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Want to Shop Sustainably? Here’s What to Look For.

Eco-conscious shopping is hard. Here’s what you need to know about the ten most common standards.

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Walk through any outdoor store and you can spot one of the most prevalent trends today: eco-friendly marketing. If you went by the hang tags, you’d guess that every outdoor company was actively trying to save the world. The reality is more nuanced. Many companies are just greenwashing—using buzzwords or offering misleading information to look more socially conscious or environmentally responsible than they are. Some are making strides, though, and third-party certification means that a brand has volunteered, and in many cases paid for, an extra layer of scrutiny and accountability.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it includes some of the leading sustainability certifications in the industry today. There are dozens out there, but I chose these ten because they’re among the most widely used and they encompass the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental impact. The organizations handing out these certifications are also data-driven, measuring results and disclosing outcomes. When you see these logos on outdoor gear, you’ll have information you can use to align your values with your purchasing power—also known as cutting through the bullshit.

Bluesign Approved

The Bluesign system ensures that the chemicals and materials used in textile manufacturing are free from substances and processes that harm humans. Based in Switzerland, the independent authority traces complicated supply-chain journeys from raw materials to finished goods, working with chemical suppliers, textile manufacturers and brands. The group sets strict criteria for approving things like chemicals, dyes, energy use, air and water emissions, wastewater treatments and protecting workers from unsafe exposure.

You might not recognize the names at the chemical-supplier level, but textile manufacturers like Polartec and Gore-Tex work with Bluesign, as do outdoor brands like Patagonia, Eagle Creek and Jack Wolfskin.

The Bluesign label will tell you whether the certification applies to some or all of the product. A rain jacket might contain recycled nylon fabric that’s Bluesign-approved, or an entire piece of gear might make the cut, which means that most of its components (like buttons and zippers) can be traced back to Bluesign partners. Big retailers like REI allow you to refine your search online to show only products with Bluesign-approved materials.

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Certified B Corporations

Certified B Corporations (the “B” stands for “benefit”) meet rigorous standards in the areas of social and environmental impact, public transparency and legal accountability. These standards are set by an advisory council—an independent group made up of sustainability experts from all over the world. Operating with a triple bottom-line philosophy, B Corps balance being profit-driven with how they treat people and the planet, creating value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

Companies receive B Corp Certification through the nonprofit B Lab, based on a performance assessment that measures their effects on workers, customers, communities and the environment. Assessments are tailored to business size, sector and market, and companies are scored on energy use, how raw materials are sourced, charitable giving, civic engagement, employee wages and benefits, and more. A company must earn at least 80 out of the available 200 points during a multistep verification process in order to meet the B Corp standard (the median score for ordinary businesses is around 50). According to B Lab, about one in three companies that apply receives certification. Because businesses grow and change, recertification every three years is required.

And companies can’t just say they’ll keep putting in the work; once certified, governing documents are amended to bind them legally to their social and environmental commitments. Report cards are made public: if you’re curious about a brand’s standing, search the B Corp directory, where you can look up its score and see what progress it’s making.

Climate Neutral Certified

Climate Neutral is a nonprofit organization that supports brands in working toward net-zero emissions (i.e. the total amount of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere is no more than the amount taken out). Certification is guided by a three-step process. After Climate Neutral assesses the brand’s carbon footprint, it’s offset with verified carbon credits that fund efforts around the globe like reforestation and renewable-energy projects. One carbon credit removes or avoids one metric ton of carbon emissions; a company becomes neutral when it buys enough credits to fully offset its emissions. It must also develop a reduction plan with science-aligned targets aimed at bringing its emissions down. This last step is important because it means that further action is being taken beyond the purchase of offsets.

Search the online directory to see which companies are Climate Neutral Certified. Click on a brand’s profile to check in on its progress and what commitments it’s included in its action plan. For instance, Cotopaxi pledged to transition to 100 percent eco-friendly packaging and eliminate all single-use plastic in 2022; it’s also working toward having 100 percent of its products made from sustainable materials that are either repurposed, recycled or responsibly sourced.

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Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade certification shows where products originate from, whether that’s a garment factory in Thailand or coffee farm in Peru. When a material, facility or product has been certified as complying with Fair Trade standards, it dons a seal that means the producer or manufacturer has met strict requirements for human rights, fair labor practices and environmental protections. These ideals are designed to protect the well-being of the farmers, fishers and factory workers by ensuring safe and healthy working conditions, sustainable livelihoods, responsible land management and community investment.

