Building a non-toxic tomorrow: what is OEKO-TEX® Certified?
People are becoming steadily more aware of sustainability issues in the fashion sector. And we’re starting to notice the many sustainable certification labels that we see on our clothes. OEKO-TEX® is one such green label. So we might have seen it, but still wonder, what is OEKO-TEX® certified?
Who is OEKO-TEX®?
OEKO-TEX® is a certifying body that looks at chemicals and substances used in textile production that are hazardous to human health. It’s an international association and works with partner bodies and third-party certifiers.
OEKO-TEX® verifies that different fabrics are tested to ensure they don’t contain many of the chemicals and substances recognised to be unsafe for human use.
While the body is mainly focused on human health, its operations also expand into social and environmental ethics. Using a range of different ‘standards’ (we’ll get into these), OEKO-TEX® covers a wide variety of products in the textile and fashion sector.
Established in 1992, OEKO-TEX® has grown to have a wide reach. It formally works with over 16,000 retailers, brands and manufacturers across 100 different countries.
What is OEKO-TEX® Certified?
OEKO-TEX® was formed in response to consumer concerns about hazardous chemicals and materials used in production. OEKO-TEX® certified products give you peace of mind as they are guaranteed to be free from a range of dangerous substances.
They are tested from raw materials to end products. They also adhere to ethical criteria.
Tested for traces of up to 350 different chemicals, OEKO-TEX® certified products help to keep dangerous substances out of clothing, communities and the environment.
While it can differ between standards, OEKO-TEX® has other environmental policies too. These include criteria for waste management and wastewater management, further protecting the environment from pollution and contamination.
As well as keeping chemicals out of production, some OEKO-TEX® certifications also require ethical standards. These standards require that products were made in factories that protect workers’ rights and safety. OEKO-TEX® also supports transparent supply chains.
What kind of products can be OEKO-TEX® certified?
Almost any textile product can get OEKO-TEX® certification. However, there are some subsectors of the fashion and textile industry where the certification is more prominent.
As traces of hazardous substances can cause a greater reaction to sensitive skin, brands in sectors such as underwear and children’s/baby wear are more likely to carry the certification.
Although OEKO-TEX® is widely used in the fashion sector, it isn’t exclusive to clothes. Other products, such as bed linen and home textiles can also be OEKO-TEX® certified.
What are the different standards?
OEKO-TEX® isn’t a one size fits all certification. It offers a full certification system of standards for products and organisations.
This is the product label you’re likely to see most often. OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 certified products are tested to ensure they are free from a variety of chemical residues that could be dangerous to you.
For a product to carry the label, every component must be free from harmful substances. This includes everything down to buttons and threads.
OEKO-TEX® carries out independent testing for both regulated and non-regulated substances. It updates the substances it tests for frequently to stay up to date with new scientific knowledge and legal regulations.
There are four different product classes, the first being for baby textiles, product class ii for those that come into direct contact with the skin, class iii for things like outerwear, and class iv for decoration items like curtains. Unsurprisingly, the strictest guidelines are for baby products.
Made in Green
The Made in Green certification is built on the four pillars of:
- environmentally friendly production
- product and consumer safety
- social responsibility, and
- transparent and traceable supply chains
Like other OEKO-TEX® standards, it involves testing for harmful chemical substances. However, it also puts a larger spotlight on the environmental and social ethics of production.
The Standard requires waste management systems and protocols for protecting natural resources. On the social front, aspects such as providing fair working conditions and child labour bans are part of the Standard.
Products with the Made in Green certification have also been tested against the OEKO-TEX® 100 Standard or Leather Standard harmful substances list.
Covering both environmental and ethical issues makes this OEKO-TEX® standard one of the body’s highest standards. It offers a one-stop shop in the confusing world of sustainable clothing certifications.
Specifically for leather products, the Leather Standard considers all production stages to ensure product safety.
Like Standard 100, Leather Standard tests are carried out to different levels of detail, depending on the intended purpose of the product. For example, products with intensive direct skin contact undergo more rigorous testing to ensure no harmful chemical residue.
STeP (standing for Sustainable Textile Production) is a standard for production facilities and considers six core factors for organisations to gain accreditation:
- chemical management
- quality management
- social responsibility
- workplace safety
- environmental performance and
- environmental management
Brands, retailers, and manufacturers producing leather and textiles can gain accreditation. This includes organisations at various processing levels, such as spinners and weavers.
It offers consumers a way to know that the products they buy were manufactured in safe, ethical and environmentally friendly facilities.
How does OEKO-TEX® ensure compliance?
When considering what OEKO-TEX® certified is, it helps to understand how it works. Especially as the sustainable market is awash with greenwashing.
The organisation works with independent partner institutes to test leather and textiles for harmful and toxic substances. Laboratory tests are used to test for a range of chemical substances. Independent partners help OEKO-TEX® to ensure compliance at all levels of production.
In some cases, third-party certifications that an organisation already has (e.g. the Fair Wear certification) can be taken into account. This is mainly for standards such as STeP which has a larger focus on ethical working conditions.
Why do we need OEKO-TEX®?
When choosing our outfit each morning, we may not often think about toxic chemicals. The unfortunate truth however is that fashion production is awash with them.
From dangerous AZO dyes that vibrantly colour clothing, to the myriad of chemicals used in leather tanning, fashion can be a toxic industry.
This abundance of chemicals is bad news for the environment, for workers along the supply chain and for the people wearing the clothes.
Chemicals used in the fashion sector have turned rivers in Bangladesh black. They have caused health issues ranging from skin conditions to cancer in local communities. Chemicals used in fashion can contribute to skin irritations even at the post-sale stage.
