The motivation for companies to turn their CSR efforts into unassailable PR masterpieces should be considerable: Between half and three quarters of consumers believe companies in the clothing industries throw insufficient light on their sustainability efforts. More than 50% of them are willing to pay extra for sustainable and environmentally friendly products, and half of these would potentially pay up to 25% above the original price. Many consumers actively refuse business with companies they view as irresponsible and unethical; an approach that symmetrically grants well-renowned companies a clear competitive advantage.
Additional examples of the good sense in being able to tell potential customers that your company takes seriously society’s problems can be put forward, but the message should by now be clear: a company’s bottom line is aided by a deliberate and well-executed CSR strategy. Doing good does well. Once the idea that customers’ demands for ethical corporate behaviour must be met has been embraced, the first steps on the journey into the good graces of Corporate Knights and toward a broad, public recognition of your company’s concern for its surroundings can be taken.
The first milestone on that journey should be verifying that your products are of harm to neither customers, suppliers, nor employees. That’s hardly a groundbreaking concept, but bedevilling examples of its disregard appear continually in the ethical nooks and crannies of the business world, cacophonously tolling the bell that it is an area in which companies can still differentiate themselves. Can you – as one of few – assure your customers of the safety of your products, a competitive advantage materializes.
Neither consumers nor industry experts can, however, see or feel to what degree a product contains harmful materials, necessitating its chemical testing by an independent organization. A STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® certification is the clothing industry’s guarantee that its products are empirically free of harmful chemicals and metals. Only products that meet the STANDARD 100 requirements are permitted to place the certifying label on their packaging. The idea behind the OEKO-TEX® scheme is that textile products sold with the STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® label are made from materials empirically harmless to humans and consequently worthy of consumer trust.
Why is testing necessary?
The benefits of not ingesting chemicals is perchance known to you, but have you ever contemplated the amount of chemicals in clothing, footwear, furnishings, and other goods entirely or partially made from textiles? Despite being in constant contact with several textile types, 40% of us – according to an OEKO-TEX® survey – are in the dark about how and by which methods textiles and clothing are manufactured. 4-8,000 individual chemicals in countless formulations are used in a great variety of manufacturing processes, ending up in either finished products or as potentially harmful waste. Some chemicals are dangerous enough to cause severe ailments in factory workers as well as consumers.
Certain chemicals are liable to injure any person, but infants, small children, and elderly people are especially vulnerable. Physical contact increases the risk of skin allergy but may also cause more severe conditions for both humans and the environment. Harmful substances in clothing or employed in its manufacture are associated with e.g. nerve damage, liver, kidney, and lung diseases and cancer. They further pollute water bodies, wildlife, and horticulture within a certain distance of manufacturing facilities. Overall, the environment is hit hard, as textile dying is the second-most water-polluting manufacturing activity in the world. As it happens, the fashion industry is believed to produce 20% of global waste water.
By testing for chemicals and ascertaining when their values exceed typically harmful levels, OEKO-TEX® aids manufacturers and consumers in making more sustainable choices. An independent OEKO-TEX® certification ensures that textiles are manufactured ethically and are harmless to human health. Product labels are verifiable, recognizable, and traceable, rendering unnecessary an individual’s personal research into various safety and environmental claims by companies. A more efficient method by which you can announce your responsibility to your customers is hard to find.
What is OEKO-TEX®?
OEKO-TEX®, whose full name is OEKO-TEX International – Association for the Assessment of Environmentally Friendly Textiles, is a non-profit association headquartered in Zürich. It consists of 18 independent institutes in Europe and Japan that continually develop test methods and set value limits for chemicals employed by the textile and leather industry. Danish DTI (Technological Institute) is among these 18 institutes, carrying out testing for all Danish textile products with aspirations of achieving an OEKO-TEX® certification. DTI has a total of 71 laboratories and more than 1,100 employees available to companies that look to have their research or projects tested in practice. The institute has an annual turnover of 1 billion kroner ($160,000,000), is present in almost all industries, and collaborate with more than 10,000 customers in any given year.
OEKO-TEX® has as its stated goal to protect consumers, inspire innovation, and create trust in textiles and leather products. To achieve an OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100 certification, a product must inter alia be free of:
- Chemical residues with potential acid or alkali effects on the skin.
- Pesticides and defoliation agents.
- Pentachlorophenols, tetrachlorophenols, orthophenylphenols, tributyltins, triphenyltins, and dibutyltins.
- Heavy metals such as chromium, cobalt, nickel, copper, cadmium, antimony, arsenic, lead, and quicksilver.
- Special dyes to be avoided because they are known or suspected of causing cancer and allergies.
- Dye release under the impact of water, sweat, spit, or rub.
- Evaporation of volatile organic compounds (VOC).
- Shedding of specific odours.
OEKO-TEX® continuously adjusts its requirements to keep up with the latest knowledge and scientific discoveries about harmful chemicals and textile manufacturing. A textile product will only be eligible for certification if all its components meet those requirements. The OEKO-TEX® requirements are generally more ambitious and far-reaching than legal requirements at any given time.
What is OEKO-TEX® not?
Contrary to what the association’s name implies, OEKO-TEX® is not an eco label. It does not certify the environmental friendliness of a product. In the days when OEKO-TEX® was founded, the common perception was that if a product was safe for humans, it was also safe for the environment. Against that backdrop the people behind the association did not find it problematic to name it ‘OEKO-TEX®’, even though the tests and requirements were exclusively aimed at humans. Since then our collective consciousness about the environment has been raised, and collected data have shown the textile industry to be among the most polluting industries in the world.
A product certified by OEKO-TEX® is safe for humans but not – we now know – necessarily for the environment. A cotton product can e.g. be certified by OEKO-TEX® even though:
- Cotton textiles are responsible for 15-20% of global pesticide use.
- Conventional (non-ecological) cotton is mainly GMO, which disrupts biodiversity.
- Conventional cotton is the most water-intensive fiber in the world.
- Many products manufactured from conventional cotton are in many textile-producing countries disposed of by being thrown into rivers and groundwater.
No, not everything in the garden is lovely just because your products are OEKO-TEX® certified. But adherence to the association’s human health-protecting requirements is a giant step in the right direction, and OEKO-TEX® remains a certification that will differentiate your company from others. It won’t keep pesticides off the fields but will keep heavy metals off your customers’ skin. And that’s worth an extra effort. Right?
Thank you for reading.