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It’s no secret that our love for fast fashion is slowing down. Thanks to water and product waste and pollution, the clothing and textile industry stands sadly as one of the largest industrial polluters out there. But, thankfully, designers are embracing new ways to undo what they’ve done.
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Enter circular fashion - an industry that designs out waste and pollution and keeps in products for as long as possible through recycling and the use of sustainable materials. We’ve rounded up a dozen brands lauded for sustainable fashion practices. These brands are walking the walk, so whether you’re searching for shoes or swimwear, jackets or jeans, these pieces will help you add feeling good to looking good.
What is sustainable fashion?
It takes a lot to be a steward of our planet. According to Kelly Helfman, president Informa Markets Fashion, “sustainable fashion can be described as clothing, footwear, and accessories that are thoughtfully created in an eco-friendly way. From design to distribution, the entire supply chain keeps people and the environment a top priority.”
How something is made matters—plain and simple. “Fashion produces roughly 100 billion items a year, but only sells 80 billion. The remaining 20 billion go straight to landfill, most of which never biodegrade because they are made of petroleum-based synthetics such as polyester and nylon,” explains Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes and host of The Green Dream podcast. “Those synthetics release plastic microfibers when washed—about 700,000 per load of laundry—and now account for 34.8 percent of global microplastic pollution. Scientists have found plastic microfibers in the air in London, the rain in the Rockies, the ice in Antarctica, and in humans.”
Helfman sees three specific sustainability trends gaining traction—sustainable denim fibers, use of alternative materials, and resale. “[Resale] is another form of sustainability by getting more use of an article of clothing,” she adds.
“Alternative materials, including hemp, recycled polyester, and biodegradable elastane, are being used more than ever. These alternatives allow us to reuse and repurpose available materials,” says Helfman of how designers are creating more Earth-easy items through material sourcing.
Other companies are also addressing waste. “Fashion technology is being used to create a more eco-conscious supply chain process, which includes on-demand production, digital samples and logistical automation,” she adds. Technology like virtual try-ons and real time inventory tracking brings insight that assists in limiting waste.
While it all sounds wonderful, beware of how a company positions itself as being sustainable. Thomas reminds us that fashion is one of the most unregulated businesses out there. “Pretty much anyone can claim they’re producing sustainable fashion, without having to meet any sort of independently set criteria. There’s no FDA of fashion. That is why you have so much greenwashing (aka, lying about being sustainable).”
“There are screening systems in place where companies screen brands by giving them a rating or ‘verification’ based on where they are in their journey to becoming more sustainable,” says Helfman, specifically speaking of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a process her company Informa Fashion has adapted within its own portfolio through Hey Social Good. In the case of many designers, verification companies can include Bluesign, Oeko-Tex and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), to name a few. “Programs like this help bring awareness to the issue and drive the fashion industry to become more intentional when it comes to their environmental footprint.”
“We need to be environmental stewards and take care of the resources around us,” she continues. “We have one world, and we need to make sure we’re doing our part to protect it.”
The Grand Dame of global consciousness, Stella McCartney was one of the first designers to embrace sustainability from creation to catwalk. “McCartney has been a trailblazer in sustainable fashion,” says Thomas. “She was talking about this, with deep conviction, before anyone was listening.” Her Falabella Chain Jersey Dress is consciously crafted from forest-friendly viscose and comes in a joyful sunflower yellow, perfect for any spring or summer occasion.
Ética’s company’s certification list reads like a Who’s Who of saving the planet. Think Oeko-Tex, Bluesign, Cradle to Cradle, and GOTS. While they tout a place within the Better Cotton Initiative, they’re also exploring alternative fibers sourced from renewable wood sources (as seen in their Claude Utility Jacket), as well as leaning into a plant-based fiber created without water waste or harmful chemicals for their new Cargo Jeans. As of 2021, the company can also say that all fabrics are 100-percent free of microplastics, the no-no floating in our oceans.
Eileen Fisher became the largest women’s fashion company to be certified a B Corporation in 2016, which translates to meeting high criteria for social and environmental performance and accountability. It recently added the new Renew shopping section where you can purchase gently worn items (like this Organic Cotton Voile Box Tunic) to help keep clothing out of the landfill.
An early defender of environmental ethics, Patagonia was one of the first to adopt recycled materials and organic cotton as its MO. An even bigger deal? In 2022, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard forfeited ownership of the company, to ensure that future profits will be put toward fighting climate change. While the brand is known for fair trade outdoor clothing like the size-inclusive Nano Puff Jacket, it also offers great indoor pieces such as spring dresses, button-downs, gauzy rompers, and these All Seasons Hemp Canvas Bib Overalls.
