Ethical Labelling Explained


Fair Wear Foundation

We explore what gives us assurance in an ethical label and why Fairtrade matters

Ethical has become a major buzzword, attached to everything from vegetables to electronics. But where fashion and clothing is concerned, the ability to be sure that every stage of supply and manufacture conforms to a set standard becomes far more difficult. For conscious consumers, reassurance that the products they want to buy have been manufactured in a way that’s consistent with their own values on protecting people and the planet is paramount. So how do you know that what you are being sold as an ethical garment actually is? How easily can we identify truly ethical clothing?

Thanks to the hard work of a number of organisations, making an informed choice is getting easier. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh reignited the conversation around harmful practices in the clothing industry, and fashion houses and clothing manufacturers seem increasingly keen to move away from the dubious practices that have long been commonplace. There is sadly still a ready market for fast fashion. High street retailers may make claims that their collections contain ethical goods, but they rarely qualify under closer scrutiny.


If you want to be sure that clothing has been produced ethically, seek out a brand you can trust and who are happily transparent about every aspect of their supply and manufacturing train. Some of these are now well established household names – such as People Tree, Thought Clothing and Mayamiko.

And always look for the certification logos from the established fair trade bodies.



The Soil Association certifies clothing to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), an international standard. This label can mean the garment is made from organic materials, ‘organic materials in-conversion’ which means that a producer is switching to organic production methods, or contains a percentage of organic or in-conversion fibres. This label guarantees that the garment isn’t made with any genetically modified products.

Although not strictly a guarantee of high ethical standards, some social standards are also incorporated into the GOTS for all textile processing and manufacturing stages. For example, no forced or child labour is used, plus workers are paid a living wage.


Fairtrade Mark

The Fairtrade mark is issued by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO), and its inclusion on a garment label means that the cotton has been sourced from a Fairtrade certified producer organisation. It will also have been produced in a registered supply chain where there’s full traceability of the cotton at every stage of a garment’s production from the spinning of the cotton to the assembly of the finished item.

FairTrade cotton program

FAIRTRADE Cotton Program Mark

The Cotton Program mark was introduced by the FLO in 2014. The label can be used by companies on textile products or garments which contain an agreed per cent of Fairtrade certified cotton. This might range from 10 to 100 per cent of the cotton used in their supply chains. This is different from the Fairtrade mark because it applies to a company, not a product.


WFTO Fair Trade Organization Mark (company label)

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is another fair trade labelling organisation, separate from FLO .A garment carrying the WFTO Fair Trade Organization Mark (FTO) shows that the company which makes the garment has successfully passed the WFTO Guarantee System process.

This is an audit of the company’s entire supply chain according to the WFTO Fair Trade Standard, with criteria based on the ten Fair Trade Principles and International Labour Organisation conventions.

The WFTO label doesn’t guarantee a certified product, but signifies that a company is making efforts to improve working conditions in its supply chain. In 2013 People Tree became the world’s first clothing company to carry the WFTO company mark.




Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) is an independent, non-profit organisation that works with companies and factories to improve labour conditions for garment workers. FWF members have to agree to work towards implementation of the FWF Code of Labour Practices and to having all their factories independently monitored. The FWF code comprises eight labour standards based on ILO Conventions and the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights. The FWF label doesn’t certify products, but signifies that a company is making efforts to improve working conditions and has at least 90 per cent of its factories under monitoring.


Country of origin (product label)

Labelling country of origin isn’t currently compulsory in the EU, although discussions are underway to bring in legislation to this effect in around 2015.


The Argument Against Fairtrade

You will sometimes hear the argument voiced, that we shouldn’t boycott sweat shop produced goods as the only people this will ultimately hurt is those who we are seeking to help and protect, the workers. Big corporations and major high street stores will always try to produce their goods in the most favourable way for them, which translates to the lowest cost possible to ensure the highest profit at the point of sale. If the consumer puts pressure on them by refusing to buy the goods, they will simply move production elsewhere.

This is a simplistic and naïve point of view. Big business can be brutal in many ways but at the same time is highly sensitive to its market, and pays great attention to movements in its sales reports. If its market share is stable, or even better increasing, it takes this as confirmation that it is doing things right, it is rewarded with continued sales and its belief in its economic policies is reinforced. If sales and market share falls, it will question its behaviour. It knows that to stay in business, it will have to examine and if necessary, change its economic behaviour.

Long before it gets to the point of closing down supply chains and factories, it will conduct research and focus groups, it will try to understand why their customers are no longer their customers. And it is at this point that the message from the consumer should come through loud and clear. And the more people who send the boycott message, the quicker it will get through and practices will change. But we always need to remember that the only reason big business can continue to exploit workers is that we, as consumers in wealthy developed countries, are willing to continue to buy its goods.



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