The green Button and Bluesign – a path forward

H. Jackson Browne, New York Times best-selling author of Life’s Little Instruction Book said, “The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today.” The Green Button, a German government “meta label” is not yet a final method or confirmed best available technique. Instead, it is a large flat stone, underfoot, on the path to a new method of producing textiles that lessens the impact on life along that path, granting it room to grow as resources shrink.

All captions courtesy by bluesign

In 2014, the German government created the Green Button to achieve environmental, social and economic improvements along the entire textile supply chain, making certain companies do their due diligence. The meta label comprises corporate criteria that requires companies’ compliance in areas such as corporate policy, risk, and consequence management. It follows further that products earning the label also use textiles and trims that are up to a certified manufacturing standard. One of these companies is Bluesign.

The need for standardisation

The textile manufacturing industry needs to evolve and has been hindered as a result of the absence of a world-wide label that acknowledges a certified standard of production and product inputs. This need for a standardized label extends beyond the tangible aspects of manufacturing and must also include awareness for the health and safety of factory workers. In 2003, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, a textile manufacturer producing clothes for westerners, located in Bangladesh, killed almost 1200 people. In response, Gerd Muller, Germany’s Federal Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) stated, “We need a global ethic of responsibility in the supply chain.” The result is the Green Button.

The label is written in German, Grüner Knopf, and replaces the letter “O” with a green garment button. The label can be sewn into the garment, or at times is only mentioned by a company in their online platforms. To earn the label, 26 social and environmental criteria must be met, and they include prohibition of child labor, a minimum wage, and other employee rights. It puts the onus on the company to measure and report their environmental bearing, and to make certain employees have the proper protective gear and clean water to drink. The circular economy philosophy of using materials that break down to lessen resource burden is employed, and as a result, air and water pollutants are measured, which is a major benefit to the label. There is marked interest from textile and fashion producers to obtain the Green Button certification, and they are entering the analysis phase to identify proper procedures and improve upon areas that fall short.

The problem, however, is the existence of a pervasive amount of other green certification labels that ultimately confuse the consumer, negating their importance. The BMZ already has a list of several companies, including Bluesign, whom they can use to steer the process by using THE BLUE WAY by Bluesign, which creates a mutually agreed upon roadmap for companies to hit established, approved benchmarks. To confound matters, the meta label is only voluntary, which has its positives and negatives.

On the downside, the label is limited to the country of Germany so it is highly simplified in its scope, and it does not cover all methods of production, only parts of the textile process. In the modern era of social media hashtags, this is an easy target for companies looking to greenwash—meaning they choose to spend or allocate more resources to the marketing aspect of a label based on the current trend rather than embrace what the label means and incorporate it into their story—all of which only serves to undercut the meaning of these labels. This only adds to consumer confusion and is seen as another certification in a field that has several. Outspoken critics like Uwe Wötzel of the Clean Clothes Campaign states: “The initiative is good, but the implementation is not. The criteria are simply too weak,” referring to the Green Dot minimum wage being “so low that no one could live off it.” The trend however is clear. Textiles manufacturing needs to advance its ways.

A positive aspect of the label being voluntary is that it is not backed by stringent governmental regulation. This lends weight outside of Germany and speeds up implementation since it remains in the private sector. The hope is that the voluntary structure leads to potential mandatory manufacturing standards for the supply chain. Such a set of rules would mimic what Bluesign has already created for their assessment approach. Additionally, using gap analysis to bring products up to standards and creating a road map for companies to follow helps to position them as a supportive instrument for driving sustainability in the textile industry and potentially impacting the matrix for the Green Button.

The need for partnership

Relationships between private businesses and governments are complex and imperfect. Outside of social and environmental standards, the hope is to help the consumer determine which products are best for them and the environment by creating transparency and granting them peace of mind in making educated choices.

Often, progress can happen in leaps and bounds simply by getting the right people together at the right time. This is the hope of the label. However, hope is not a strategy. The introductory phase began in July 2019 and will run for two years. Over this period, government and private businesses will be going through an accreditation phase in hopes of speeding up the process for future companies. Bluesign is part of the Green Button accreditation phase but is only referenced in relation to the environment, and through best available techniques procures the use of sound chemistry and safe applications to minimize worker risk.

Brands will have the final say on the success or failure of the Green Button, depending on how they choose to market it as they tell the story behind their label, or choose a different route. Popular opinion however generally keeps business wanting less governmental oversight. This can be a major pitfall as private companies find it difficult to influence political processes. On the other hand, companies that possess scientific, complex and technical knowledge like Bluesign, must become integral to steering the political process so it can be implemented throughout the supply chain. Governments must counter by taking care to not drive companies away from their countries, while keeping their thumb on people and the environment if politicians wish to remain in office and survive an election.

A growing list of standards and awareness

There is a growing list of standards. Bluesign is certified for the entire production process of all types of textiles; Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is for all natural fabric materials (i.e., not synthetics); Responsible Down Standard (RDS) or Global Traceable Down Standard is for down-insulated products; OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certifies the absence of harmful chemical substances in textiles; Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is for products containing wool and Leather Working Group (LWG) standard for leather, suede and nubuck product or parts.

With so many different certifications and companies moving the manufacturing process into resource sustaining methods, consumers have another valuable resource. It is called Siegelklarheit, a German government initiative developed with the Geneva-based International Trade Centre, allowing consumers to see company ratings for private label brands.

Whatever platform label is used to evaluate products, one thing is clear: the future of textiles is about minimizing high impact chemicals, and focusing on circular economies, worker safety, and lowered environmental impacts. The Green Button may not be perfect, but it is a strong step in the right direction to fuse the private sector and governmental agencies in an effort to provide the consumer with the knowledge needed to find peace of mind and know more about the history of the products they purchase.