The challenges of working out whether textiles are sourced, produced or manufactured ethically are magnified by the plethora of eco-labelling schemes that apply to the industry.

According to the Vancouver, Canada-based Ecolabel Index there are 436 eco-labels worldwide, of which at least 24 cover textiles, clothes, other apparel and garments, while several others potentially overlap into the industry.

Some of these schemes are sector specific; others cut across national jurisdictions, such as the EU Ecolabel, the main, voluntary European Union (EU)-backed scheme - which promotes "environmental excellence in the life cycle of the material, from the extraction of raw material through to production, use and disposal," according to a spokeswoman for the European Commission's directorate-general for the environment.

According to the Commission, 1,367 textile and clothing products had been awarded this status by the beginning of the year, representing around 16% of the total number of products carrying the EU's Ecolabel.

The EU's need to contribute to eco-labelling is clear enough, because its clothing purchases have a huge impact on the global clothing sector's environmental footprint. Indeed, according to 2012 World Trade Organization (WTO) international trade statistics, the EU and the United States were the major markets for clothing, accounting for imports worth US$189bn and US$88.6bn respectively in 2011.

But with so many eco-label systems in place, Ulf Eriksson, textile and leather expert at the Sweden-based Svanen (Swan) NordicEcolabel, acknowledged that consumers could be forgiven for looking cynically at the plethora of labels, and retailers and certifiers are sometimes understandably frustrated.

"There are plenty of voices who say the garment industry has more eco-labels than any other industry," he said. "They can range from good to greenwash, and cool labels with nice buzzwords but lazy claims.

"It's hard for consumers. It's a jungle out there and it's very frustrating for us, too. These [certification labels] can smell prestigious," he said. And for manufacturers, an eco-label can be hard to resist: "All these companies want to keep their integrity, keep their work." 

Eco-label harmonisation
However, there have been recent moves towards harmonisation, which have been led by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) group, comprised of the Organic Trade Association (US); the International Association Natural Textile Industry (Germany); the Soil Association (UK) and the Japan Organic Cotton Association  (Japan).

"It has been very successful," said Eriksson. "They have got together and produced a uniform labelling system."

Another is Switzerland-based Bluesign, which has taken a similar, unifying approach to synthetics, mainly for sports apparel, trying to offer a single internationally recognised eco-label for synthetically-produced textile products. "This is a trend that is going to grow," said Eriksson. "Recognition between eco-labels must be the future."

Despite the success of GOTS, cotton can be problematic to certify environmentally. A coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Cotton Campaign, has raised concerns with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and targeted the major international cotton stock exchanges of the US, Turkey, and Bremen, in Germany, about weak monitoring systems for cotton production.

"It is hard to separate the provenance of cotton when it is sold in international markets," said Michael Laubsch, director of the Eurasian Transition Group.

"They don't generally give any guarantee that the cotton is not from Uzbekistan [where child labour is often used] or any other country. That means that while a fashion company might say 'this is brutal,' they can't say where their cotton comes from."

Supply chain complexities
The complexities of the supply chain also mean that convincing eco-labels for textiles can be difficult to establish.

"The labels don't really tell you everything about what is happening. They only tell you that some substances are not involved," said Dr Anne Bonhoff, global head of chemistry for US-based safety science company UL.

"Eco-labelling has not historically been very successful in the apparel and garment sector," added Eriksson. "It has worked better for bed linen and household textile - business-to-business, with hotels using organic cotton for curtains.

"There are a lot of criteria regarding all the chemicals used in the process, from fibres to spinning; weaving to dyeing; bleaching in the wet process; printing and finishing; and detergent technologies."

He said for meaningful certification, "you really need to have a close connection to the dye houses. They are the only people who really know about the very sophisticated metal content of softening and other detergents."

Meanwhile, the concept of eco-factories is emerging as a way of providing customers with the reassurance of ethical sourcing.

For example, Isle of Wight, southern England-based Rapanui Clothing has introduced a nuanced green labelling approach, similar to that used for hard white goods, with ratings ranging from A (excellent) to G (poor).

"Most eco-labels are simply a line that companies have to cross, but it doesn't make clear to the customer where that line is," said Rob Drake-Knight, co-founder of Rapanui. "Our system works in the way that food labels tell you how much fat is in the product - otherwise, you are just buying blind."

Llyr Roberts, of the Sustainable Places Research Institute at the University of Cardiff in Wales, feels that ultimately, consumers will simply be overwhelmed if there is too much information on a label.

"The game changer will be the smartphone; if a simple app can be developed and incorporated into the barcode of the garment that will tell you about issues such as emissions or factory conditions. People will be able to go in a deep as they want into the detail."

France-based Dassault Systèmes has already included this in its Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software.

"Our PLM systems now enable consumers to point their smartphone at the barcode on a tag and go right down to the detail of the thread or the rivet, or find out whether the two sides of a zipper - made by two different companies - are compliant and do not contain lead or any other hazardous material," said Stephan Clambaneva, business consultant with Dassault.

However, a universal eco-safe logo may well remain forever out of reach, according to Roberts. "Fair trade means something different in the US from what it means in Europe - so what chance have we got of agreeing with China or other countries? It is an ideal to aim for, but we've a long way to go."

Click on the links below to read other chapters in this briefing:
Green garments: Brands clean up their toxic chemical use
Green Garments: Sustainable practices in Asia
Green garments: Closed loop supply chains hard to achieve