If you are like me and want to start making more sustainable choices, kudos to you! As consumers, we have so much power when making sure our purchasing choices aren’t causing harm to animals, humans, or the planet… and the first step in living a more sustainable life is getting familiar with what sustainability certifications are out there!
From certifications that cover animal welfare, manufacturing, food, or agriculture… The list goes on, and it can be tricky to know which certifications in each category are the best (and which ones should be avoided).
In this article, we are going to cover all the bases when it comes to sustainable certifications. What are sustainable certifications? What criteria do we look for in these kinds of certifications, and can we trust them? What are the different types of sustainable certifications? Lastly, which certifications should we look for next time we shop?
What are sustainability certifications?
The first thing you should know about sustainability certification programs is that they could cover the entire lifecycle or just a small portion of a product (such as certifying a specific chemical ingredient). Companies can be awarded a sustainable certification if they meet the certifications’ framework and pass third-party audits.
Generally, sustainable certifications cover one (or more) of the following:
- Sustainable sourcing: Here, we would question where the product comes from and what ingredients went into making it. For example, over 160 million children between 5 to 11 years old are involved in child labor around the world, and to address this issue, Fair Trade certification looks specifically at sustainable sourcing, and they prohibit child labor as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO).
- Sustainable manufacturing & production: We can also look at what manufacturing processes went into making a product - and this could include lab testing. For example, the Leaping Bunny certification (part of Cruelty-Free International) certifies over 2,000 cosmetics and household product companies worldwide to ensure they aren’t testing on animals.
I also recently heard they were banning animal testing in Canada (where I live!), and I couldn't be happier. If you are like me and are very passionate about cruelty-free products, I would also recommend checking out my article on cruelty-free and vegan shampoo!
- Sustainable product: A certification will help verify that the product hits specific sustainability criteria. For example, OEKO-TEX, an organic cotton certification program, defines what qualifies as “organic cotton,” A product must hit these benchmarks to receive the OEKO-TEX label. In this example, the end product itself has a sustainable certification.
The lines between these three can blur; some certification programs might look at sourcing, manufacturing, or maybe all three.
So, what are the benefits of sustainable certifications anyways?
Sustainable certifications are holding brands accountable! It’s hard to find a perfect sustainable certification, but they help provide credibility to brands, producers, and manufacturers making sustainability claims. This is how we can avoid greenwashing!
Greenwashing happens when companies advertise themselves to be more eco-friendly than they are. Unfortunately, so many terms out on the market, like “natural,” “non-toxic,” and “sustainable,” have no REAL regulatory definitions, and companies can make these kinds of false claims with little repercussions.
What criteria do we look for in sustainability certifications?
When vetting different sustainable certifications, we can look at the certification through two different lenses, the first being the certification itself.
- Internal management systems: We look for organizations with internal management systems and standards that make a real, tangible impact.
- Independent assessments: We look for neutral, third-party verifiers that hold all certifications to the same standard.
- Traceability: We look for transparent organizations with an impact that can be traced back to the source. As a brand, it’s terrific to claim your product’s producers didn’t use any pesticides and herbicides, but if you can’t trace a product back to the farm it came from, how can you be sure of this?
The second lens we can use for vetting sustainable certifications is to look at the actual impact that they are making.
- Environmental impact: We look for organizations that won’t harm our waterways, forests, or air. Companies making a negative environmental impact might release toxic chemicals into our water, GHG emissions into our air, or clear-cutting forests and replace them with monoculture crops.
- Human rights: We look for certifications with reputable labor practices, including paying their employees a fair wage, banning child labor, and ensuring safe working conditions.
- Animal welfare: We look for certifications that protect biodiversity and do not put animals at risk.
The best sustainable certifications take ALL these criteria into account!
How trustworthy are sustainability certifications?
Finding reliable sustainability certifications is not as easy as you might think! Sustainable certifications vary in how they enforce their standards - especially because some are voluntary, market-driven, and/or have flexible criteria that don’t undergo in-depth assessments regularly.
Certifications that might seem great at first glance might not be traceable throughout their supply, or maybe they don't have internal management systems that a third party audits regularly.
This is why it’s important to consider ALL of these criteria when deciding which sustainable certifications you want to support with your dollars.
What are the different types of sustainability certifications?
Sustainable certifications come in all shapes and sizes. As you will likely notice, they also tend to overlap in their criteria and resulting standards.
Our global food systems significantly contribute to climate change (19-29% of all GHGs come from agriculture)... And part of this problem comes from feeding our growing global population. Over the years, we have had to find ways to grow food more efficiently, and these methods haven’t always been… well, the most eco-friendly.
