How to read clothing labels carefully and know what’s really sustainable

Labels are important for users who do not have direct access to a product’s manufacturing but would like to make sustainable fashion choices.

This section on Ethical Fashion is made possible with the support of Bhu:Sattva


We buy organic or sustainable clothing for their many benefits – to our own health, to the health of the maker, and that of the environment. Consumers prefer to make informed decisions and would not want to knowingly harm anyone in the process of consuming. With more people becoming conscious about their health and wellbeing, new brands and products emerge by the day to capture this growing market.

Clothing labels could be used by a registered company to claim its brand name, to furnish information about the fibre content and wash care of the product, details of the source manufacturer or where it was made, as well as for certification purposes. Many countries have strict guidelines about what should or should not be a part of a garment’s label. This is done as much for consumer safety as it is to protect the brand. Labels ensure the transparency of the claim made by the brand and help consumers care for the product so that it lasts as per the brand’s expectations and does not tarnish the product’s brand label. Reputed companies sometimes follow certain standard labelling methods as they have an international presence or supply to international buyers.



flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 Howard Lake

Eco-labels help communicate to the consumer information about the eco-friendliness of the product across its life cycle. It is the brand’s responsibility to share that with consumers in a direct and easily understandable way. Labels are important for users who do not have direct access to the product’s manufacturing but who would like to make sustainable fashion choices. In a world where production is disaggregated and largely outsourced, the garment label is one of the few ways to know what is being promised by the not-so-visible manufacturers.

Since eco-labels are voluntary and used to promote products based on their environmental benefits, there is no strict regulation or mandate in India around their use. This is true for all lifestyle products including textiles. We usually end up paying a bit more for products carrying the promises shown by brands so, it is important for consumers to identify brands that have good intentions and others that might not.

Unfortunately, since less than 10 % of India’s retail is organised, the country’s garment labelling laws are very vague and almost non-existent. Thus labels are often misused or left unused, leaving the consumer lost and confused.

Labelling laws and the sins of greenwashing

As per international (USA and Europe) garment labelling laws, no one can label a garment if they are not registered as the brand. One cannot sell a garment product without clear information about its composition and wash care mentioned on the label. Each fibre has its own wash guidelines and hence, a separate set of wash instructions. For example, wool and cotton cannot be washed or cared for in the same way and it is the brand’s responsibility to let the consumer know that. It is important to mention the exact composition of the fibre. For example, organic cotton, polyester etc. It is also necessary to furnish details of fibre content i.e. the percentage of organic cotton or of any other fibre used like spandex, polyester etc. (Yes, organic cotton is also used with polyester under organic exchange norms). Usually the fibre with the highest content in the garment needs to be mentioned first. Knowing the fibre content helps users decide on the usability, suitability and purchase of the fabrics.

You will find that many products neither mention the fibre composition nor the content. Many brands even get away with mentioning ‘organic’ in the name of the product but do not mention it in the label for fibre content. Ideally the garments should also mention the dye and colour on the garment or textile product, similar to how we would expect  food products to  show the details and the content of the ingredients .  Wouldn’t we love a world where we  all products are responsibly made and only those companies using chemicals would need to label their products?

Garments and health – The connection

Many children and adults are prone to textile contact skin allergies which are most often due to the content of the clothing they wear or the dyes and finishes given to the clothing or even due to the remnants of soap on washed garments. You might have bought an organic T-shirt to start a healthy lifestyle. But if you are allergic to the synthetic dyes used on it, how healthy would it be for you or for the environment? Unfortunately, many ‘low toxic’ and synthetic dyes are permissible under the Global Organic Textile Standard. These are synthetic dyes and colours not completely harmless to the user, environment or the maker.  This unfortunately is the only organic textile standard recognised worldwide for now and we hope it changes soon so that a distinction between herbal dyes and permissible chemical dyes on clothing labels is possible. Many fair trade companies are also going to the extent of putting names of the artisans who made the garment. And some go the extra mile to tickle your funny bone.

So, labels are great a communication tool and should be used responsibly by clothing brands and read well and followed by consumers.

Labels as a tool of consumer power

So, as a consumer, what should you know in order to make an informed choice? How do you read and make sense of product labels, know what applies to you and pick products that match your needs? Here are some tips:

  1. Be aware that with a growing market and lack of awareness, words and branding could be misused. Educate yourselves on the different, commonly used terms and jargon.
  2. Beware of greenwashing: If you enter a store where you see posters advertising ‘Organic’ clothing, do not assume that all products are organic. Read the label. See if it mentions the use of organic fibres and which ones it uses.
  3. Know that organic textiles may also use chemicals. While organic cotton fibre is natural and organically grown, the colours used on it may not be so.
  4. Take the effort of reading the label and respecting it. Read and follow the wash instructions so you are ready for any changes in the colour or shape of the garments.
  5. Use direct communication or social media tools to ask your preferred brands to be more transparent in their labelling processes.


The Sustainable Fashion Hub is a series that examines shifts in the the global fashion industry to more sustainable and ethical practices and processes, with a special focus on India. It explores what goes into creating a just and sustainable fashion value chain – from the creation of garments and lifestyle accessories to making them available to consumers. All content on the hub is produced with 100% editorial independence by The Alternative. 

The Hub is supported by logo, India’s first certified organic designer apparel brand in India. With products that are directly sourced from organic cotton farmers at fair trade terms. Bhu:Sattva® uses natural colours, vegetable and herb dyes and goes further to work on reviving various forms of traditional weaving and handloom. Information on its products and processes can be found at


Sonal Baid is the Founder and Director of Aura Herbal Wear, an Ahmedabad based, GOTS certified company producing organic, herbal dyed, fairtrade fabrics and clothing. more


  Top Stories on TA

  Top Stories in LIFESTYLE

   Get stories like this in your inbox

Sonal Baid is the Founder and Director of Aura Herbal Wear, an Ahmedabad based, GOTS certified company producing organic, herbal dyed, fairtrade fabrics and clothing. more

Discuss this article on Facebook