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Green By Design Episode 202: The Scoop on OEKO-TEX® with Ben Mead

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

OEKO-TEX® is one of the most well-known, eco-friendly materials certifications in the industry. OEKO-TEX® Representative Ben Mead dives into the history of the certification, how the organization keeps track of all the new chemicals that are created, the certification process and more.

Ben Mead, US Representative, OEKO-TEX® International

Erica Reiner (00:05):

Hi. Hey Ben, thank you so much for joining me here on green by design. For those of you tuning in today this show grade by design is meant to help professionals in the home industry and design industry to find a voice for a cleaner and greener way forward. And I am your host, Erica Reiner from eco method interiors. And I have with me here today, Ben Mead and Ben is very interesting because he has a background in chemistry and textiles chemistry, and has used that to work within different companies that deal with products and textiles. And that's really exciting because as I always talk about when you're trying to green a home and a home design, it there's a good, better, best system that a lot of us use where we're trying to find things are good things that are a little bit better, and then the things that are better.

Erica Reiner (01:07):

And for me, best often includes a third party certification indicating that there's no harmful substances or that something was made responsibly or so on and so forth within the green or clean world. And so what's great is that today we're going to have a little bit of an inside look at that sort of cation process and what that means and how it all works. And that is what Ben's expertise is as he oversees. The O E K O texts certification, whole Riggleman role here for the United States for the whole Insteon or Hohenstein company, which is one of the third party companies that are doing certifications under that label. So thank you so much for coming Ben and bearing with me through right. Technical difficulties and spending the time talking to me today.

Ben Mead (02:12):

Yeah, that's great, Erica, thanks for having us there. Thanks for having me and letting us talk and share sort of our story and what we're doing and how we're sort of relating to what, what customers are wanting and what consumers looking for. I think a little bit more in the marketplace today.

Erica Reiner (02:27):

Absolutely. Now tell me just a little bit about how you came to be your journey, like how you came to be doing what you're doing now and what that path was like for you and what you think about what you're doing right now.

Ben Mead (02:44):

Yeah, I mean, I think it would start in terms of sort of education and really studying, you know, as you alluded to having a degree in chemistry and textiles is not maybe that common growing up in North Carolina, certainly there's a lot more industry there. And so I, you know, went to university and studied both of those and really focused in on, okay, what are you, what do you do with that? You know, just like everybody else, no matter what you're doing, maybe you go to school and don't know exactly what that's going to look like. And so I started down the path of working for a textile company, chemical company as an internship and sort of working in their R and D type lab and sort of decided, okay, that's not really where I see myself spending the next 30, 40 years of my career.

Ben Mead (03:29):

And so and in that process kind of learning okay, that we're making a lot of products. And what does that look like in terms of hazards and health and things like that. So as I went back and decided, okay, what do I want to do next? Then ended up going and working for a brand, a sports brand and sort of stumbled into an opportunity to work in there and development around working with their supply chain and understanding, you know, how do they manage the expectations of suppliers but also how do you manage more sustainability aspects? So part of that was chemistry, which was a good fit. And so I think that's how I found myself there. But then we ended up working through, you know, expectations around water and emissions and then even sort of how do material innovations factor in with all of those considerations as well.

Erica Reiner (04:23):

Right. And were you, did you know much about sustainability or green things before that role and that work life, or was that sort of like an eyeopening experience for you? Like how did those, how interested were you in it? How much did you get to learn or how much did you get to bring to that?

Ben Mead (04:46):

Yeah, I mean, I think that I, for that I brought a little bit of an expectation. I mean, it's always kind of, you go to your first job and you never know exactly what to expect anyway, and that shapes, I think a lot of how how you, how you work in general, but you know, having some classes in school and talking about, you know, chemicals that are used in industry and what do they maybe mean on the finished products, but also what do they mean in terms of a manufacturing standpoint? So I would say I was familiar with it, but at the same time, I think it was a time when that was really growing from a consumer brand perspective as well. So I think within the organization, there wasn't a ton of experience. We were all sort of learning as we went as well.

Ben Mead (05:27):

And so I think just working for a company that was really focused on, on, you know, learning that and putting resources behind it was a great, you know, was a great opportunity for myself, but also you can certainly see that still going forward. I think at that time there were maybe six or seven people within the whole company that were working on sustainability related initiatives, and now they probably have a couple hundred people that have it directly in their title, aside from people that are doing it, you know, on, on their own. So I think that that is it's certainly a lot more prevalent today than it was back then. Yeah.

Erica Reiner (06:02):

Wow. So now are you still in North Carolina?