Food sustainability certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) might look at phasing out chemicals like pesticides and herbicides or improving soil health and capturing and storing carbon in the soil (if you’re curious, many of these are also the principles of regenerative agriculture).
There is also a human health component here… Because the agricultural sector accounts for 70% of child labor, sustainable sourcing certifications are necessary.
Animal Welfare Certifications
As organizations like PETA have brought cases of animal abuse to the light - whether in a farm, processing center, pet store, or lab - industries across the board have had to step it up. Cruelty-free certifications are vital for products containing materials and ingredients that come from animals. Animal welfare certifications could cover food, textiles, home decor, or beauty products - anything that might contain animal-derived ingredients!
There are so many ways to conserve energy out there, and I have to say purchasing eco-friendly appliances with credible certifications are pretty powerful. Saving energy by purchasing certified appliances doesn’t just benefit your pocketbook. It also benefits the planet!
I am talking about energy-efficient clothes dryers, washers, refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, and more. As a bonus, depending on where you live, rebate programs may be available to help you purchase energy-efficient products backed by specific certifications.
Building and Home Certifications
Have you ever heard of sustainable interior design? It’s the next big thing! Looking for sustainability building certifications can help you build and design your next home (or renovate your current space) more sustainably. These certifications might cover an entire building, or just a product, to help you have a healthier, energy-efficient, and cost-saving home!
Unfortunately, our governments and companies will not always protect consumers from exposure to toxic chemicals that might harm our health and the health of the natural environment! Take skincare, for example… There are so many ingredients we should avoid in our skincare! BHA, Chemical UV Filters, synthetic fragrances, I could go on! Chemical certifications can help prevent us from encountering these ingredients in the first place.
Forest Product Certifications
We are losing forests worldwide at a VERY alarming rate, which puts things into perspective when you hear the numbers… According to National Geographic, 80% of Western Europe was forested 2,000 years ago. Today, that number is closer to 34%... not great. Forest sustainability certifications can help ensure forests are responsibly managed and that we aren’t putting biodiversity at risk in the process.
Ethical manufacturing certifications can help tell you how a product was made. Often, manufacturing certifications look at the environmental management practices and ethics of factories and manufacturing facilities. They might also look at environmental factors like proper chemical disposal and management, which fosters a safe work environment.
I have talked about how bad the textile industry is for the environment. As consumers become more aware of the true story behind the fast fashion industry, we are seeing more and more certifications suggesting our clothes were made more sustainably.
A great example of this is cotton sustainability certifications. We are also seeing the rise of “semi-synthetic” fabric like lyocell and modal, which has natural origins but is processed with chemicals. It’s tough to know which option is the best to go with, which is why I tell my readers to always look for sustainable textile certifications!
Take ethical leather, for example… About 65% of all leather products today come from cows (cattle hides). But there is also sheep, goat, alligator, ostrich, and pig leather. In many cases, these animals are raised in countries like India and China, where there are zero penalties for animal abuse on farms. There is also vegan leather, which has problems since it’s often made from plastic…
Sustainability certifications to look for (or not)!
What are the best sustainability certifications? The answer to this question isn’t straightforward because, as I have said before, there isn’t a perfect one. Let’s examine the pros and cons of some of the most prominent sustainable certifications!
1. Better Cotton (BCI Cotton)
BCI Cotton started in 2005 when companies worldwide came together to develop a better alternative to standard cotton. Today, BCI Cotton works with 70 different field-level partners in 25 countries. BCI focuses on improving farmer education and well-being by supporting them in producing “organic” cotton.
You have probably heard about B Corp Certified before. They are extremely popular as far as sustainable certifications go. If you haven't, you're probably wondering, “What is B Corp, and why is it so popular?”. B Corp Certification certifies that a for-profit business meets its VERY high standards in business performance, accountability, and transparency.
They might look at factors like employee benefits or charitable giving, supply chain practices, and input materials.
More than 3500 companies across 77 countries have earned B Corp accreditation, including well-known brands like Ben & Jerry's, Danone, Dr. Bronner's, and Patagonia.
To become a B Corp, a company must undergo a rigorous assessment process administered by B Lab, a non-profit organization that certifies B Corporations. The assessment evaluates a company's impact on its workers, customers, community, and environment.
The company must also score a minimum of 80 points on the B Impact Assessment, a proprietary tool developed by B Lab to measure a company's impact on its stakeholders.
Once a company has completed the certification process and met the minimum requirements, it is granted B Corp accreditation. It can use the B Corp logo to demonstrate its commitment to using business as a force for good. B Corps are also required to recertify every three years to ensure they continue meeting the standards set by B Lab.
