Labels and norms

© Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis
There are currently no labels to guarantee both social and environmental sustainability in the garment trade. However, such labels can provide valuable help and guidance in determining these factors.

Attempting to provide social guarantees is highly ambitious. The short, random controls (often called audits) on which certification is based only provide a partial view of the daily life of seamstresses. What is really important is that companies adapt their long-term business models and policies at all levels, and that they work in close cooperation with trade unions, NGOs and other companies to make progress on a more sustainable path.

In the light of these facts, labels can indeed provide some guidance. However, a label only covers a single or a selection of aspects of production; in terms of both scope and credibility not all labels are equal, and there are important discrepancies. Therefore, if we only use labels to guide our decisions, it is fundamentally important to be aware of what aspects each one covers (or not), and to cast a critical eye on the control mechanisms involved. Public Eye has published a guide to labels (available in French or German) that shows how the various labels are organised, what criteria they use, and the control methods for each one.

We need to distinguish between the following types of labels:

Labels awarded to products

  • Some labels are awarded by independent bodies according to verified criteria such as GOTS (organic cotton), Max Havelaar (fair-trade cotton) and Oeko-Tex 100 (non-toxic products) etc.
  • Company labels, such as: Migros Eco, H&M Conscious Collection etc.

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) believes that certified product labels, where the criteria have been controlled by independent audits, are more credible than company labels. But most labels only take certain characteristics into account, for example only environmental aspects, such as the carbon footprint; the water consumption in raw materials used, the use of recycled materials or health-related aspects, such as information on the allergenic substances in the products.

Membership of an audit or verification initiative

  • Multi-stakeholder verification initiatives: Fair Labor Association, Fair Wear Foundation, Ethical Trading Initiative
  • Private initiatives: BSCI, GSCP

True responsibility in the textile and garment industries can only exist if companies agree to respect certain criteria throughout their work. The fact that companies market some products that respect stricter social and environmental norms is not a genuine sign of progress if the rest of their product line is made in catastrophically poor conditions.

CCC is convinced that multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI) that involve trade unions, NGOs and companies in the evaluations are more credible than private initiatives. Obviously, the fact of being involved in a multi-stakeholder initiative is not enough to guarantee that there will be no human or workers’ rights violations. Companies that are members of these initiatives do, however, generally have better instruments at their disposal to identify problems and put forward suggestions to implement appropriate remedial actions. CCC believes that in the garment industry, the Fair Wear Foundation currently provides the fullest range of such instruments.


SA 8000 certification is linked to corporate social responsibility. Although the SA 8000 norm takes many different aspects linked to job descriptions into account, the following issues remain:

  • Most major brands work with many different factories. Only some of these are SA 8000 certified (and this standard completely fails to take sub-contractors into account).
  • SA 8000 is based on factory audits. Therefore, the factory that supplies the products takes full responsibility (and costs) for the respect of social norms.
  • The procurement policy of major brands on such topics as price structure and delivery time-lines can have negative impacts on the salaries and working hours. Poor working conditions are a fundamental issue, and are directly linked to the behaviour of the brands: SA 8000 certification does nothing to resolve the deep-seated causes of these issues.
  • Certification may provide false guarantees. In September 2012, a disastrous fire killed around 300 people in a factory in Pakistan. Yet this company was certified SA 8000 and should have respected the international health and safety norms in its factories.

SA 8000 certification of suppliers of main brands is therefore merely a first step on the road towards sustainability.

Do not rely on labels only

Labels can provide some guidance, and it is often better to buy products that have a designated label. But there are also some companies that behave responsibly without a designated label. This is why we recommend asking key questions before you buy your clothing, and adopt a critical attitude when buying something, as well as politically committing to responsible fashion. Here are some suggestions on how to become a critical consumer.