Ethical & Sustainable Clothing Brands
– Our Buy Ensemble Picks –
Unfortunately, fashion isn’t the cleanest industry in the world. The rapid production of clothing is affecting human health, our precious resources, and our shared ecosystems. But, there are ethical and sustainable clothing brands that are raising the standard for how our clothes should be made. These brands regard people and planet as top priorities within their supply chains, so we can purchase their clothing in good conscience.
That’s why we’ve created this page here, on some of the most ethical clothing brands in the industry. We wanted to make it easier for you, for whatever you’re looking for, to ensure that the clothes you wear (and the clothing brands you support) represent your belief that people and the planet should be put above profits.
Our Buy Ensemble Picks: Sustainable & Ethical Fashion Brands
Reformation makes timeless eco-friendly pieces that are bound to last a lifetime. While they do have a new activewear line and day-to-day wear, we love this ethical fashion brand for their dresses and wedding attire. The company built their own factory in Los Angeles and uses deadstock fabric to create iconic, limited-in-run clothing. Plus, they have a wide size range and provide fair working conditions for all garment workers.
Sustainable materials are core to everything at MATE, with Tencel and Organic cotton as crucial elements to each item. We love their commitment to organic materials paired with their hyper-localized supply chain. Keeping everything local to their Los Angeles home base enables them to pay a living wage and ensure sustainable practices at each factory. While they aren’t certified fair trade, MATE’s factories meet fair-trade requirements.
We love GF for eco-friendly fashion. GF uses recycled materials for their buttery soft fabric and everything from fishing nets to plastic bottles are processed into their matching activewear sets. Their factory in Hanoi, Vietnam is SA8000 Certified (which overlaps with fair trade requirements), meaning it prioritizes ethical labor practices, fair wages, and adequate benefits for all workers. Plus, their size range is inclusive from XXS to 6XL
Pact’s goal is to be Earth’s Favorite™ Clothing Company. This sustainable fashion brand uses eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton from fair trade factories, reducing chemical and water usage. In its manufacturing process, Pact is a member of Fair Trade USA and its factories are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) Certified. Their lines for men, women, babies and kids are perfect for everyday wear at a very affordable price.
tentree’s eco-friendly clothing for men, women, and kids range from lounging essentials to athletic wear and casual dresses. Their fabrics are as close to zero waste as possible, which reduces the item’s overall impact on the planet. Their organic cotton is also fair trade certified. As a Certified B Corp, tentree’s manufacturing is extremely ethical, with producers considered from farmers to seamstresses.
Patagonia’s outdoor apparel uses organic cotton and eco-friendly materials alongside ethical and sustainable fashion practices in their supply chain. Some products are Fair Trade Certified and the brand puts an emphasis on repair and reuse.
Patagonia is another B Corp dedicated to slow fashion. Check out their Worn Wear collection for gently used clothing at a steep discount, keeping it out of landfills.
People Tree is a UK-based ethical brand that produces beautifully crafted women’s clothing in fair trade certified factories. Their items are colored with low-impact dyes, free from harmful chemicals, and use organic cotton. People Tree’s items are also vegan, and Fair Trade Certified.
If you’re on the hunt for ethical and sustainable fashion for workplace essentials or casual wear, People Tree is a wonderful option. But, they don’t have an incredibly wide size range so keep that in mind!
B Corp EILEEN FISHER is a circular, eco-friendly, and ethical brand producing simple, chic, and sustainable women’s clothing and shoes. While the brand has been using traceable, organic, and natural fibers for years, the work doesn’t stop there.
EILEEN FISHER is working to combat human trafficking in supply chains, improve their leather cultivation, and embrace true circularity through repair & recycling textiles. They use fair trade practices in their factories and organic cotton in many pieces.
Beyond environmental sustainability, ABLE is a pioneer among sustainable fashion brands taking action on workers’ rights. In 2018, they were the first to openly publish their lowest wages and advocate for a living wage.
In addition to their admirable social endeavors, ABLE approaches each material used in their production with an ethical eye. Their leather goods are made from ethically sourced and recovered hides from the meat industry, and all the scrap metal from their jewelry production is reused.
Looking for Something Specific?
Want to learn how to get your brand listed in our directory? Get connected with us here.
The Issues in the Fashion Industry
Fast Fashion & Overproduction
What Is Fast Fashion?
Just as its name implies, fast fashion refers to the rapid process of designing, manufacturing, and stocking new clothing items. The model is dependent on creating a high volume of pieces and selling them at a low price, yielding high profits. Unfortunately, garment workers and the planet pay that cost.
Clothing items made via fast fashion come from some of the biggest brands, like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara. These brands, among others, produce a staggering amount of clothing each year. In 2018, H&M had $4.3 million worth of unsellable inventory. Considering how cheap each item is, that’s tons and tons of clothing, each made with raw materials and a high carbon footprint.
Embedded within the fast fashion industry is a crucial marketing and advertising angle that provokes mindless consumption among consumers. Fast fashion companies might be overproducing, but consumers are also overconsuming.
