E / Fashion

Demystifying Ecolabels

Photo source choice.com.au

Photo source choice.com.au

New Year’s Eve has an extra special meaning for me as on this day last year I welcomed my beautiful daughter to the world. Her name starts with an “E”, which also happens to be the letter I am tackling this week.

This article explores the universe of ecolabels, of which there are believed to be about 11,000 in existence. ecolabelindex.com, the largest global online directory, currently tracks over 400 ecolabels in close to 200 countries. I am sure you can come up with at least 10 – anything from “100% organic” to “GMO-free” to “CO2-neutral”. Ecolabels range from more established ones like “FSC certified” for timber products to more eclectic ones such as “dolphin-friendly tuna”.

Much of this proliferation has occurred over the past 20 years, driven by activist campaigning and consumer demand for more sustainable products. But did ecolabels achieve the broader goal of making our consumption more sustainable?

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to hear a detailed expose on ecolabels by a New Zealand researcher Pavel Catska. His assessment was sobering. Despite a multitude of ecolabels out there, this has yet to achieve a meaningful change across the board.

He was nonetheless optimistic, expressing confidence that, in the long run, ecolabels that are more stringent and well-governed (better managed and more transparent), will bring good results to everyone involved – from producers of raw materials to consumers and, not least, to companies who adopt them.

A label is where one usually looks first to get an idea about the sustainability of a garment. At the moment, ecolabels are purely voluntary and there is generally a poor level of understanding of what lies behind them.

Just a few days ago, I was trying on an off-white cotton dress by a leading Australian designer Veronika Maine, which brandished an “ethical clothing” label. I enquired with a shop assistant what was meant by that claim. At first, she did not understand what I was talking about, so after I showed her the label, she mumbled something about equality in the workplace for women. Hmm.

When it comes to clothing, the most commonly used ecolabels refer to their environmental and social credentials. However, beware of the pitfalls. For example, the FairTrade status may only apply to the manner in which the raw material was produced, and not the manufacturing process. Similarly, the cotton may be organic, but not fair-trade or carbon-neutral.

The most comprehensive and stringent ecolabels at the moment are arguably Cradle to Cradle for sustainable design and Oeko-Tex 100 plus standard for textiles. That may explain why they are not so well known nor widely adopted. MADE-BY is the first initiative in the fashion industry to look at the entire supply chain, and its partner brands include G-star, Komodo and Little Feet.

So how should we treat ecolabels? I still think they are a good thing, and that over time they will become more streamlined and better regulated. And I also tend to agree with Lucy Siegle, the author of “To Die For”, who advocates mandatory, rather than voluntary, labeling, which would empower consumers to get all the facts behind the label.

For now, Happy New Year 2013!

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