Also, a portion of the price of each certified product goes into Community Development Funds (think of it as a tax on the brand that’s selling you your favorite yoga pants). Workers decide how this money is spent by voting on the programs they think will do the most good, sometimes subsidizing housing costs, scholarship funds or childcare.

You might see the certification apply to one component, like the cotton in a T-shirt, or it might apply to the facility where a garment is sewn. Full approval means that both the materials and the manufacturing processes meet Fair Trade Certified standards.

Forest Stewardship Council

The goal of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests.” It brings together experts in those three spheres to set policies and standards for FSC-certified forests around the world.

When you see the FSC logo on paper, wood, wood-based packaging or products like your natural rubber yoga mat, Tencel shirt or clothing hang tag, it means that the company that produced it adhered to the standards for responsible forest management. With conservation and restoration at the forefront of its mission, the FSC’s list of ten principles and 70 criteria aims to preserve biological diversity and ensure positive community impact. Certification covers legal compliance, human rights, the economic well-being of workers and more.

There are three FSC labels to look out for: FSC 100% means all the materials in that product came from forests that meet FSC standards; FSC Recycled means the product is made of 100 percent recycled content; and FSC Mix means the materials come from a combination certified forests, recycled matter and FSC-controlled wood.

Global Organic Textile Standard

There are many reasons to choose organic textiles. Organic cotton, for instance, is better for the soil, emits less carbon, is safer for farm workers and consumes less water and energy than conventionally grown cotton, as highlighted in Textile Exchange’s most recent annual report. The organic moniker can lead to a lot of confusion, though, as it can be difficult to discern which parts of the product are certified—and for what. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) brings together several environmental and social requirements under one label. The GOTS doesn’t just look at the production of raw materials but vets the whole supply chain, so products that display the logo can be trusted to have met the criteria at every stage.

Oeko-Tex Standards

Made up of a group of independent institutions, Oeko-Tex hands out a number of certifications for textile and leather goods, three of which are Standard 100, Leather Standard and Made in Green. Clothing that carries the Standard 100 label is free from substances harmful to human health. That means the buttons, thread, zippers, coatings and fabric have all met the criteria (much like Bluesign-approved products). The Leather Standard is similar but applies to leather goods. The Made in Green label attests that textiles and leather goods have been manufactured in eco-friendly facilities under safe and socially responsible working conditions. Each product is given a certification code that can be verified for authenticity.

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Rainforest Alliance Certified

The Rainforest Alliance advances policies that support rural workers and protect standing forests. The nonprofit works with governments, farmers, scientists, companies, NGOs, Indigenous communities and citizens in over 70 countries to develop certification standards and create training programs with measurable impact. The recognizable tree-frog logo indicates that a farm or forest product meets its requirements in four intersecting areas: forests, climates, human rights, and livelihoods. Its mission includes things like helping farmers adapt to climate change by teaching sustainable agricultural practices and improved land-management processes; rooting out human-rights problems in supply chains, like forced labor, gender inequality and violations of Indigenous land rights; and advocating for better working conditions.

Most often found on coffee and food, the label also appears on backpacking snacks, some paper products, gear and apparel. Much like FSC labels, the certification can apply to all or some of the product. One example of how certification bodies can overlap is in a product like Patagonia’s neoprene-free Yulex wetsuit, made with natural rubber FSC-certified by the Rainforest Alliance (in this case, that means that the hevea trees used to make the suit are not grown on newly clear-cut rainforest land).

Responsible Down Standard

Textile Exchange is a nonprofit that leads brands, retailers and suppliers to choose “preferred” fibers and materials. Textile Exchange defines a preferred fiber or material as “one which results in improved environmental and/or social sustainability outcomes and impacts in comparison to conventional production.” It has many initiatives, one of the most widespread being the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). If you see the RDS certification on a sleeping bag or puffy jacket, it means that the down and feathers come from animals that have not been subjected to unnecessary harm (like live-plucking or force-feeding) and that the Five Freedoms for animal welfare were respected. Qualified third-party bodies audit each step of production, from hatcheries to farms and processing facilities. The North Face, Outdoor Research, Patagonia and Marmot are some of the brands committed to the standard.

Responsible Wool Standard

The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is another facet of Textile Exchange. From farms to fabric mills, spinners to garment makers, RWS certification covers the welfare of the sheep, responsible land management and safe and healthy conditions for workers. If you see the RWS logo, you know that the chain of custody (the documented movement of certified wool through the various processing steps) has been maintained from sourcing through manufacturing and that the standards for making your garment were upheld through every supply-chain stage.