One response to the crisis fast fashion has laid before us is simple: slowing down. The slow fashion industry is moving to more mindful, ethical, and sustainable methods of production.
What is Slow Fashion?
Slow fashion seeks to deliver high-quality, durable clothing when consumers need something new. These brands oversee their supply chains and thoughtfully select (or build their own) factories to ensure fair working conditions. Some brands pursue certifications like climate neutral to help offset the negative impact of the clothing industry.
Companies like Patagonia are experts in the slow fashion industry. Not only do they offer repair and resale programs for gear, they also explicitly tell shoppers not to buy an item unless they really need it.
Working & Labor Conditions
Unsafe & Dangerous Working Conditions
The Rana Plaza collapse, an incident in Bangladesh where more than 1,000 people died, showed the devastating reality of apparel manufacturing and the harsh conditions that workers tolerate around the world, particularly in Asia. Garment workers are forced into low-paying jobs in cramped, unventilated factories, suffer physical and verbal abuse, and breathe in toxic fibers and fumes that can cause disease.
A number of disasters have occurred in these factories besides the Rana Plaza disaster, including multiple deadly fires at factories in Bangladesh and New York City in 1911. These disasters illustrate how little regard is given to the safety of these workers.
Most workers in the fashion industry don’t make a living or fair wage. Instead, they can be paid per piece, a rate as low as 2-6 cents each. In Los Angeles, the United States capital of clothing production, after a 60-70 hour workweek, employees can take home roughly $300.
Once you see the “soul” of a shoe, you can start to recognize which are better for the world. We’ve done the work for you in our list of Sustainable Shoes! Certifications will also help you do the trick—keep an eye out for Carbon Neutral, B-Corporation, Leather Working Group, Fair Labor Association, Canopy, PETA, OCS, & GOTS certifications.
The fast fashion industry needs costs to be low at each step in the supply chain in order to survive. One way to maintain cheap labor costs is a form of modern slavery: child labor. In the cotton industry, one of fashion’s most ubiquitous raw materials, children are often forced to work in the fields during harvest season and live in unsanitary, hot barracks. In factory scenarios, children are seen as “obedient workers who slip under the radar”.
These exploitative practices are typically unknown by the companies outsourcing their labor to these factories because the work can easily be subcontracted to other facilities. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible. The entire premise of making cheap clothing is dependent on impoverished families who have no other option but to send their children off in hopes of a better life.
A number of solutions exist to bring transparency into supply chains. Fair trade movements and certifications (by Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade) seek to remedy some of the destructive social inequities in the fashion industry. By meeting certain criteria, producers can earn a fair trade label, which means the workers make a living wage, have access to crucial workers’ rights like unions and health benefits. Fair trade also prohibits the use of child labor.
Founded by competitors Nisolo and ABLE, the Lowest Wage Challenge is a movement directly calling out the “business as usual” practices in the fashion industry. The organization estimates that only 2% of the people who make clothing earn a living wage. The challenge encourages consumers to ask their favorite fashion brands to publish their lowest wage, in an effort to achieve transparency and encourage accountability.
The production of textiles contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined and the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and by 2050, it’s expected to reach 50%. Not only is the industry contributing directly to climate change, it also pollutes the planet at nearly every step in the supply chain.
Here are a few of the fast fashion industry’s most dangerous crimes against the planet.
Textile waste comes in a few forms in the fashion industry. First, in the manufacturing of clothing, there are scraps. Just imagine cutting the shape of a t-shirt into a piece of paper. All the unused paper is thrown away, right? The same goes for fabric. These irregularly shaped scraps are seen as unusable in the fashion industry.
Deadstock fabrics are another often thrown away item in clothing production. Deadstock is the fabric that’s overordered by one producer and either dumped or rescued.
The other side of textile waste falls on the consumer. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that landfills received 11 million tonnes worth of textiles from Americans. It can take hundreds of years for these materials to decompose in a landfill and they release greenhouse gas emissions like methane as they do, which perpetuates climate change.
Freshwater is a very precious resource on our planet and cotton production accounts for 3% of it.
Pollution exists in nearly every step of the supply chain. In the growing process of materials like inorganic cotton, pesticides and herbicides runoff into local waterways, harming marine life.
On the production side, dyeing clothing is a huge contributor to pollution. The fashion industry accounts for 20% of industrial water pollution. Especially in places like Bangladesh with few restrictions on what can be dumped, wastewater from factories (which is essentially a mixture of heavy metals, dyes, and carcinogenic chemicals) is poured directly into rivers and streams, which are a source of drinking water. Not to mention, fish have largely died out in these areas, which impacts the health of the entire ecosystem, humans included.
Distressed denim is one of the biggest contributors to these chemical cocktails and chemical exposure. Cotton is dyed with indigo to get the classic blue color, but chemicals like bleach and formaldehyde are used to give a more worn look to the final product.
Perhaps even more disturbing, that same wastewater is used to water crops and textile dyes have been found in vegetable and fruit samples collected in Bangladesh, the second-largest exporter of garments.
