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Impact Over Compliance: The Trouble With Certification

Image credit: Thread

Have you heard the one about the fire extinguisher?

An auditor was completing an onsite assessment of a production facility for a major apparel brand when he noticed that fire extinguishers were mounted on devices that allowed them to slide up and down the wall. The auditor asked about this.

“Well,” the facility manager said, “you require that our fire extinguishers be 4 feet from the floor, but Brand X requires that they be 3 feet from the floor, and Brand Y requires 2 feet from the floor.”

It’s a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of auditing. A facility could lose points for having accessible working fire extinguishers, because of an arbitrary decision that optimal fire extinguisher height is 4 ft vs. 3 ft vs. 2 ft: A classic case of missing the forest for the trees.

Certification = Compliance. Not Impact.

There are few universally accepted certifications in the apparel industry. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is making headway with the Higg Index, which is the tool Thread adopted for our annual auditing process, but there is still a way to go before universal adoption. Once brands post their Higg scores publicly - the way our B Corp score is posted publicly, or the way New York restaurants post their sanitation grades - things will get interesting.

In the meantime, different brands ask for different certifications. It is frustrating to have made the investment in our Material Health Safety Certification through the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (one of the most stringent assessors and certification processes that exist) only to be asked, “but do you have X certification? We really like x certification, maybe you could get that?” Our Impact Department could run around collecting certifications like they’re hunting Pokémon, but does that lead to real problem solving?

Audits should ensure safety and quality, and inform improvement strategy. Too often, we are faced with an abundance of overlapping and redundant certifications - each assuring sustainability, responsibility and transparency. Many focus too much on observation and reporting. This results in a compliance status quo where we’re ensuring baselines are met, but without creating real change.

We’re focusing on a passing grade when we could strive for excellence.

Deciding which certification is worth the investment

Third-party certification validating the use of recycled content in our fabric is another question we face frequently. Thread has chosen to not pay for a recycling-specific certification because I don’t like investing in certifications that aren’t going to teach me something new about my supply chains.

Cradle to Cradle required me to get intimately involved in our production process at a molecular level. I learned more about the chemistry behind our product. I became more aware of areas of improvement I would not have known of had we not done extensive testing. Recycled content certification is not the same. I know our yarns come from recycled bottles. I’ve seen them, touched them, and watched them get melted and extruded into fiber. I know the men and women who collect them and process them into flake. We have the documentation (purchase orders, photos, packing slips, etc.) to prove it.

Getting a piece of paper saying our yarn is indeed recycled doesn’t help me do my job, which is to make the lives and environments impacted by our supply chains better. I start the evaluation process with four broad questions:

  1. Will we learn more about our product and materials?
  2. Can this open the door for Thread to work with other organizations and change industry standards?
  3. Will this help us prove something that is difficult to document?
  4. Will this help entrepreneurs in Haiti, Honduras, or elsewhere build stronger businesses?   

Justifying Cost

Just like every other department head, I have to fight for an annual budget. As the Director of Impact, when faced with the decision to sink $10,000 into certification vs. investing $10,000 directly back into our supply chain, it’s no contest as to where I’d rather spend the money.

We’re actively awarding microloans, expanded training, focusing on bringing pragmatic solutions to real problems faced by people collecting waste for a living. Do you know what I can do with $10,000 in the communities we work in? The problem is, it’s difficult to translate this level of supply chain involvement into earning points through traditional audit check boxes.

Investing in Improvement

I thought one of the most innovative and inspiring presentations at the Sustainable Brands 2016 San Diego conference was Kashi’s introduction of its certified transitional program. There are plenty of farmers practicing sustainable and responsible methods who are never going to pay to become certified organic because it would bankrupt them.

Kashi literally put its money where its mouth is and created a sourcing program helping farms transition to certified organic. I wanted to cheer when I saw this. Kashi believes so strongly in this standard that it’s helping to pay for it - partnering with farmers that would ‘fail’ their current certification requirements to support them through an improvement process. It’s leading by example.

Thread’s mission is to go to the poorest places in the world to turn trash into dignified jobs and useful stuff people love. We purposefully work in places that need improvement. We partner with our supply chains, invest in locally owned facilities, and implement improvement strategy to ensure that our trademark, Ground to Good™, lives up to its meaning at every step of our supply chain. I spend plenty of time in Haiti and Honduras walking around with a clipboard checking boxes, taking photos and reviewing paperwork. I also spend a lot of time meeting the families of our suppliers, riding in the trucks as they make recycling pick-ups, and sharing a meal with our collectors.

There isn’t a certification out there that replaces human connection and what you learn through authentic relationship building. Certification will continue to evolve and traceability will become more and more commonplace so we can shift focus away from the baseline and onto positive change.

In the meantime, we can have lively debates about the safest height for a fire extinguisher.


After studying business and knowing she didn’t want to work in a traditional corporate setting, Kelsey started her career in the non-profit sector. She loved working with passionate people and for a mission-driven organization, but was bothered by some of… [Read more about Kelsey Halling]