Today we’re increasingly concerned about the environment. That means we’re drawn to natural products over synthetics; we like to know their provenance; that they’re sustainably produced, and as green as they can possibly be.
But what about dress fabrics and home textiles? Where does OEKO-TEX come into this equation? Why are some cotton and jersey fabrics certified and other great, high-quality fabrics not - and does it really matter?
The short answer to the last question is yes….and no.
What is OEKO-TEX? Who are they?
OEKO-TEX’s official name is a bit of a mouthful: the International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile and Leather Ecology. So unsurprisingly, it’s called OEKO-TEX for short (even though there doesn’t seem to be any direct correlation!).
Essentially, OEKO-TEX is a partnership of 18 textile research institutions and testing laboratories based in countries around the globe. Members include UK-based Shirley Technologies Limited, the Nissenken Quality Evaluation Center in Japan and the DTI Danish Technological Institute. These guys are the experts.
Founded in 1992 by the German Hohenstein Institute and the Austrian Textile Research Institute (OETI), together these partners set the OEKO-TEX standards, undertake the necessary testing on fabrics and also do audits on textile manufacturing companies and their facilities.
What textiles do they test?
They can, and will, test pretty much every kind of textile for every sort of use, and not just the raw yarn and base fabric. They also test leather, sewing threads, zips, linings, buttons, bed linen, rugs and toys made of fabric. They even test the prints and coatings used on items like waterproof jackets for example.
To make things a bit easier – or more complicated, depending on how you look at it – OEKO-TEX have a number of standards, not just the one you’re probably most familiar with: OEKO-TEX Standard 100.
These are the three key certifications you might run across:
+ OEKO-TEX Standard 100
When a fabric carries the STANDARD 100 label it means that it has been certified free from substances harmful to human ecology – that means harmless to people and, to a large extent, the environment too. This can be particularly important when it comes to fabric for children and babies. Each fabric is classified by its likely end use, so if it’s a product or fabric that is likely to be for children then different tests apply.
+ MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX
This is one step up from the STANDARD 100 and, along with being tested under the Standard 100 regime, it also certifies that the fabric has been manufactured using sustainable processes under environmentally friendly and socially responsible working conditions.
+ STeP by OEKO-TEX
STeP is less well known but it's where the rubber hits the road. And it’s the direction we all hope the industry is going. Its aim is to impact positively on global production values in the long term; improve health and safety and promote socially responsible working conditions at production sites.
Great! So OEKO-TEX really matters?
Yes it matters. Obviously we all want our textiles to be harmless, sustainable, have low environmental impact, and vitally, for employees in the industry to have good, safe working conditions in factories where they are treated with respect and dignity. We all know that conditions for some workers remain nothing short of appalling, and OEKO-TEX does an extremely valuable job in helping to push up standards across the globe.
But there is one issue here. OEKO-TEX certification is not free.
According to an OEKO-TEX testing partner, the average cost of a certificate for a fabric production company based in the U.S. is around $6,500 per year. That’s without the initial testing and auditing costs.
These might seem reasonable costs for such a certificate, and in many ways they are - in fact in most industry sectors, for this kind of highly technical testing, they would be cheap. But remember, many wholesalers are not huge and could not stand the costs across their range of fabrics, and similarly, many suppliers such as smaller factories would find it hard to swallow these ongoing costs, not to mention the paperwork.
We live in a market economy and the fabric sector is absolutely huge, and growing. It's a vital contributor to GDP, especially in the world's developing nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Globally, by 2025 it’s slated to be worth in excess of 1.2 trillion dollars.
It's vital to economies closer to home too. In the European Union, textiles manufacturing generates a turnover of EUR 166 billion and exports from EU countries account for more than 30% of the world market in textiles. Not all fabric is manufactured in China.
It's a highly profitable industry. But that means competition is tough and margins are extremely tight - especially for producers and wholesalers. That means the extra cost of testing is just not always possible for everyone.
OEKO-TEX cannot solve the problem on its own
If there’s one lesson here it’s this: in an ideal world every fabric would adhere to OEKO-TEX standards. But until it’s free, quick and easy to have fabric tested this is not going to happen, and as buyers we must accept that reality - OEKO-TEX certification can never be free.
One estimate from the United Nations, now removed, suggested there could be more than half a million companies worldwide involved in textile manufacturing; and according to Euratex, in 2017 the textile and clothing industry in the EU comprised more than 175,000 companies, mainly small and medium-sized businesses, employing over 1.7 million people.
But only 14,000 producers worldwide have any form of OEKO-TEX certification.
Going forward, the only way to be sure to raise standards across the board is for governments worldwide to regulate much harder on a national level and actively enforce these higher standards, which, let's face it, is highly unlikely any time soon. So while OEKO-TEX is undeniably excellent, it can never be the whole solution.
Never ignore fabrics without an OEKO-TEX label
So what can we do as buyers? First we can make smart choices. Where possible, don't buy obviously cheap mass-produced fabrics; take your time and shop around. Secondly, trust your gut and do the maths. If you're considering buying a fabric for £3.00 per metre, think about what the workers are doubtless getting paid. And at such a low cost, where is the production waste going and what's actually in this fabric?
Finally, remember that there are many thousands, if not millions, of different fabrics out there produced sustainably, and choosing carefully and buying high-quality fabrics helps support countless jobs worldwide. Just because a fabric is not certified doesn't mean it's necessarily any less sustainable, or that it's manufactured under poor working conditions.
Most fabrics are not certified and that includes outstanding products from wonderful niche brands who buy from source, visit facilities and choose their producers with extreme care.
We try very hard to make good, responsible choices when we buy for Simple Life Fabrics too. When we started the business we knew that we were only going to buy from smaller brands and from very high-quality wholesalers - and knew this was a barrier to rapid growth.
I don't carry huge quantities of stock and I'm incredibly choosy about the fabrics I'll buy. It can take me more than an hour to choose one single fabric and I always sleep on the choice overnight - my assessment of wholesalers and brands takes literally days of research.
So, yes, choose OEKO-TEX but never ignore a clearly high-quality fabric from a respected brand without an OEKO-TEX certificate.