Relying on science (hello, reverse osmosis and renewable energy) and nature (they use fallen olive tree leaves and bark to tan the leather), Moral Code’s unisex slip-ons, loafers, chukka-style boots, and messenger bags are sustainable to the core. The Gala Women’s Vegan Sneaker is crafted from vegan apple leather with a cotton lining and rubber outsole, and has a classic sporty and versatile vibe. Not only are pieces produced with Social Accountability International’s stamp of approval in a SA8000-certified facility, a shout out goes to a workforce that’s over two-thirds women.
Reef is a popular surf-inspired flip flop brand that crafts many of its sandals with a sustainable focus. Several styles boast 100-percent recycled PET derived from plastic bottles, renewable sugarcane, ethically sourced leather, natural cork, and recycled paper. The REEF x Surfrider Foundation Better Beach Alliance is making even more waves in environmental impact, with its dedication to plastic pollution initiatives (they’ve done 8,000 beach cleanups). The Cushion Sol Hi sandals are a nod to the platform trend for upcoming warmer seasons.
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Cariuma’s minimalistic kicks offer maximum TLC to Mother Earth. They source materials responsibly, and make classic sneakers in ethical factories and clean tanneries. Among some of their most earth-friendly initiatives and materials are memory foam insoles made from cork and mamona oil; laces derived from recycled plastic bottles; uppers from bamboo certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, Oeko-Tex, and the Organic Crop Improvement Association; sugarcane outsoles; and rubber gathered from trees through ethical tapping. The new Peanuts collection is a “take care of each other” shoutout with beloved characters. Bonus: every pair of sneakers purchased adds two trees to the Brazilian Rainforest.
Mavi Jeans’ eco-friendly denim uses less energy, water, and chemicals than it takes to make a typical pair of jeans, and is made with sustainable materials such as organic cotton fabrics and recycled fibers. They have a long-term plan in place, aiming for the entire collection to consist of sustainable All Blue products and 100-percent of the cotton to be sourced from sustainable resources by 2030. Commitments to becoming carbon neutral by 2040 and climate positive by 2050 are also in the works. The Barcelona Wide leg jeans have a high rise that flatters, and a rigid look and feel straight from the ‘90s.
With 95-percent of their apparel made from preferred fibers including organic cotton, hemp, recycled cotton, and responsible wool, Outerknown creates their styles by partnering with B Corp Certified suppliers. They have a commitment to supporting farmers' implementation of Regenerative Organic Certified practices, as well as promoting the highest labor standards in alignment with the Fair Labor Association. While their robust resell/reuse platform has kept thousands of pieces from the landfill, you’ll want to hang onto their popular Blanket Shirt created from 100 percent organic cotton with natural corozo buttons made from tagua palm nuts gathered from the forest floor.
A favorite of Helfman for sustainability, Crush Cashmere’s supply chain is fully traceable, and the 100-percent animal-friendly cashmere fibers are selected and knitted at a local herding community in Mongolia and dyed with an ISO-accredited European custom-made dye. The sleeves of the semi-cropped Prague Lux Balloon sweater are on-trend, while the softness is a classic addition to your wardrobe.
Clean denim production is top priority, so Revtown Jeans keeps things earth-friendly by sustainably dyeing their BCI-certified cotton fabric with shrimp shells, orange peels, and nut shells – a technique that uses 30-percent less energy, 50-percent less water, and 70-percent fewer chemicals than traditional dyeing. And 100-percent of all waste is recycled into denim yarn or insulation for local housing. Check out their Mom Jean (available in four washes) that sits high on the waist, with a relaxed fit through the hips, that opens to a perfectly tapered leg.
Long Wharf Supply Co.
Inspired by a vintage sweater pulled from Dad's closet, The SeaWell Collection by Long Wharf Supply Co. is an old-timey vibe with a nod towards the future of the planet. The original fisherman's sweaters are made from a soft blend of recycled oyster shells, recycled water bottles, and cotton or natural lambswool. Each SeaWell Sweater reseeds up to 30 oysters, and to date, they've helped reseed more than 400,000 oysters, which naturally filter 20 million gallons of seawater every day. The cozy pullover Westerly SeaWell Hoodie is perfect when it's time to relax with its classic fit, ribbed cuffs and collar, and draw string hoodie.
Sanskrit for breath or "life force,” Prana has been rooted in sustainability since its start three decades ago. Bringing the first-ever fair trade certified piece of clothing to the market, its sustainability now stretches into Bluesign-approved materials (RDS-certified down, organic cotton, hemp, recycled nylon, recycled polyester, recycled wool, recycled cotton), as well as a new Responsible Packaging Movement. The Halle Straight Pant II comes in 10 colors in sizes 00 to 16 with short, regular and tall lengths, and the Cozy Up Long Sleeve is made with naturally odor-resistant hemp and is great for layering.
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This article originally appeared on Reviewed: How to shop for sustainable style: Patagonia, Prana, Moral Code and more.