’s truly committed to environmental efforts versus those who are just jumping on board with the feel-good angle?

Clothing retailers have been wrestling with this question themselves, and now, some are looking to various sustainability certifications as a solution to the problem. 

With certification from various independent organizations that focus on establishing and enforcing environmental quality standards, brands are then able to include a seal of approval on their products and packaging that act as social proof and validation for their efforts.

Modern shoppers want this: PEFC research shows that more than 80% of consumers want brands to use labels on products to communicate their responsible sourcing practices to them, while 54% say they consider certification labels the strongest form of proof that environmental and sustainable practices have been taken into account. 

A report from HBR indicates that following this approach of integrating certifications within brand messaging and on product labels is a powerful play at social influence as well.

Researchers found that when consumers were asked to pick either an eco-friendly snack bar or a traditional one, the sustainable option was selected twice as often when others were present.

Ana Andjelic, a retail strategy executive, also believes that the certification route makes sense for brands with sustainability built into their companies.

“Having a tangible and visible demonstration of what a company believes in is certainly a competitive edge, as it quickly communicates to consumers its values,” she said. 

“In a situation when a consumer is choosing between two equally viable options in terms of quality, convenience, and price, a sustainable certificate can tip the scales in favor of a company who has it versus the one who doesn’t.”

This is part of the motivation behind why more retail brands are looking to various types of sustainability certifications. With a seal of approval, they are able to meet this consumer demand and to distinguish themselves as committed partners in the push for more responsible manufacturing, labor practices, and more.

Clothing is one vertical in which this trend is on the rise.

Fashion brand Faherty, for example, has committed to BLUESIGN certification, which focuses on improvements around the manufacturing process of consumer textiles. Efforts conducted around BLUESIGN certification help ensure consumer safety, low-impact product manufacturing, and the responsible use of resources.

The brand leaned into this certification after learning about how it could help them reduce their carbon footprint around production, fabrics, and shipping materials to be an all-around more sustainable company. 

They’re not slowing down with these efforts, either.

“Looking ahead, we have plans to deepen our BLUESIGN commitment by further reducing our footprint associated with packaging and by incorporating more sustainable fabrics, like hemp,” said Kerry Faherty, Faherty’s Brand President.

“We look to BLUESIGN as a partner that knows some of the best practices around sustainability that can help us examine what we’re doing and recommend areas for improvement.”

Faherty isn’t the only clothing retailer leaning into the ethos of sustainability certification. European clothing brand Frances Austen is also hopping on board to make its clothing products more eco-friendly.

In their case, the brand’s cashmere yarn is spun by Italian cashmere producer Carriagi, which is Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified (meaning the materials meet international standards for safety and are free from harmful chemicals.)

Carriagi also has ISO 14001 Certification, which comes from the independent international organization ISO. ISO 14001 certification checks a brand’s consumption of water, energy, paper, and plastic, helps ensure that sustainable, environmentally-friendly standards are in place, and provides benchmarks from which a brand can measure its overall impact on the planet.

“Cariaggi measures its impact on the environment and has seen reduction of about 40% of energy consumption per unit of product produced, a reduction of approximately 10% of water, and a reduction of approximately 23% for carbon dioxide,” said Margaret Coblentz, Founder of Frances Austen.

Being able to tout these sustainability certifications adds a layer of easy-to-grasp social proof for the brand’s consumers.

There is one element around sustainability certification, however, that retail strategist Ana Andjelic believes consumers should be mindful of: Finding out what different certificates actually mean. 

She explained that too often consumers are unfamiliar with the requirements of different certification programs and therefore can’t accurately gauge a brand’s performance within those parameters.

As a result, companies can hide behind a sustainability index while lacking the transparency that would fully illustrate their performance.

“Having a certificate is a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step in corporations recognizing their responsibility to the environment and their own consumers,” she said. “We should all ask questions about those certificates, and make sure to hold the companies displaying them truly responsible for the implied standards.”

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I'm a contributor for Forbes covering retail, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer business. I'm particularly interested in news and trends within the fashion, beauty and l...