OEKO-TEX® helps to change this. Creating a more transparent and accountable sector, it is allowing ethical brands to be recognised. It also gives consumers a reliable way to buy safe products. It is showing that non-toxic fashion can be a part of the industry.
OEKO-TEX® vs GOTS
Another major player in sustainable certifications is the Global Organic Textile Standard, also known as GOTS. When considering what OEKO-TEX® certification is, you may be wondering how it measures up to GOTS and which one is a better certification.
Main focus differs
Both GOTS and two of the OEKO-TEX® Standards consider environmental and ethical factors in textile production. However, the core focus of the two does differ slightly:
The primary focus of GOTS is organic products. The primary focus of OEKO-TEX® is hazardous chemicals and substances that are known to be harmful to human health.
In the case of OEKO-TEX®, both organic and non-organic textiles can gain certification as long as they were produced following OEKO-TEX®’s framework. In the case of GOTS, only organic textiles (often organic cotton) can be certified.
This does limit the reach of GOTS, as over half of the clothing industry relies on synthetic fabrics.
When it comes to social ethics, GOTS and OEKO-TEX®, both have valuable requirements. GOTS’ ethical requirements, such as stringent working rights practices, are used across its certification.
However, as OEKO-TEX® has different standards, social requirements can differ between standards. For example STeP and Made in Green have more stringent ethical requirements than the 100 Standard.
OEKO-TEX® does still have social policies, with Standards such as the Made in Green and STeP requiring organisations to uphold policies regarding worker rights and safety.
However, end users need to understand that OEKO-TEX®’s Standard 100 and Leather Standard don’t require this.
Entire garment vs fabric only
Another core point is that with an OEKO-TEX® certified garment, chemicals used for the production of the entire garment, down to buttons and embellishments, are considered. With GOTS, it is generally just the fabric that is certified.
The environmental responsibility of OEKO-TEX® certified products, again, depends, on which OEKO-TEX® standard is considered.
The avoidance of harmful chemicals and substances is always a plus for the environment. However, some OEKO-TEX® standards go a step further with policies regarding environmental and waste management.
Conventional cotton is a known problem area for fashion’s sustainability. As GOTS certifies organic materials, it helps to solve this issue. As products must be organic (i.e. no fertilisers or pesticides used), the environmental advantages of GOTS certification start at the farming stage. This is strengthened by other environmental requirements along the supply chain.
Both GOTS and OEKO-TEX® provide valuable resources in textile production. Oeko-Tex offers a broader approach, covering areas of the industry, such as synthetics and the whole product, that GOTS doesn’t. Meanwhile, GOTS guarantees organic materials and covers more issues regarding ethical production.
To learn more about GOTS check out our article What does GOTS certified mean? Your definitive guide.
What is the OEKO-TEX® Certified Label Check tool?
The OEKO-TEX® label check tool allows consumers to check the validity of an OEKO-TEX® label. It helps to stop greenwashing and gives us confidence that a product actually holds OEKO-TEX® certification.
With the fashion sector famously opaque and greenwashing posing a major problem, this tool provides a valuable asset for conscious customers.
To learn more about greenwashing in fashion, check out our article Sustainable but not really: how to avoid greenwashing.
Frequently asked questions
What chemicals does OEKO-TEX test for?
OEKO-TEX® tests for many substances. These include banned AZO dyes, colourants that are carcinogenic or that cause allergies, pesticides in natural materials, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), PFOS, PFOA, phthalates (softeners), tin organic compounds, chlorinated phenols, and surfactant wetting agent residues (APEOs).
Is OEKO-TEX® ethical?
Of the four OEKO-TEX® standards two also look at whether working conditions are ethical are Made in Green and STeP. Standard 100 and the Leather Standard only look at the chemical safety of the product.
Does OEKO-TEX® mean no Pfas?
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are used to make our clothes stain, water and grease resistant. They are particularly used for coating outdoor clothing to make it waterproof and are virtually indestructible. They are also extremely toxic.
OEKO-TEX® tests for PFOA and PFOS including around 100 different types of PFAS but there are other PFAS that are not tested for. Therefore OEKO-TEX® does not mean no PFAS.
Does OEKO-TEX® mean no flame retardants?
OEKO-TEX® does not mean no flame retardants. Flame retardants are allowed except for those containing antimony trioxide / pentoxide. However, if new scientific evidence shows that chemicals are harmful to human health, OEKO-TEX reserves the right to remove these products from their approved list.
Does OEKO-TEX® mean no formaldehyde?
This depends on the product class. Formaldehyde is banned in product class i, which includes products for babies, but are allowed in other products.
Is OEKO-TEX® cruelty-free?
OEKO-TEX® does not certify cruelty-free. Products certified by their Leather Standard will have passed their chemical tests but this is sadly no guarantee that the product is cruelty-free.
How do you pronounce OEKO-TEX®?
OEKO-TEX have a great video on their Youtube channel explaining how it is pronounced in 10 different countries. The answer is that how it is pronounced depends on where you are!
Fashion doesn’t have to be toxic
While OEKO-TEX® alone won’t solve the environmental and ethical woes of the fashion sector, it does form a core part of building a more conscious industry.
It gives us a way to access products that are free from hazardous chemicals and, through the check tool, feel confident that we are not being greenwashed.
A widespread accrediting body, OEKO-TEX® has the agility to work across the fashion and textile industries. In an industry that has historically been awash with dangerous chemicals, OEKO-TEX® shows that fashion doesn’t have to be toxic. It proves that a clean, green tomorrow for fashion is possible.