What it certifies: For-profit businesses
What kind of certification is it: All categories
Certified Humane is a fairly common certification from Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). Their goal is to better the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter. You might find their certification on meat, chicken, pork, eggs, pet food, or other dairy products.
They look more specifically at animal feed, their access to the outdoors and space to move, and if they were given antibiotics or growth hormones.
What it certifies: Food and textiles (such as ethical wool)
What kind of certification is it: Agriculture, Animals
Ecocert is an organic product standard based on certifications in over 80 countries. Ecocert is a little different from other sustainability certifications because they aren’t exactly certifying the products themselves; instead, they are the means to organic standard certifications.
But like other organic certifications, products backed by Ecocert shouldn’t contain any GMOs, pesticides, or herbicides. This being said, Ecocert could be behind many different organic certifications!
5. Environmental Working Group (EWG)
EWG is a team of policy experts, scientists, and lawyers working to create an online database/verification process for eco-beauty, food, and cleaning products - also known as EWG VERIFIED™. They have other consumer guides (like their Guide to Healthy Cleaning), but I will save those for another time!
On their website, you can look at some of the best-known brands and discover if their products are healthy for consumers. One of my favorite things about EWG is that they go into detail - down to the ingredient list - as to why you might want to consider avoiding or purchasing a product. This is how I found my favorite vegan toothpaste and natural baby detergent.
What it certifies: Food, beauty, and cleaning products
What kind of certification is it: Chemical, Agricultural, Home
6. Fair Trade
From sweaters to cozy pjs, to stylish hats, you can find Fair Trade-certified clothing items everywhere. So, what is Fair Trade? Fair Trade supports farmers and workers in the average costs of producing their crops sustainably.
They also support decent working conditions and a ban on discrimination, forced labor, and child labor! This means when you purchase a Fair Trade certified product, you are helping farmers worldwide take control of their future and have the job security and benefits they need to live a healthy, prosperous life.
Fair Trade is also HUGE. They work with 1.9 million farmers and workers worldwide to certify over 30,000 products!
What it certifies: Food, clothes/accessories
What kind of certification is it: Agriculture, Textiles
7. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
FSC is a global non-profit that promotes responsible management of the world's forests, including the wildlife and surrounding communities that depend on them. In 2020 FSC estimated they achieved 221 million hectares of FSC-certified forests worldwide!
One criticism of the FSC is that its certification process can be challenging to understand and follow, leading to confusion among consumers about what products are sustainably sourced. Additionally, some environmentalists and indigenous groups have raised concerns about the FSC's certification of large-scale industrial forestry operations, arguing that these operations can still negatively impact forests and wildlife.
Another criticism of the FSC is that its certification standards are not always appropriately enforced, leading to instances of illegal logging and other unsustainable practices being certified.
Some have also raised concerns about the transparency and independence of the FSC's certification process, with some groups alleging that large corporations with vested interests in the forestry industry influence the FSC.
BDespite these controversies, I still trust it as it's better than nothing!
What it certifies: Wood furniture, paper, rubber, bamboo, and some cellulosic fibers like lyocell and modal
What kind of certification is it: Forest, Textiles, Home, and Buildings
8. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
I think GOTS is one of the better sustainable certifications out there. They are also one of the bigger ones, with 12,000 GOTS-certified facilities spanning 73 countries. GOTS is about organic fibers free of GMOs, synthetic pesticides, or herbicides.
GOTS has a few different kinds of labels. For a product to earn a ‘GOTS made with organic materials’ label, it must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibers. To receive a ‘GOTS organic’ label, the product must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers.
What it certifies: Textiles such as cotton, hemp fabric, linen, wool, silk, flax, or bamboo! I also recently learned that GOTS will certify non-toxic rugs, mattresses, and pillows.
What kind of certification is it: Chemical, Textile, Agricultural
The Leaping Bunny Standard is a criteria for non-animal tested beauty and household products. This certification verifies that a company did not use regulatory authorities in foreign countries to test its product on animals.
To earn Leaping Bunny certification, a company must meet strict criteria and commit to using only ingredients that have not been tested on animals. The company must also provide detailed information about its suppliers and their animal testing policies.
In addition, the CCIC conducts regular audits of certified companies to ensure they are continuing to meet the program's standards.
In addition, by choosing Leaping Bunny-certified products, consumers can support companies committed to using only cruelty-free ingredients and manufacturing processes.
One criticism of the program is that it only covers animal testing and not other aspects of animal welfare, such as the use of animal-derived ingredients or the treatment of animals in the supply chain.
