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Making sense of sustainability certification in fashion: chatting with SANE STANDARD

When SANE reached out to me, I was intrigued. I wanted to know why we would need yet another certification in fashion and what makes them different from the other labels.

So, I sat down with one of the founders, Mathilde Charpail, to ask some questions.

One thing I probably hear most about sustainable fashion is that it's hard to know which products are sustainable.

I agree.

After years of learning, working directly with small brands, and talking to people making the clothes, I can tell you that it doesn't get any easier. In fact, greenwashing seems to be getting more and more discrete and harder to detect.

My job includes researching the materials, products, and production conditions, and I know how much time it takes to get through the complexity of the market and empty marketing phrases. Most people do not have that time. Besides, shopping more sustainably shouldn't be this difficult. Sustainable options should be visible and available for us to choose from if we'd like to.

Could one certification change this?

SANE STANDARD tag inside white clothes
Could the label on this tag change things? courtesy of SANE.

What is SANE?

Based in Berlin, Germany, SANE STANDARD is a holistic fashion certificate reviewing the environmental and social aspects of fashion. With a goal of making beautiful products visible and easily available to consumers, they aim to establish clear messaging around sustainability in fashion.

Mathilde Charpai, one of the founders, spent years understanding the ins and outs of fashion. For her, holistic meant that a product's social and environmental aspects are intertwined. Untangling the most complex questions, she realised there is no such thing as a perfectly sustainable product. However, encouraging the brands that are making the change and promoting transparency became her mission.

In the meantime, SANE gathered a team of textile and chemistry engineers and supply chain managers, an expert in accreditation system design, fashion designs, as well as finance, marketing, and PR. Now, they are set out to support pioneering brands and businesses and support the change in the industry.

But wait…

Do we need yet another sustainability certification in fashion?

"In theory," Mathilde told me, "certifications in fashion should give us an easy way to choose a better option for us."

Some people like to compare certifications in fashion to "organic" or "vegan" labels on products in a grocery store. If you care about buying that kind of food, these offer an easy way to navigate through shelves. They also help define what we mean by the claims we use. We get a confirmation that the thing we're looking at is really vegan.

Yet, unlike food that can be either vegan or not, a garment cannot be simply sustainable or not. Sustainability is not a checkbox; it's a scale. Or perhaps, better, multiple scales. To decide whether a product is up to the standards we want to respect, we need to know the whole story of the product.

"None of the existing labels answers this consumer need", Mathilde claims.

Certifications in fashion do not tell us nearly enough about the product to base any informed decision on them alone. Some well-recognised, like GOTS, BCI, or Oeko Tex usually tell us only about the material or its composition. However, consumers rarely shop for materials. They shop for a product. Other labels, like Fair Trade or B Corp, address, at least partly, the working conditions, telling a bit fuller story. Still, these may miss the environmental aspect. In other words, every certification is just a piece of the puzzle of how something has been made.

Designed for fashion specifically, SANE takes on a holistic approach to tell a complete and clear story about a product.

Back side of SANE STANDARD label, listing why the product is SANE-certified
Holistic certification? courtesy of SANE

High environmental and social standards

SANE's requirements focus on those life cycle phases of a product where the environmental or human impacts are the most harmful. They cover these big areas:

  • Choice of low-impact fibres

  • The environmental footprint of the processing stages

  • The chemical content of final products

  • The working conditions and remuneration of workers

The last area is the thing I found the most interesting about SANE.

The working conditions behind a product are important for them, but, as Mathilde told me, they mean nothing without fair pay. SANE's biggest goal is establishing a living wage as a part of sustainability criteria. Unfortunately, they admit that the gap between an average and a living wage in many factories is so big that this is very challenging.

(In case you're reading this and are unsure what living wage is or why it's so important in the fashion industry, here's an excellent summary.)

Though open to working with any brand, SANE refuses to lower these standards for anyone. Mathilde reveals that, in the past, some fast fashion brands tried to pay them to do so. SANE turned down such offers. Instead, they partner with those who are really making an effort. Ultimately, Mathilde hopes that SANE can give those brands more visibility, help them stand out, and provide credible and comprehensive evidence of their actions.

SANE's complete list of standards and an overview of its certification process are available here.

Communication is the key.

Mathilde continues: "In the end, a certificate is a communication tool. It helps ensure the consumers and link them to what a brand is doing."

Consumers have been at the centre of SANE since the beginning. Aware that people are increasingly looking for more sustainable products, SANE sets out to answer the highest expectations. Regardless of the complexity of the industry and the certification process, they still want to give clear messages.

SANE aims to help the consumer go beyond simple claims, like assuming that something is sustainable just because it's made from linen or organic cotton. Instead, they created a tag that holds the key reasons why SANE has approved the product. Those who want to understand more can simply scan the QR code and go in-depth.

Three pieces of clothing with SANE STANDARD sign on them
Simple but effective way to communicate. courtesy of SANE

You can be a part of SANE's story!

SANE has recently finished their first Kickstarter campaign. After years of developing their certification process, they raised funds for their next steps, which include getting the next 10 fashion brands certified. They also want to stay financially independent, so they're reached out to the crowd.

Now, they are ready to start working with more brands!

Are you thinking about certifying your own product(s)? Fill in SANE's questionnaire to check if you're eligible.


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