Certifications, like GOTS or Oeko-Tex 100, are important for helping consumers find non-toxic products they can trust. But be careful that the entire product, and not just one component, is certified.
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More companies than ever are jumping on the ‘sustainability’ bandwagon and proudly displaying all manner of certifications for their products. Do certifications like Oeko-Tex 100 matter, though? What about GOTS and others? Here’s how to know and what to watch out for.
What’s a certification worth anyway?
Different certifications hold different weight when it comes to genuine eco-credentials and sustainability. Some cover the final product, some only one part of a product. Some certification standards are more robust than others and all certifications only matter if they’re current and actually apply to the product in question!
Below, we lay out a few key questions to ask companies about their certifications. First, though, here are a few key differences between some common certifications.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a great certification to look for as it not only lays out percentage requirements for how much of a product must be certified organic, it also prohibits outright the use of certain substances. This includes prohibiting things like chemical flame retardants and harmful azo dyes, even in the small allowable percentage of potentially non-organic certified materials. GOTS even includes standards for working conditions, lending a social element to the certification that is often missing from eco-certifications focused only on specific environmental issues.
Eco-INSTITUT certification also offers excellent assurance that a final product does not contain even trace amounts of hazardous chemicals and will not off-gas undesirable chemicals and odors into your home.
In contrast, the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label doesn’t have to apply to an entire product. Instead, it may only apply to a mattress cover or pillow, or even just a fringe on a piece of clothing or a rug. This standard also offers little in the way of oversight for manufacturing processes. If you only see an Oeko-Tex 100 logo on a product and it’s not clear what’s covered, ask.
In some cases, the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 logo may cover an entire product. If so, it does offer good assurance that the product is free from certain chemical flame retardants, colorants, and allergenic and carcinogenic dyes (including azo dyes), as well as chlorinated phenols. This standard also puts limits on the emission of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as a variety of hazardous chemicals, pesticides, phthalates, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Unlike GOTS, though, Oeko-Tex Standard 100 doesn’t include an organic or sustainable sourcing component. The certification also needs to be updated each year to remain active.
In short, watch out for “eco-friendly companies” that boast certain certifications like Oeko-Tex 100 but fail to mention that these certificates are awarded only based on one component, such as the cotton or latex.
Is the certification expired?
When looking for and asking for certifications, be sure to check the date of expiry.
Many companies don’t publicly display their certificates, but those that do tend to forget to update them, In fact, almost every certificate I’ve downloaded from company websites is out of date, often by years. I get that many of these companies have a small staff, but if they’re not paying attention to this fairly straightforward information it makes me wonder what else they’re letting slide, or if they’re intentionally leaving up old certificates and hoping no one checks the date.
If you do see a certificate that’s out of date or doesn’t have a date of expiry, reach out to the company to check the current status.
What’s actually covered by the certification?
Companies frequently market products using a whole raft of certification logos. The trouble is, it’s often unclear which certification, if any, applies to which part of the product. Some certifications cover the entire product, but many don’t.
For instance, I’ve seen companies list a Forest Stewardship Council logo on a product description when only the packaging and not the product itself is made with responsibly sourced paper.
Other sneaky tactics to look out for include where a company boasts that they use Oeko-Tex 100 certified cotton, but not exclusively. In this case, it may be that while one mattress is made with Oeko-Tex certified cotton, the mattress you end up with isn’t.
It’s also possible that a company sources certified organic cotton but then treats the certified raw material with toxic chemicals such as flame retardants. This is why we like GOTS certification, because for a company to use the GOTS logo on the product itself, the entire final product must adhere to the standard.
Know, too, that products carrying the GOTS label must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibers, and an item with the label ‘organic’ contains a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers. There are also strict requirements regarding what materials are permitted as ‘additional fibers’ for the remaining balance of a GOTS product.
While we love GOTS certification, it’s often misused by companies when advertising their products.
A spokesperson for GOTS told me via email to “Look for the GOTS logo on the product itself. GOTS labelling must be clearly visible at the time of purchase (e.g., on the packaging and/or hangtag or label).”
I asked for clarity on a couple of examples, namely mattresses and plush toys. They said that “for a mattress, the filling is considered part of the whole, not an accessory, and must comply with the full requirements for a finished product. For the stuffed toy, if the outside is made from GOTS certified fabric, but it was stuffed with materials that are not compliant, the product would not be allowed to have a GOTS label or have GOTS mentioned in the advertising.”
This means that companies displaying the logo or using GOTS as a marketing point for just part of the final product are not using the certification correctly, whether or not they intend to mislead consumers.
To check if a final product is genuinely GOTS certified, you can enter the license number in the ‘free text field’ of the certified suppliers database.
In some cases, a mattress company will carry certifications for the final product, ensuring that the mattress as a whole meets certification requirements. This is generally far easier for consumer than a handful of certifications that mean we need to try to track what happens to all of the materials used in the mattress through all stages of the manufacturing process.
Who holds the certification?
Some companies don’t hold material certifications in the company’s name, which can cause a bit of confusion if you ask to see certificates. Don’t dismiss a company right away if it can’t produce certificates in the company’s name; there’s actually a good reason for this!
The certification process for many standards is extremely onerous and quite costly. This means that, especially for smaller brands, it can help to keep costs down for the end product by avoiding redundant doubling up on certifications. For instance, the company can purchase certified materials and then use these to create a final product, but it won’t hold certifications for that final product.
The downside of this is that, technically, those companies can’t use some of the certifications (because they’re intended to cover the final product only). It’s also possible that even those certified materials are then subject to chemical processes or treatments after they leave the factory.
This is where transparency and properly regulated certification really helps. For major certifications like GOTS, for instance, the whole product needs to conform to the GOTS criteria, not just one material component of the product.
Final thoughts on whether Oeko-Tex matters
We do our best to recommend products at LeafScore that are made by companies transparent about certifications and which carry certifications that actually hold some weight. As always, however, it’s best to contact any company you’re hoping to buy a product from and check their certifications. If they evade the questions, it’s not normally a good sign. If they’re responsive and understand the ins and outs of certifications and the materials they use, that’s very reassuring. And, hey, you may even give them the nudge they need to update their website!