How To Be a Sustainable Apparel Business

Submitted by Mary Meade on
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Green businesses adopt principles, policies, and practices that improve the quality of life for its customers, employees, communities, and planet. But just because a business claims it is “green” doesn’t mean it upholds the standards of social responsibility and sustainability. So how can you determine what is in fact a sustainable business, or how can your business achieve that high standard? 

That’s where third-party certifications come in. A third-party certification serves to verify a business’s claims against their independently developed criterion. Such certifications reduce conflicts of interest and provide accountability to a business’s claims. Studies show that customers look for such things from businesses and are willing to pay more for high-quality products with safety and sustainability standards. 

Green America's Green Business Certification is the leading trust mark for true green business practices. Our program recognizes businesses that excel in social and environmental responsibility, and the businesses found in our Green Pages directory have met or exceeded our certification standards to become leaders in the green economy.  

The Green Business Network at Green America recommends businesses consider both environmental and social justice issues when making decisions. To earn our certification, businesses must meet both standards of social and environmental responsibility. If you are interested in becoming a green business, we’ve highlighted a few important steps—and if you’ve reached these steps, check out the full requirements of our Apparel certification. You may be ready to apply.  

Environmental Responsibility  

"Green" or sustainable business make planet health a core part of their mission. The following steps are ways your apparel business can account for environmental responsibility in its operations.  

Certified organic, reclaimed and recycled fibers, or other sustainable materials.  

Organic and sustainable materials are a requirement of our apparel businesses. That includes no genetically-modified cotton, which poses threats to the surrounding ecosystem through pesticides and a disruption of natural processes through a monoculture. Conversely, organic cotton greatly decreases the amount of harmful chemicals that workers and their communities are exposed to during the farming level of the supply chain. Additional fabrics made from post or pre-consumer recycled fibers are acceptable if the process does not result in toxic waste, and if the materials can be recycled or composted. There must be transparency around animal derivatives if there are animals in your supply chain.  

Packaging and transportation. 

We expect green apparel businesses to have environmentally and socially positive packaging. It must be from recycled sources and must be recyclable or compostable. We love to see businesses take back packaging for reuse, too.  

Your business must have a program in place to reduce emissions from company vehicles and work with your distributors to take steps to reduce emissions from transportation and shipping. Since transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the US, it’s very important that your business does its part!  

Educating consumers. 

Conscious consumers are what keep sustainable businesses running. Therefore, we require apparel companies to educate consumers on the life cycle of their product, such as how to properly dispose of the product when it is no longer usable. We love to see established take back programs, too. To be an industry leader, we expect your business to advocate for green practices in your field and be open to feedback from internal and external stakeholders.  

Green office or facility.  

Not only do we count the steps in the supply chain, we are also interested in your business’s operational and administrative fronts. Our definition of a green office or facility includes reusing resources, recyclability, and maximum water and energy efficiency. Your office space must divert its waste appropriately, including using a certified E-Steward for electronics and composting all food waste. Your office must be energy efficient and must be taking action on clean energy, such as purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) or using on-site clean energy.  

Your business must also use 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper and have procedures in place to maximize office resources. Using non-toxic cleaning supplies and pest control products is important in-house, too. A green office is a testament to your business’s values—not only do you care about people and the planet in your products, but also in the treatment of your employees. 

Social Responsibility  

Triple bottom line businesses are not only kind to the planet, but kind to people—hence, social responsibility. The following points are a handful of ways your business can be an ethical one.  

Safe and fair manufacturing.  

Whether you partner with workers in the US or abroad, we expect you to offer your workers safe and healthy working conditions, a living wage, and transparency. Offshore factories are okay if the factory has an established worker representation mechanism, a code of conduct with an enforcement mechanism is in place, and your business has long-term contracts with the manufacturers. Many of our businesses are certified fair trade and work with unions to help demonstrate this. 

Safe and quality company employment. 

Your company’s workplace culture should reflect the values of your mission. Employees should have access to quality benefits and be paid wages that ensure well-being. Your company culture should encourage work/life balance, inclusivity, and have non-discrimination and whistle blower protection policies in place. Your business is only as good as its people, so having a thriving workplace will help your employees be the best they can be. 

Uphold transparency.  

Transparency is weaker in the apparel industry than it should be—which is why we make it a requirement of our certification. Your business must share its social and environmental mission on its website. For each individual product, the country of manufacture should be clearly visible. If all products come from the same country, that should be disclosed on the front page. Your business must also be transparent in its supply chain, including sub-contracting, and be committed to the continuous improvement of sustainable labor practices. 

Customers are increasingly interested in the people behind the product. According to Harvard Business Review, customers prefer products that are handmade or can see the person behind the product; compared to mass automation, the presence of a human signals intent, meaning, and effort.  

Why Certify?  

In a sea of businesses claiming to be “conscious" or "natura," it’s hard for the average consumer to weed out the green from the greenwashed. Third-party certifications demonstrate that your business has withstood the vetting of an outside body and come out as a truly socially and environmentally responsible business. With certification, your customers will know your business has the credentials to back up claims of environmental and social responsibility—and they’ll wear your values on their sleeves.  

While these requirements are comprehensive, they are not definite. We love seeing businesses exceed these standards and take steps beyond certification to be even greener. In addition, our certification analyzes business practices and not individual products. We believe a sustainable future is also an ethical one and ensure the businesses that earn our certification reflect that.  

If you believe you meet these criteria, you can view the full requirements for Apparel businesses at our Apparel certification standard and begin the process of becoming a member and official sustainable business.  

Join Today


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