Sustainability certifications have become increasingly important in today’s world as consumers and organizations alike strive to adopt more sustainable practices. These certifications not only set a baseline for best sustainability practices and products but also foster trust with consumers. However, not all certifications are created equal, and some have been criticized for greenwashing or even fraud.

To help navigate through the sea of sustainability certifications, this article presents a list of the most essential certifications that have been thoroughly researched and vetted. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it serves as a starting point for individuals and businesses looking to adopt more sustainable and ethical practices. It is important to note that certifications alone are not a fool-proof solution and that individuals should do their own research and hold brands accountable.

What Are Sustainability Certifications?

Sustainability certifications are insignias awarded to brands and products that meet certain standards and criteria indicating they reduce harmful impact on people and the planet. These certifications are issued by sustainability certification programs and vary in their standards and frameworks. Some focus on low-impact sourcing, sustainable materials, or the absence of toxic chemicals, while others cover different stages of the manufacturing or sourcing process, or even the entire supply chain.

To obtain sustainability certifications, companies must pay a hefty fee to apply and undergo lab testing and/or audits by neutral third-party agencies. These certifications can be awarded to products like fashion and homewares, or for whole manufacturing processes and the buildings in which they occur. Some verify products, while others certify whole entities.

While the standards and criteria vary by certification program, the best sustainability certifications are those that offer transparency to consumers. Sustainability is a moving target, and these certifications aim to encourage brands to do better and consistently so.

It is important to note that sustainability certifications can get confusing, and questions of legitimacy can arise. However, the goal of these certifications is not perfection, but rather continuous improvement towards a more sustainable future.

The Full List Of The Top Sustainability Certifications

1. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

GOTS is a certification that covers a wide range of products, including apparel, home textiles, fiber products, yarns, fabrics, food contact materials, personal care products, and mattresses. It is one of the most recognizable and widely used certifications for home textiles and fashion sustainability. The certification was established in 2006 by four organizations, including The International Association of Natural Textile Industry, the Japan Organic Cotton Association, the Organic Trade Association, and the Soil Association.

To receive a GOTS-certified organic label, a product must contain 95% or more organic material. For those with 70% to 94% organic material, it must be disclosed on the product’s GOTS label. The certification involves the entire product’s process from start to finish, including farmers, weavers, spinners, dying, and manufacturing. All stages must be transparent and reported to an independent certifying body that approves the label for use. The license number (or name) of the certified supplier database is likewise included and easily accessible online to ensure further transparency for consumers.

2. Fair Trade

Fair Trade is a certification that covers a variety of products, including food (specifically sugar and cocoa), drink (coffee), apparel, handicrafts (like fair trade jewelry), minerals, and farms or mines of raw materials. It is one of the most widely applicable certifications for sustainability and ethics alike. The term “fair trade” refers to multiple independent bodies that all operate under slightly different names and definitions of what fair trade means.

The most common are Fair Trade Certified (also known as Fair Trade USA or Fair Trade America) and Fairtrade International. While slightly different in approach, they all essentially mandate that any green business with the label be held to standards that include sustainable income for workers, care for the well-being of individual workers and communities, social empowerment, and environmental stewardship. A product, aspects of a product, or the facilities where a product is made can all receive certification. Requirements are updated regularly that must be adhered to regarding workers’ rights, fair labor practices, supply chains, and sustainable land and environmental management.

3. Forest Stewardship Council®

FSC is a certification that covers wood products, paper products (i.e. paper and cardboard packaging, zero waste office supplies), sanitary paper products, and any forest-based products (i.e. tree pulp-derived lyocell fabric and natural latex foam). The Forest Stewardship Council® is a member-led nonprofit with a mission to promote better environmental performance and management practices surrounding wood and paper products. They’re the most recognized of all forest certifications, but there are actually three slightly different forest sustainability certifications under the FSC logo:

  • 100% Products use material exclusively from FSC-certified forests
  • Mix Products use both FSC-certified forest material and recycled material
  • Recycled Products contain post-consumer and pre-consumer materials.

Additionally, there are two types of FSC certifications, which are Forest Management and Chain-of-Custody. For both, intensive applications and audits of environmental sustainability are integral to the certification process.

4. USDA Organic

USDA Organic is a certification that covers organic food, drink, personal care items, and textiles. It is most recognizable in terms of being among the best sustainability certifications for food. The USDA National Organic Program is “a label and certification system that verifies farmers or handling facilities located anywhere in the world comply with the USDA Organic Regulations”. There are different rules and processes for products based on types, such as produce, meat, processed foods, multi-ingredient foods, or packaged foods.

To receive the USDA Organic label, companies must apply, be audited, and also receive sustainability professionals as agent for their final inspection report. The label is one of the most rigorous, monitored, transparent, and regulated labels in the US—and one of its only food sustainability certifications. Products cannot be grown using toxic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, genetic engineering, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sewage sludge or irradiation. However, the label hasn’t been without controversy, with past allegations including fake organic imports to the US and the issue of hydroponics being labeled organic without building soil fertility.

5. Soil Association

Soil Association is a certification that covers organic food, beverages, forestry, farming, textiles, and beauty and wellbeing products. It is the UK’s longest-established and largest organic certification body, licensing more than 70% of the organic food for sale in England. The organization is also a membership-based charity that campaigns for many causes that relate to healthy and humane food and farming. The organization has a huge coverage beyond only food and beverage, which extends to food catering, cosmetics, clothes, textiles, agriculture, and forestry initiatives.

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Certifications for Sustainability: A Final Word

Sustainability certifications are a crucial tool for consumers who want to make informed choices about the products they buy. However, it’s important to recognize that not all certifications are created equal. While some certifications have rigorous standards and a transparent verification process, others are more prone to greenwashing.

To ensure that sustainability certifications are more than just a marketing ploy, they must be transparent and traceable. This means that their framework and findings must be made public, and they must be held accountable by both consumers and certifying bodies.

While there is no single “best” certification for sustainability, consumers can make more informed choices by understanding the certifications and their claims. By spreading this understanding to friends and family, we can all play a role in promoting social and environmental responsibility with true integrity.

In conclusion, sustainability certifications are an important tool in the fight for a more sustainable future. However, they are not infallible, and consumers must remain vigilant in their efforts to make informed choices. By holding both brands and certifying bodies accountable, we can work towards a more sustainable future for all.