How To Be A Sustainable Apparel Business

Submitted by Mary Meade on January 13, 2020
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Green businesses adopt principles, policies, and practices that improve the quality of life for its customers, employees, communities, and planet. But just because a business claims it is “green” doesn’t mean it upholds the standards of social responsibility and sustainability. 

That’s where third-party certifications come in. A third-party certification serves to verify a business’s claims against their independently developed criterion. Such certifications reduce conflicts of interest and provide accountability to a business’s claims. Studies show that customers look for such things from businesses and are willing to pay more for high-quality products with safety and sustainability standards.

Green America's Green Business Certification is the leading trust mark for true green business practices. Our program recognizes businesses that excel in social and environmental responsibility, and the businesses found in our Green Pages directory have met or exceeded our certification standards to become leaders in the green economy. 

The Green Business Network at Green America recommends businesses consider both environmental and social justice issues when making decisions. To earn our certification, businesses must meet both standards of social and environmental responsibility. If you are interested in becoming a green business, we’ve highlighted a few important steps—and if you’ve reached these steps, check out the full requirements of our Apparel certification. You may be ready to apply. 

Environmental Responsibility 

"Green" or sustainable business make planet health a core part of their mission. The following steps are ways your apparel business can account for environmental responsibility in its operations. 

Use organic and sustainable materials or reclaimed and recycled fibers. 

Organic and sustainable materials are a requirement of our apparel businesses. That includes no genetically-modified cotton, which poses threats to the surrounding ecosystem through pesticides and a disruption of natural processes through a monoculture. Conversely, organic cotton and other base materials depend on healthy soil, which supports a healthy ecosystem. Organic cotton also greatly decreases the amount of harmful chemicals that workers and their communities are exposed to during the farming level of the supply chain.  

Additional fabrics made from post or pre-consumer recycled fibers are acceptable if the process does not result in toxic waste, and if the materials can be recycled or composted. Recycled clothing from thrift or second-hand stores is preferred. 

Humane and safe animal treatment. 

If animals are in your supply chain, they must be treated humanely, and your business must be transparent with this treatment. Transparency on where your animal derivatives come from is also a necessity. Transparency that is deeper than a simply a country of origin, but of the farm or village that the animal products come from is a sign of a radically honest business. 

Natural dyes and water-based adhesives. 

Our certification prefers natural dyes—most of our businesses use natural or low-impact dyes. Additionally, fiber reactive and phosphate-free dyeing processes are popular among our businesses due to their low-impact nature. Water-based adhesives are another way to ensure your business is truly sustainable. We do not accept practices that result in a toxic waste stream. Let us know if you are unsure if your dyes qualify, and if you are interested or in the process of transitioning to natural and low-impact dyes. 

Green office of facility. 

Not only do we count the steps in the supply chain, we are also interested in your business’s operational and administrative fronts. Our definition of a green office or facility includes reusing resources, recyclability, and maximum water and energy efficiency. We do not make a green office or facility a requirement of our certification process, since this is often achieved after several years of operation. 

Social Responsibility 

Triple bottom line businesses are not only kind to the planet, but kind to people—hence, social responsibility. The following points are a handful of ways your business can be an ethical one. 

Safe and fair labor. 

Whether you employ in the US or abroad, we expect you to offer your workers safe and healthy working conditions, a living wage, and transparency. Offshore factories are okay, if you can prove that working conditions are safe and meet both local and international labor standards, and have a long term relationship with the factory manager—additional accountability tools like Fairtrade, labor unions, SA8000, and GOTS will help you demonstrate this. Whether or not your business meets these specific criteria, we must see a commitment to sustainable labor and actionable goals to improve fairness and transparency in your supply chain. 

Uphold transparency. 

Transparency is weaker in the apparel industry than it should be—which is why we make it a requirement of our certification. Your business must clearly state the country of manufacture for each individual product. If all your products come from one country, you must state which country it is on the home page of your website. We also love to see businesses take the extra step in honoring the individual makers or communities with profiles next to their products; however, this is not a requirement, as we understand there may be various cultural reasons to refrain.  

Customers are increasingly interested in the people behind the product. According to Harvard Business Review, customers prefer products that are handmade or can see the person behind the product; compared to mass automation, the presence of a human signals intent, meaning, and effort. 

Diversity in Representation. 

Clothing, unlike other industries, is very personal. Style, color, fabric, graphic design—these choices in apparel are as varied as individual identities. Likewise, your business should represent diversity in body types and models whenever possible and offer a full spectrum of sizes to accommodate.  

Why Certify? 

In a sea of businesses claiming to be “conscious" or "natural," it’s hard for the average consumer to weed out the green from the greenwashed. Third-party certifications demonstrate that your business has withstood the vetting of an outside body and come out as a truly socially and environmentally responsible business. With certification, your customers will know your business has the credentials to back up claims of environmental and social responsibility—and they’ll wear your values on their sleeves. 

While these requirements are comprehensive, they are not definite. We love seeing businesses exceed these standards and take steps beyond certification to be even greener. In addition, our certification analyzes business practices and not individual products. We believe a sustainable future is also an ethical one and ensure the businesses that earn our certification reflect that. 

If you have met these criteria, you can view the full requirements for Apparel businesses at our Apparel certification standard and begin the process of becoming a member. 

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