Certifying Sustainable Textiles Throughout the Supply Chain
Textiles aren’t just hanging in our wardrobes; we use them to sleep on, to keep us warm, to cover our furniture and to use in hobbies like crochet. But producing and processing textiles can have significant negative impacts on the world.
For example, making a single cotton t-shirt requires an estimated 2,700 liters of fresh water, the equivalent of what one person would drink in two-and-a-half years. Due to processes like dyeing, textile production is also estimated to cause about 20% of the world’s freshwater pollution. The fashion industry specifically is responsible for about 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, as well as increasing volumes of microplastics.
With the growth of fast fashion, people are buying more fabrics and throwing them away – just 1% of clothes are recycled after use. At the same time, there is growing concern about the environmental and social impacts of fast fashion in particular, and consumers are demanding more transparency around the products they buy.
In response, many companies are using organic fibers and switching to more sustainable practices, both from an environmental and social perspective. The responsible production of clothing can greatly benefit people and nature, and one way to support this is by applying standards.
“Companies and consumers look for this kind of declaration and traceability,” said Ulrike Kisteneich, Scheme Manager at Kiwa BCS. “We all know that waste is a big problem nowadays, recycling could be solution to reduce the amount.”
Certification builds trust in sustainable textiles
As a textile and apparel engineer, Ulrike has worked in the auditing business for a long time, primarily auditing sustainability standards and programs. She is responsible for the Textile Department at Kiwa BCS in Germany. When she joined the company, Kiwa’s services focused on organic food, agricultural products and animal welfare, but not yet textiles.
Applying her background in the field, Ulrike started the first project to obtain accreditation for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). “Textile was not at all integrated in the Kiwa schemes when I joined,” she recalled. “Our first step into textile certification was with GOTS, that is a standard certifying the processing steps organic fibers such as cotton, wool and hemp.”
Organic fibers are natural fibers that are grown according to the principles of organic agriculture. This means no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are used in their production.
GOTS is the world’s leading manufacturing standard for textiles made from these fibers, and it includes both environmental and social criteria for the whole textile supply chain. To carry the GOTS label, a product must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibers, and to have the label grade ‘organic’ it has to contain at least 95% certified organic fibers.
Going beyond organic: The Textile Exchange
Building on Kiwa’s textile portfolio, Ulrike and the team worked on obtaining accreditation for a set of standards from the Textile Exchange – a non-profit organization that is “committed to climate action to achieve more purposeful production, from the beginning of the supply chain.”
The Textile Exchange offers eight standards. The Content Claim Standard (CCS) is not a standard in its own right but is used as a basis for the other seven, namely:
- Recycled Claim Standard (RCS)
- Organic Content Standard (OCS)
- Global Recycled Standard (GRS)
- Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)
- Responsible Mohair Standard (RMS)
- Responsible Alpaca Standard (RAS)
- Responsible Down Standard (RDS)
In March 2022, Kiwa BCS was accredited for the RCS and OCS. “With these standards, we are now able to audit and certify the whole supply chain, from the first processing step up to the trading companies and the consumer,” Ulrike said.
To obtain OCS certification, a company has to provide proof of the percentage of organic material they use in their textiles. For example, they might claim a pair of trousers which contains 70% organic cotton and 30% elastane, or a t-shirt with 100% organic cotton. Following an audit with appositive result, companies are certified and can claim that organic content.
Similarly, companies can use RCS to claim the content of their textiles, but in this case, it is the percentage of recycled material they use. That recycled content must be defined as pre-consumer or post-consumer waste. For example, they might mix 50% raw cotton with 50% material recycled from waste.
“Recycled material can be anything, like cotton, wool or polyester,” Ulrike explained. “But it is not allowed to produce extra waste with the aim of recycling This standard helps to ensure that this does not happen.”
The journey from field to consumer
The textile supply chain is very long, and Kiwa BCS is now accredited to certify according to OCS and RCS from the first processing step onwards. “the process begins begin at the cotton field or feeding the sheep elevation and finishes with a t-shirt or a blanket,” Ulrike said. “During these processing steps you will find spinners, weavers, manufacturers, and traders.”
In addition to OCS and RCS, Kiwa is accredited to offer certification to the four material-specific Textile Exchange standards, but excluding the first processing step. “It's the same principle but a different material,” Ulrike said. “You claim the quantity of a specific material is found in your towel or blanket or in your trousers, for example.”
Wherever the company is in the supply chain, the certification process begins with a non-binding offer and then a contract from Kiwa. With that concluded, the auditor carries out the inspection process. In the case of GOTS, this can include a visit to the ginnery where the fibers are produced. With a report drawn up, a second expert at Kiwa determines whether a certificate can be issued. And following certification, the company can use the relevant label on their product.
“We are at the beginning of our work with the full range of standards,” she said. “We obtained accreditation as a result of having so much demand for these certifications.