Ben Mead (06:09):

No. No, actually I live in Indiana. So like you, you mentioned we're the representatives of, of OEKO-TEX® here in the U.S. and, and my team is sort of scattered because we're working both with manufacturers of products, but also with brands that are trying to implement it into their own chemical management strategies or their sustainability strategies. So like everybody's doing right now, we're remote, but we were, we were remote even before then. So most of our team has working from home offices and out there supporting companies where they are

Erica Reiner (06:41):

Interesting. Okay. Pronounced, pronounced the shorthand of the certification for me.

Ben Mead (06:47):

Sure. So OCO techs, so it's a German Austrian foundation. So it's that's where the pronunciation comes from and it really means eco. So OCO in German means eco. And so that's still carries through, I think I've heard anecdotally the story that if they imagined 27 years ago, 28 years ago, when it was founded that this was going to be an international standard and something that was international and recognizable, maybe there would be a little bit different naming, but we got too far down that, down that path. And now, you know, there's too much branding behind it that you're not going to be changing the name now. So here we are. That's our number one question in the U S how do, how do we pronounce?

Erica Reiner (07:32):

Yeah. okay, well, I'm so glad I finally learned it. I say all different kinds of ways of my mind when I read it. And normally I would just spell it out like that on this podcast. But now I know, oh, go texts. Okay, cool. So the point of it maybe you could give us a little bit of background on what it is and why it's beneficial and maybe especially if you can, or if not, I'll pop in how that might be applicable to the interior design world, or if you've ever worked with any design, like specifically design trade companies.

Ben Mead (08:12):

Sure. So the, the organization of OEKO-TEX® has been around, like I mentioned since 1992, nearly 30 years now. And it really has its foundation around chemical safety and making sure that it's a clear communicated message to a consumer, that the product has been tested and as free from harmful levels of, of those substances. So chemicals that are used or have been traditionally used in, in textiles is where the standard started. So, you know, the name standard 100, which is one of the standards under the umbrella of OEKO-TEX®. It gets, it gets its name from the fact that there were initially a hundred substances that were restricted. So now 30 years later, there's about 350 plus substances that are on that list. So we certainly see the, the knowledge about what could be used or could be hazardous growing. And that influences how does the standard evolve.

Ben Mead (09:11):

And so, you know, new substances are added restrictions, get tighter legislation changes, all of those things can, can influence how the standard changes. And likewise OEKO-TEX® has changed as well. So there's that still the core standard, it's what OEKO-TEX® is most known for, but there are other standards for chemical suppliers or for more sustainability practices and manufacturing and, and ultimately all of that, you know, kind of boils down to what does it look like from a consumer and how do they, how are they able to recognize, you know, there's a standard on that product that gives me some sort of assurance and how easy is it for me to understand what's the meaning behind it? Because even within OEKO-TEX®, there are a couple of different consumer-facing standards or labels. And so even knowing those differences, there can be significant,

Erica Reiner (10:04):

Right. So it's great to hear that all these new substances have been added to the list. Does OEKO-TEX® headquarters sort of assess like what, okay. Basically we know that since world war II, so many new chemicals have been invented thousands and thousands and tens of thousands. So how did they, do you know, how they might decide or learn about a new one that's become out onto the market and be like, okay, we're going to put that on our list and we're going to include that in our certification process.

Ben Mead (10:44):

Yeah. So part of it comes from legislation. So legislation is a big piece of it. So it protects is a global organization. So like we're sitting here in the U S we have counterparts in all other production and retail countries. And so as part of that annual review process, that expertise from the different regions and the different institutes. So the different labs that are, that are coming together and supporting OEKO-TEX® are bringing that information and saying, okay, these are new substances that we see coming in as a concern from, you know, research or from, you know, other scientific, maybe even NGO communities and saying, okay, we're starting to talk about some of these, and we know that they're being manufactured. And, and OpenText then deciding, okay, is that first, is it relevant to textiles? And second, is it, is it relevant in terms of hazard something that we should be concerned about? And then part of it comes just from the experience of testing, most of the, the implementation. So the actual certification is done by testing laboratory. So we're testing for OEKO-TEX®, but we're also testing in other cases. And so we collect a lot of data and we start to see a little bit more, what are substances that are not being up as we're testing products and, you know, what do we need to know a little bit more about those,

Erica Reiner (12:05):

Right. That's great. So pretty much from all over the world, which is great, because I would assume that different parts of the world, different people in different countries are developing different things. So it's and historically in the U S we have outlawed a lot fewer than Europe. So that I think is really important to mention. What are a couple, have you ever seen, like a couple of substances that have been added to the list that you were like, oh my God, like, that's so crazy. Like, of course we should be avoiding these in our textiles. Like, have there ever been like some super concerting ones that you're like, what the heck?

