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For years, workers and the environment alike have been impacted by fast fashion, the phenomenon of trendy inexpensive clothing being produced at lightning speed and often tossed just as quickly. In practice, this is your friend telling you to buy five new shirts for $10 each during a trip to the mall simply because they’re cute and inexpensive—and if you get sick of them by next season, or they become tattered because their quality is low, your loss is minimal. It’s also having access to fashion anywhere and everywhere, like on Instagram or in an airport vending machine.
Some brands of today are trying to change this landscape by making moves to implement cleaner manufacturing practices, take good care of their workers, and educate shoppers on why conscious consumerism, i.e., an appreciation for quality over quantity, really matters.
For the best sustainable clothing brands, read on.
Best Overall: Reformation
Reformation was born from a small vintage clothing store in Los Angeles. The brand quickly grew into making its own clothes—effortless silhouettes that echo decades past, with a focus on sustainability. Rather than subcontracting a factory overseas as many fast fashion-centric brands do, Reformation built a factory in Los Angeles to help ensure a healthy and fair working environment for employees throughout its supply chain. In terms of eco-friendliness, Reformation is carbon neutral and offers an internal lifecycle tool, called RefScale, to educate shoppers on how much CO2, water, and waste they’re saving by shopping the brand over other “average clothes.”
Best Luxury: Gabriela Hearst
For fashion designer Gabriela Hearst, every piece must have a purpose. Her eponymous label is a mélange of inspirations from the ranch she grew up on in Uruguay and her current life in New York City, with tailored forms made from earthy fabrics, such as aloe-treated linen. Hearst regularly partners with entities dedicated to saving the environment, from EON, a platform that traces the lifecycle of products and makes the history available via a QR code, to Save The Children, a charity that supports children affected by global crises.
Most Affordable: Everlane
Everlane makes clothing, shoes, and accessories that are built to last. The brand says it’s committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement by lowering carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. It also aims to eliminate all virgin plastic from its supply chain by the end of 2021. As of April 2021, 97 percent of its apparel containing polyester and nylon is made from certified recycled fibers; 45 percent of its plastic footwear is made from recycled materials; and 100 percent of its shipping bags are made from recycled plastic or FSC-certified paper. Everlane is also GOTS-certified, which means that it meets certain ethical and ecological standards, many of which are outlined below.
Best Plus Size: Eileen Fisher
Fashion brand Eileen Fisher built a whole department to focus on sustainability, called Social Consciousness. Since its founding in 1997, the team has grown in size and evolved in scope, but today, it evaluates the brand’s environmental, social, and economic impact on its workers and reacts accordingly. Material-wise, the brand uses organic, recycled, and otherwise sustainable fibers, like wool and Lyocell, to support the environment. It also uses certified dye processes and actively works towards ways to reduce water usage when making new clothes. In the circular economy, it plays just as active a role; Eileen Fisher collects gently used garments and resells them, in addition to taking tattered pieces for repurposing into new fabric, pillows, and blankets.
Best Maternity: Emilia George
Emilia George makes sustainable maternity wear that looks and feels so luxe. The brand’s offerings skew professional, as the mission of CEO and founder Elle Wang has been to provide well-crafted maternity business attire since the brand’s founding in 2019. The line uses many recycled and OEKO-TEX certified (chemical- and additive-free) fabrics, which the brand says best accommodates mothers’ or children’s potential allergies to harsh dyes and suits them well during all the stages of pregnancy and early motherhood.
Best Basics: Organic Basics
For Organic Basics, sustainability is the brand’s first core value, not a bonus or an afterthought. It designs everything to last, so they invest in quality fabrics and craftsmanship while keeping the importance of versatility in mind. As its name suggests, this brand bears a big collection of basics, because these pieces are the easiest to wear and therefore most frequently worn. The brand also says they partner with “good” European factories, ones that guarantee a safe and voluntary working environment as well as a living wage.
Best Boho: Christy Dawn
Christy Dawn combines a boho aesthetic with earthy and sustainable practices. Some values the brand emphasizes are reciprocity, like forging mutually beneficial relationships with farmers, weavers, dressmakers, and photographers, as well as repurposing, such as using excess fabric, or deadstock, for another collection in order to cut waste.
Best Activewear: Girlfriend Collective
Girlfriend Collective sets a high bar for luxurious sustainable activewear. It uses fabrics made from recycled water bottles, fishing nets, and other reusable waste to craft high-performance leggings, joggers, tops, and sports bras in many colorways. Packaging is 100 percent recycled and recyclable, dyes are eco-friendly, and products are made at a socially accountable facility in Hanoi, Vietnam. The brand is very transparent about its philosophies and procedures, so you can actually read a fuller breakdown of how its manufacturing process works.