Some consumers and animal rights organizations believe that a comprehensive animal welfare certification should cover all aspects of animal treatment, not just testing.
What it certifies: Beauty and household products
What kind of certification is it: Animal Welfare
LEED is a green building certification used around the world! In a nutshell, LEED is a series of rating systems designed to improve the environmental and health performance of buildings, sites, and structures. This includes residential, commercial, and industrial buildings!
To get a LEED certification, the building must pass checks in sustainable sites, energy efficiency, water efficiency, materials and resource use, indoor environmental quality, emissions, and operations and maintenance.
What it certifies: New buildings, existing buildings, and additions.
What kind of certification is it: Building and Manufacturing
What is OEKO-TEX, and is it reliable? OEKO-TEX is a group of standards covering the sourcing, manufacturing, and overall production of leather and textiles. They are The MADE IN GREEN, The LEATHER STANDARD, STeP, ECO PASSPORT, and RESPONSIBLE BUSINESS.
What it certifies: textiles and leather found in clothing, home decor, bedding, pillows, and furniture (Pro tip: Parachute slippers are OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified, and I LOVE THEM!).
What kind of certification is it: Chemical, Textiles, Agriculture
12. Responsible Down Standard (RDS)
The Responsible Down Standard (RDS), a creation of the Textile Exchange, is meant to encourage the feather and down industry to treat ducks more humanely. Over 50 companies like Patagonia and The North Face have now signed up to be a part of RDS! This adoption is happening at the farm level, too. Nearly 6,000 farms worldwide are certified through RDS, covering an estimated 735 million birds at the farm level!
What it certifies: Down (the feathers and padding in your winter coats)
What kind of certification is it: Animal Welfare, Textiles
Global Recycle Standard, or GRS for short, is a global program meant to track and verify the volume of recycled materials that make up a final product. GRS looks at the whole supply chain, including traceability, environmental principles, social requirements, chemical content, and labeling. Like RDS, GRS is owned by the Textile Exchange, but it doesn't just certify textiles! GRS looks at any product containing recycled materials.
What it certifies: Textiles and accessories
What kind of certification is it: Manufacturing, Textiles
The Carbon Trust Standard is a certification program that verifies an organization's commitment to reducing its carbon footprint.
They focus on measuring, monitoring, and reducing an organization's direct GHG emissions, such as energy consumption, transportation, and waste management. The standard also requires organizations to identify and implement energy-efficient practices and technologies.
What it certifies: Electronics, food products, baby items, fertilizer, etc.
What kind of certification is it: All categories
15. Cradle to Cradle
The certification was created by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting environmentally responsible design and production practices.
C2C-certified products are evaluated based on their entire lifecycle, from the materials used in production to the disposal or recycling of the product at the end of its life. The certification promotes the use of materials that are safe and non-toxic and encourages the use of renewable energy and sustainable water management practices.
What it certifies: Textiles, skincare, and beauty products, furniture, cleaning products, etc.
What kind of certification is it: Chemical, Textile, Manufacturing, Building, and Home
The Bluesign certification is an environmental standard for textiles and clothing products. The certification was created by Bluesign technologies, a Swiss company that aims to promote sustainable and responsible production practices in the textile industry.
The Bluesign certification evaluates products based on their impact on the environment, worker health and safety, and consumer safety. The certification focuses on the entire production process, from the sourcing of raw materials to the final product.
Products that meet the Bluesign standards are certified as environmentally friendly and are free from harmful chemicals, pollutants, and hazardous substances.
What it certifies: Clothing and textiles
What kind of certification is it: Textiles, Chemicals
Energy Star is a certification program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that recognizes energy-efficient and environmentally friendly products.
Energy Star certified products have been independently tested and certified to meet strict energy efficiency guidelines set by the EPA. These products use less energy, save money on energy bills, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Energy Star certification is a voluntary program, and products that meet the criteria can display the Energy Star logo as a symbol of their energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.
What it certifies: Heat pumps, TVs, dryers, washing machines, refrigerators, smart thermostats, etc.
What kind of certification is it: Appliances, Manufacturing, Building and Home
The LWG certification is a sustainability certification for leather and leather products. The certification covers various environmental factors, including water, chemicals, waste management, and wildlife and biodiversity protection.
The organization has four standards that evaluate the various participants in the leather supply chain, including the Standard for Leather Manufacturers, the Standard for Leather Traders, the Standard for Commissioning Manufacturers, and the Standard for Subcontractors.
Based on the results of the audits in key areas, certified entities will be categorized into one of four levels: Gold (85%), Silver (75%), Bronze (65%), or "Audited" (50%).