Ben Mead (12:45):

Yeah. I mean, I think that it doesn't, it doesn't normally work that way, that we're so familiar with these chemicals and then all of a sudden they get at it, you know, certainly you get substances that you might've heard about in other places that then come across. So you come across to like textiles or to some consumer products. So I would say, you know, it's kind of similar in the sense of, like, we hear about BPA and in food and in food liners and things like that. There also could be products that are you know, consumer products that are within our scope that could be made with polycarbonate residents where that could be relevant. So I think it's more the case that like, oh, I didn't think that that chemical was used to make that product rather than that's a chemical that we should restrict.

Ben Mead (13:30):

You know, when we see a lot around, you know, what I think is, is relevant, you know, even more for your listeners to around lame retardants around water repellents and, you know, oil repellents and things like that, that can be, especially in the case that a textile is supposed to be more durable and you know, prevent other safety hazard. How do we, how do you manage that risk along both of those? And so I think those are areas where we continue to see more, more growth in restrictions both around flame returns and around sort of oil and water repellent technology.

Erica Reiner (14:08):

Right. And you mean, you might be referring to the restrictions in terms of acceptable levels.

Ben Mead (14:16):

Yeah. Both acceptable levels or really within industries kind of what's the unnecessary, what's the necessary use? You know, certainly within OEKO-TEX® and within, within the standard 100, there's a whole list of chemicals, but then there's also different use scenarios that are important as we factor in. So if we know a product is going to be used for baby apparel, we might consider the testing requirements and the limit value is a little different than, you know, a decorative item that we don't think anybody's going to touch. And they're certainly not going to put in their mouth. Right. Because the exposure of how they get those chemicals is going to be a little different,

Erica Reiner (14:54):

Right? Yeah, absolutely. So you're okay. So you're considering a lot of human behavior factors you're considering use factors you're considering quantity or level like parts per million or trillion or whatever. You're considering a few different things to keep people safe. Now I have to confess when you mentioned North Carolina, I was going to ask a controversial, or maybe like a touchy question. I don't know. I was going to ask if you've received any pushback or yeah, like just push back based on the fact that historically redder states have been a little bit more adverse to environmental or governmental, which can include environmental controls or limits or things like that. So I'd be curious too, to know now about any instances like that, if you know how you've come across, where the companies come across, because what I would like to see is it is sustainability and in particularly the way into sustainability as a whole, through the lens of human health and safety be a non partisan issue, but I'd love to get any thoughts on that, that you might have. I know it's a little bit of a tougher question.

Ben Mead (16:23):

Well, I mean, it is, I certainly can take a little bit of an easy way out of it because we're all contexts and the standards are really private standards. They're voluntary standards. So it's not something that is, you know, mandated from a legislative standpoint. And so in the same way that you, you know, you talked a few minutes ago, you know, generally the U S doesn't have as strict or requirements as a lot of places around the world. And so I think that, that, you know, that fact alone has made it a little bit slower for adoption of a standard like standard 100 from OEKO-TEX® here in the U S just because it's really driven by a different, a different mechanism pulls it, right. So it's really pulled by either a brand's commitment or a consumer demand for it. And so we see that a little bit more, I think a lot of times, if I'm going to talk about resistance that I get are people calling me up and saying, Hey, I'm mad that I have to do this.

Ben Mead (17:22):

You know, it's not because they've been told by legislation that they have to do it it's most likely because a consumer asks them to do it or their customer asks them to do it. So, you know, joking aside, it's like the responses then, well, if you don't want it, you know, if you don't want to do it, that's your choice. But you know, this is the, this is what we're seeing, and we're seeing more and more consumers asking for it, partly because they're seeing it at certain retailers and certain you know, they're more and more opportunity to find it. And so that's driving more and more expectation that it should be available or there should be choices, or at least they should have an easy way to know that it's there or know about, you know, is the product I'm buying safe outside of us legislative record.

Erica Reiner (18:06):

Yes. And you just hopped into my favorite topic, which is, you know, market driven cross section between economics and environmental issues. Because as you said in this country, we're super, you know, capitalist market driven. And so for, in order for OEKO-TEX® to become or widely applied or on lots of different things, it has to be driven by market demands and purchasing, which has a lot of what this podcast is about, is to help designers, help their clients and help the industry as a whole, be able to put our money where our mouth is and make those, you know, economic gains, those market share gains where it's more widely available. Maybe the price of things that are certified goes down because it evens the playing field in terms of spending, you know, the cost to get something certified. So that's really, really important to me.

Erica Reiner (19:18):

And I think to everyone who wants to understand how to make an industry or a state or any, and it, an organization greener is in this country while I think legislation is huge, I think both are hugely important top down legislation, et cetera. I also think we'll see really big changes if we can a educate a lot of people about the options that are out there and, you know, good, better, best ways of purchasing things. And B once they're educated about that, actually choosing those products and materials. And then hopefully over time we see cost of those things come down. Just like I always reference like the agricultural movement when, you know, organic food and non-GMO, and locally grown became more popular and more affordable. I always apologize to anyone who's heard me say this before, but I always use like the example of the time that I found in trader Joe's that organic spaghetti was like the dollar cheaper than the regular. And I was like, we've done it.