Best Denim: RE/DONE
Sean Barron and Jamie Mazur founded RE/DONE in 2014 when they began altering vintage Levi’s as a way to breathe new life into them. Their business model is inherently sustainable, as it’s rooted in the idea of taking something old and making it new again through a carefully devised upcycling process. Since launch, the brand has diverted over 100,000 garments from landfills by reconstructing and reselling them, the brand says, and an expansion into tanks, sweats, hats, and sneakers has that number climbing steadily. Its RE/SELL program further promotes a circular economy by facilitating a resale marketplace on the website.
Best Swimwear: Hunza G
This brand was originally launched in 1984 under the name Hunza and became famous for a cutout mini dress that Julia Roberts wore in "Pretty Woman." Decades later, the brand staged a relaunch under Creative Director Georgiana Huddart, hence the amended name, Hunza G, and has since become known for its inclusive sustainable swimwear made in bold and beautiful hues. The signature crinkle knit pieces, made in one size only, sculpt and flatter every shape, and they’re spun and dyed locally, in the United Kingdom where the brand is headquartered. The carbon-neutral brand also takes pride in its production of headbands and scrunchies from excess fabric to reduce waste. Packaging is recycled and recyclable, while fair trade, a healthy working environment, and charitable donations are also of major importance, according to the brand.
What To Look For in Sustainable Clothing Brands
“There’s something to be said for sticking with the original fabrics of the fashion game,” says Caspelich. “While it’s best to hang onto your clothing for as long as possible, if garments made with natural fibers do end up in a landfill, it’s a much better story than synthetic fabrics.”
For those who want to shop sustainably, she recommends looking for products made with Tencel™ (or Lyocell), hemp, organic linen, silk, organic wool, and deadstock. AdditionallyPlus, anything that’s recycled or otherwise minimizes waste made from recycled materials is eco-friendly. Girlfriend Collective uses cupro, a delicate fiber made from waste the cotton industry leaves behind, and many brands use recycled materials like cotton, nylon, and cashmere as means to be more sustainable.
Moreover, any material that meets the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), a processing standard for organic fibers that factors in ecological and social impact, is sustainable. GOTS encapsulates much of what it means to be truly sustainable by mandating fair wages, safe and hygienic working conditions, and equal working rights, to name a few things. Products must also be made with at least 70 percent certified organic fibers and no hazardous chemicals to meet the standard. These ‘clean’ materials are better for the environment and human health because they keep extra unsafe waste away.
Wyman says the organization has assembled a database for consumers to search for what they want, like socks or women’s apparel. You can find the database here.
“What good is a brand’s ethics if it creates a product using responsible sourcing but pays the women making it less than a livable wage?” Caspelich points out. Thus, truly sustainable brands will not only treat the environment with kindness; they’ll also be fair to workers by creating a safe and healthy working environment and by providing livable wages. So, when looking for sustainable clothing brands, be sure that the ones you’re looking at pledge such commitments.
How Can Clothing Companies Be More Sustainable?
On the socio-economic and cultural fronts, clothing companies can be more sustainable by treating their workers fairly, she adds. Using eco-friendly materials and processes, on the other hand, is a great way to take care of the environment. Clothing companies can be more sustainable by diminishing their carbon footprint, which is the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted in production. If a brand bills itself as carbon neutral, it means that they’re claiming to have struck a balance between the amount of carbon they emit and the amount that can be absorbed from the atmosphere.
Is Vintage Clothing Sustainable?
“Today, one of the biggest contributing factors of the fashion industry’s sustained environmental negligence is the ever-shortening life cycle of clothing,” says Caspelich. “With trend cycles in constant motion, and cheaply made items falling apart so quickly, the inventory turnover is incredibly high for most fashion brands.”
Since there’s no carbon footprint when opting for a used garment over a new one, shopping vintage is inherently sustainable, says Wyman. “Also, it keeps it out of the landfill.”
Why Trust Byrdie
This shopping guide was written by Byrdie contributor Hayley Prokos. A seasoned commerce writer and editor, she’s constantly looking for well-made clothing, shoes, and accessories that are also good for the environment. Her work has appeared in SELF Magazine, Newsweek, and the daily Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, and she holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from Northwestern University. For this roundup, she spent upwards of 15 hours researching the best sustainable clothing brands.
Meet the Expert
- Katrina Caspelich is an experienced marketing strategist with a passion for building up socially conscious brands and organizations through storytelling, creative thinking, and integrated marketing. She joined Remake as the company’s Director of Marketing to fulfill two of her passions in life: public relations and sustainable fashion.
- Lori Wyman is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) Representative for North America. She is also trained as an organic farm and processing inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Organic Program (NOP). Over the years, she has conducted organic and social compliance audits for organic food and textile supply chains in the United States and abroad.