While the LWG has been praised for improving sustainability in the leather industry, there have also been some controversies surrounding its practices and methods. For example, some have criticized the LWG for being too lenient with companies that use hazardous chemicals in their leather production processes. In contrast, others have raised concerns about the lack of transparency in the LWG's certification process.
Additionally, some animal rights activists have criticized the LWG for not taking a strong enough stance on animal welfare issues within the leather industry.
Despite these controversies, the LWG remains a significant player in the leather industry, promoting sustainable and ethical practices.
What it certifies: Leather
What kind of certification is it: Agriculture, Textiles, Manufacturing, Chemicals
The Rainforest Alliance certification promotes sustainable agricultural practices that conserve natural resources and biodiversity while improving the lives of workers and communities. This helps farmers and communities in developing countries to improve their livelihoods and reduce poverty.
Companies certified by the Rainforest Alliance must disclose information about their environmental and social practices, which helps to increase transparency and accountability.
The Rainforest Alliance certification focuses primarily on environmental and social issues in the agriculture sector and does not address broader sustainability issues.
They have faced criticism for its certification standards and practices, and there have been concerns about the effectiveness and transparency of the certification program.
What it certifies: Agricultural and forestry products
What kind of certification is it: Agriculture, Forests
The RWS promotes the humane treatment of sheep by requiring compliance with animal welfare standards and prohibiting practices such as mulesing. The RWS provides a traceable supply chain, which enables consumers to know where their wool products come from and how they were produced.
The RWS focuses solely on the welfare of sheep and sustainable land management and does not address broader sustainability issues such as carbon emissions or waste management. The RWS is a voluntary program, and there is limited enforcement of the standards and criteria.
Companies that achieve the certification may not always adhere to the standards, and there is limited oversight to ensure compliance.
There have been concerns about the effectiveness and transparency of the RWS, and the certification has faced criticism for not doing enough to promote animal welfare and sustainable land management.
21. UL GREENGUARD
The UL GREENGUARD Certification Program certifies products that emit low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants, contributing to improved indoor air quality. Like some of the certifications listed above, it's expensive for small businesses.
While the LWG has been praised for improving sustainability in the leather UL GREENGUARD certifications are voluntary, and not all products are tested or certified.
In addition, some experts have raised concerns about the limitations of the testing methods used by UL GREENGUARD and the potential for gaps in the certification process.
What it certifies: Building materials, interior furnishing, cleaning products, and personal care products
What kind of certification is it: Chemical
22. USDA Organic
The USDA Organic, a food sustainability certification, requires farmers to use environmentally sustainable practices, such as zero pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, antibiotics, artificial colors, growth hormones, and other chemicals that can harm the environment.
The certification process involves strict standards and a rigorous certification process to ensure that products are genuinely organic and meet the highest quality standards.
The regulations and procedures for products vary depending on their category, such as fruits and vegetables, meat, processed foods, multi-component foods, or packaged foods.
The USDA Organic label has faced some controversy over the years. Some critics have raised concerns about the standards and regulations that must be met to use the label, arguing that they are not strict enough to ensure actual organic farming practices.
Others have criticized the certification process, claiming that it is not always adequately enforced, leading to instances of fraud and mislabeling.
Another issue is using synthetic and non-organic ingredients in products that carry the USDA Organic label. This has led to confusion among consumers about what "organic" means and raised concerns about the label's integrity.
In recent years, there have also been debates about using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in organic farming and certifying hydroponic and aquaponic systems as organic. Some believe these practices do not align with traditional organic farming methods and should not be allowed under the USDA Organic label.
Despite these controversies, the USDA Organic label remains a widely recognized and trusted symbol of organic farming practices. The organization continues to improve the standards and regulations around the label and ensure that it remains a credible indicator of truly organic products.
Some final thoughts on sustainability certifications
As consumers, we are becoming more aware of how our shopping choices impact the environment, animals, and humans worldwide! I think this shift in consumer behavior is a HUGE win, and sustainability certification programs - many of which are not perfect - can help us get there.
It’s important to mention that if you own a product certified by one of the not-so-great certifications mentioned in this article, DO NOT throw it out!
Sustainable living is about making more informed choices, not perfect ones. Throwing out an item that still has a long life ahead of it (even if it might not be so sustainable) is not an eco-conscious move, and it’s better to use the product, upcycle it, or even donate it. Next time you shop, you will know what to look for!
What do you think about sustainable certifications? Do you look for them when you buy products? Which ones do you seek out? And have we left anyone out?
Please share your thoughts below! If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – Sharing is caring 🙂!