Eco-Certification: Industry Seeks Top of 'Green' Crop

Rachel Glasser, Jill Rowen, October 13, 2008

Last month's New York market promised fashion and function, innovation and freshness, but one question that may have been asked most often of vendors was: "Are you certifiable?"

Before anyone takes offense, we're talking "green" certifications here. Affixing the little green emblems on labels and packaging can be a marketing dream, but right now certification is still a confusing mass of agencies, guidelines and regulations with sometimes little enforcement. The symbols are new and often unknown to both retailers and consumers.

Marketing departments at home textiles suppliers have had their green claims readily in place for a number of years, but now retailers and consumers are starting to demand those words and labels be backed by solid third-party certifications that give credence to all the marketing claims. And the question on everyone's mind is: Which ones matter most?

"Retailers find comfort and an assurance of quality in certifications," said Bob Hamilton, marketing director, Welspun USA. "In a global world, it's a way to assure consistency of usage as products go through every stage of production with many players in many places."

According to Hamilton, Welspun has worked primarily with these certifications: the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Swiss Institute for Marketecology (IMO), Oeko-Tex, and the Dutch-based International Inspection and Certification Organization (SKAL — which recently changed its name to Control Union Group, but is still commonly referred to in the industry as SKAL.)

"Sometimes retailers are asking vendors about "green" certification because they think they should," noted Jenny Cross, senior sustainability manager, Mohawk Industries. "But so much depends on what the product is; it really is a product-by-product consideration."

Beyond its product-focused efforts, Mohawk also is concerned about its infrastructure. The big rug manufacturer works closely within The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which provides a suite of standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

"Retailers want to do the right thing," said Dina Dunn, a spokesperson for Oeko-Tex, an increasingly popular certification program used by companies ranging from L.L. Bean to Cuddledown. "And, the industry is trying to regulate itself," she added. "There are so many certification programs, but eventually the better programs will bubble up to the top and stick."

Nina Nadash, home textiles merchandiser, Lenzing Fibers, agrees that the topic requires quite a bit of due diligence. "You can look for an international certification, a domestic one, an unaffiliated third party, a government agency, or a market-driven self-regulation certification. It is difficult for consumers and for marketers to decipher sometimes."

According to Nadash, Lenzing, which produces its trademarked Tencel fiber from natural wood, has been very proactive in its green efforts including winning a number of awards, but tends not to pursue some of the sometimes-costly certifications. "We're very transparent," she noted. "If any of our customers have a question, we have clear documentation and can easily answer them."

The issues impact packaging companies as well. "There are some standards in place, but sometimes not well advertised, "said Mitch Kobylanski, sales manager, Imex Vinyl Packaging. "That is changing, as more effort and investment is being put into enforcing those standards. Many are designed to reduce the heavy metals in packaging."

The change and renewed interest is, no doubt, helped by Wal-Mart taking notice, and asking its preferred vendors to have these packaging guidelines in place. For the packaging industry, many of the principles began as toy safety standards and have now expanded into other areas.

One standard Imex works with is CONEG (Coalition of Northeastern Governors) which formed a Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse in 1992 to promote the Model Toxics in Packaging Legislation. Specifically, that law is designed to phase out the use and presence of mercury, lead, cadmium and hexavalent chromium in packaging.

"Although 'greenness' is not the driving force of a purchase today, it is a consideration," noted Connie Berry, director of marketing for rug supplier Karastan. "As consumers become more eco-savvy, they are starting to recognize green labels and may use it as a decision-breaker if they are torn between two products."

"Unfortunately," Berry pointed out, "there is so much 'greenwashing' going on in the market, consumers are feeling more confused and frustrated than they are informed. Once the number of labels and programs levels out and the truth prevails, I think consumers will take much greater interest in the eco-friendliness of a product."

Karastan's products, she said, are certified CRI Green Label Plus (GLP) and contribute to LEED and NAHB Green Homes Building Points.

The degree of eco-friendliness can vary greatly within the certifications. Oeko-Tex, for instance, has two key levels. Oeko-Tex 100 certifies that the final textile product itself is free of harmful substances; while the Oeko-Tex 1000 level takes into account the entire production process. Similarly, The Organic Exchange uses the OE 100 Standard for products using 100% organic cotton; however the OE Blended Standard certification can be used by vendors using as little as 5% organic cotton. The certification ensures that a stated amount of organic cotton is being used in the product.

For many companies, an educated consumer is the impetus for much greener marketing. "We've always had a customer that wanted to know how things were produced, and we continue to respond to that consumer," said Norma Wilkens-Gross, vp of merchandising, Cuddledown. She said Cuddledown is shifting its proprietary cotton products into organic cotton by the beginning of next year. It readily uses SKAL, GOTS and Oeko-Tex certifications for various parts of its product lines now.

One of the most often cited certifiers is the U.S. Government, through the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American National Organic Program. "Our recently launched PureDKNY bedding program is made of organically produced cotton certified by the Control Union to the USDA National Organic Program standards," said Katy Chapman, director, creative services, CHF Industries. "This information is listed on all PureDKNY organic products packaging to assure consumers of its authenticity and our commitment to being kinder to the environment."

One advantage may be that consumers can already appreciate what USDA certification means, while they may need much more education on many of the other programs before those certifications make a difference as to buying decisions by retailers and ultimately consumers.

Cotton Inc. is an example of a growers association that has a widely used and familiar logo, coupled with historically extensive advertising programs that have recently evolved into a green-championing campaign.

On the other hand, a body like the Organic Trade Association doesn't resonate the same way with consumers — at least not yet.

Though by no means a complete list, the certifications listed on the opposite page came up frequently in HTT's discussion with vendors, and might be a good starting point for the legwork needed as suppliers transform home textiles into a steadily greener industry — and look to reap the rewards from consumers and retailers.

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