Ben Mead (20:30):

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think it's true in a sense too, from the, I cannot like the economics of being able to put a label on your products and say that, okay, it's free from harmful substances, or it's been tested for these harmful substances, mean that you've invested money in testing it to know that's true. To a certain extent, I mean, there certainly are other pieces that are important, which is knowing the supply chain and knowing what went into the recipes to make it in the first place. And then the testing itself can be more or less like confirmation, but you know, it's no secret that, you know, a lot of the products that are made are made by producers that are, you know, that are making similar, you know products for other companies as well. So if I buy a product from one brand in the marketplace, it might have come from the same factory from the same suppliers as another one.

Ben Mead (21:24):

And so even though it might look totally different, what's important to OEKO-TEX® is what's the inputs that went into it. And so there is a piece of strategy there that everybody wins by. If they're, if they're supporting a certification and saying, okay, I'm buying raw materials coming from this source, and that source has already certified their products. Then there can be some economy of scale in terms of the next person that comes along. Not having to ask them to spend another thousand dollars testing for the same chemicals to get the same answer they expected. And so I think that's what we've seen change a little bit more in the last 15 or 20 years is that, that, you know, companies started to develop their lists and they develop them kind of in silos, but as they started to, to understand and see what are other companies doing with these lists, they learn that they're pretty similar. Right. And so being able in a way to if I'm a brand and I say, okay, I have a list of chemicals. I don't want, we can agree on that, but do I need to go out there and ask for my own test, if I know that that company I'm buying from already has a certification, probably not. Right. So you might do some spot checking, but you can, you know, you're not asking them to add on another cost and certainly that benefits you and it benefits your customer as well.

Erica Reiner (22:45):

That's a really great point. I hadn't thought of before of how that economies of scale would work. And in general, have you seen more and more companies sign on to get the certification? Like what kind of popularity gains have you seen over time? Like one of my little, I have to cut out some dog barking. Sorry. what have you seen in terms of positive shifts in your side of the industry?

Ben Mead (23:15):

Yeah, I mean, there certainly is a lot of increase in, give me one second

Erica Reiner (23:22):

Before you answer that. I think we're going to address the dog's situation. Okay. There we go.

Ben Mead (23:27):

All right. Yeah, I mean, we've definitely seen an increase in demand for the certifications in the market. And I think that part of that is driven by, you know, every company that's selling a product has competitor, and as they see products being sold that are labeled then that sort of starts to, to ask, Hey, how do we, how can we get that? And so we fee a lot of people that are starting down the process of getting 100 certification to really start at those places where they have suppliers that already have a certificate and get that included into their into their labeling or into their portfolio.

Erica Reiner (24:13):

Thank you for that. Okay. So one of the last things I have on my list to ask you is do, what do you want us to know that we haven't covered yet maybe on behalf of your company or the topic as a whole?

Ben Mead (24:30):

Yeah, I think in terms of what do we want to know a lot of it's driven by the fact that, okay, there's this demand, you know, like we talked about outside of distillation is really driven from a consumer perspective. So they expect expectation that a certification is valuable and then it's available is brands, retailers, producers. They need to hear that or they're going to prioritize other things. And so I think that that sort of number one for us is that, okay, consumers needing to understand what does the, what does the certification mean and what value does it have for them? And then then second sort of, you know, how do you prioritize what's? What does sustainability mean for you in terms of, is it chemicals going into it? Is it chemicals and social where it was made? Is it environmental from a manufacturing standpoint or is it all of those? There are certifications that exist in the market related to all of those holistically. You don't have to just settle for one and one piece of it.

Erica Reiner (25:40):

Well, very well said. Thank you so much for your time today. I so appreciate all of your really interesting insider insights. Let us know where one place that our listeners can find you or the company or anyone you want to be as the representative.

Ben Mead (26:03):

Yeah, I mean, so the easiest way to find companies that are selling OEKO-TEX® certified products is to go to the OEKO-TEX® website and look at a buying guide. So there's a free tool that's there that, that companies either a B2B companies are buying products or consumers can find. And so, again, that's just that OEKO-TEX®.com.

Erica Reiner (26:23):

That's perfect. And so as designers, we will be able to look, go on there and look for sheets or throw blankets or something like that, that we might need. That's a perfect tool. Thank you so much again, for explaining all of these really interesting things to us and giving a little peek, the curtain. I always talk about this sort of occasion and I so appreciated it. So we will see you next time and thank you so much for joining. Thanks.

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