Pesticides & Agriculture
We can almost guarantee that every person has an item in their closet made from cotton. It’s not just t-shirts either. Athletic wear and denim are made from cotton yarn too! In fact, nearly 30% of the yarn we use for making clothing is from cotton. 27 million tons of cotton are produced per year and conventional crops are incredibly dependent on pesticides and herbicides. Cotton is one of the most chemically treated crops in the world.
Pesticides, even when used in accordance with their legal application methods, are dangerous for the health of farmworkers, local waterways, and the soil. It’s been proven by multiple studies that farmworkers exposed to pesticides at work are at a higher risk for deadly cancers. Once that cotton is processed into clothing, pesticides can still linger and make contact with our skin.
As consumer awareness grows, an increasing number of sustainable fashion companies are emerging with new ways to save deadstock fabrics, recycle used clothing, and use low impact dyes, seek certifications like Climate Neutral, and source organic materials.
Perhaps our best tool in reimagining the fashion industry is circular fashion.
As explained by fashion innovator Shamini Dhana, circular fashion is defined by four strategies:
“The first one is you designed a piece of clothing with cyclability in mind. The ability to disassemble, the ability to use materials that have already been in the system. So these are what we call designing for cyclability.
The second strategy is you take back. So the brands take back clothing, empowering the customer. When the life of the clothing is done, then your brand will have a real take-back program. And we’re doing that as well.
The third one is using the current garment. So your secondhand clothing, and having a resale to that. So you may have noticed the spike in the Gen Z and the millennials, all wanting to wear vintage clothes and they’re shopping in thrift stores. It’s a $51 billion market, believe it or not, and really pushing, that’s the third one, you know, you’re using garments and you reselling it.
And then of course, the fourth one is what we call recycling, you take the deadstock or you’re taking the fabric as feedstock, putting it into a machine, using new breakthrough technology and a new fiber comes out.”
Creating a fully circular fashion industry is possible! We believe that a combination of efforts from consumers to producers to policymakers can incentivize and push more brands to embrace circularity.
Ethical Fashion — FAQ
Why is ethical fashion important?
Ethical fashion is important because it prioritizes people and the planet above profit. Ethical fashion shows a demonstrated commitment to remedying toxic practices in the fashion industry like exploitation of workers, child labor, low wages, environmental pollution, and the exacerbation of climate change.
Why is ethical fashion expensive? Are more expensive clothes more ethical?
If you’re new to the ethical fashion scene and seeing slightly more expensive prices than you’re used to, that’s simply a reflection of what these items actually cost to make.
Because the fast fashion industry is reliant on cheap labor and dangerous, harmful practices, the adjustment to ethical fashion can seem like a pricey one. But, don’t fret. You can still be an ethical consumer by purchasing used clothing at a highly discounted rate.
Keep in mind, not all expensive clothes are ethical. Some are just expensive because they have a certain brand name that society perceives as luxurious. When you start shopping ethically, compare various ethical and sustainable fashion brands. We guarantee you’ll find a quality product in your price range that’s better for the planet and people on it!
What makes a clothing brand ethical or eco-friendly?
Clothing brands that are “ethical” or “sustainable,” are respecting workers and are being mindful of their environmental impact at every stage of production.
Of course, it can be difficult to identify who is/is not sustainable or ethical out in the world. While there isn’t a perfect step-by-step (that’s why we’ve created this page), here are some things we look out for:
- Certifications — Certifications aren’t necessarily the end all be all, but they are a sign that a business has made a level of commitment that not everyone else has. As it relates to fashion, look for: B Corporations, fair trade, GOTS Certified Organic Cotton, Regenerative Organic, and bluesign.
- Documentation — We LOVE it when brands in any industry show us how sustainable they are versus tell us. Look at the company’s website. Do they heavily document their sustainability practices? What materials do they use and where they get them? Or, are they just telling you that they have “a commitment to sustainability” and use “eco-friendly materials at every turn.” Look for statistics on each product’s environmental impact. That’s usually a good indicator of how much transparency a brand has in their clothing production.
And, if you are in doubt, Good on You has a wonderful rating system for brands we haven’t listed here. We love to check that out ourselves!
Which clothing brands are not ethical or eco friendly?
Many mainstream clothing companies are unfortunately not ethical or eco-friendly. A fashion brand like H&M might appear to be sustainable due to recent initiatives to use fabrics like certified organic cotton or recycled materials or recycled plastic, but upon further investigation, brands like H&M don’t do nearly enough to protect garment workers, use fair trade standards, or pay a living wage to those on their manufacturing line. Other brands like Forever 21, Zara, and ASOS are classic fast fashion brands that aren’t eco-conscious or ethical.
Learn More About Sustainable, Better-for-the-World Clothing
Shamini Dhana of Dhana was featured on the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast to chat about the global impact of fashion and eco friendly alternatives.
Our interview with Alex Husted of Helpsy, a New York-based textile recycling organization doing their part to make circular fashion the norm.
Learn about the catastrophic event that launched the well-being of garment workers into the spotlight.
Wondering how to make an immediate impact? Learn how to creatively and responsibly get rid of old clothes.
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