‘Sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ have become much more than buzzwords, with the fashion industry waking up to its impact on the planet and communities. But with a lot of greenwashing going on, it can be difficult to know which brands are making a step in the right direction, and which questions to ask them. Scroll down for our guide, plus fashion brands that are embedding sustainability in their designs.
What is sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion is as much about the process as it is about the result – in fact you could fully sustainable fashion doesn’t exist yet. There are many ways in which the fashion industry impacts the environment and communities, from the sourcing of the fabrics to manufacturing, transport and right down to selling and recycling.
‘I don’t like to use the word sustainable, because I find people are scared of it and don’t understand it,’ says Orsola de Castro, Founder and Creative Director of Fashion Revolution, an organisation which educates brands on how to produce clothes than don’t exploit the planet or people.
‘There is no fully sustainable brand at this point in time. There are certainly brands that are embedding sustainability in the way they design and think,’ Orsola says.
‘We know for a fact that the high street and many so-called ‘fast fashion’ brands are investing in social prosperity and in transparency, but does all that effort offset the fact that they are producing billions worth of garments a year? Although we do have to bear in mind that there is an enormous slice of the population that cannot buy anywhere else but affordable chains, so for that slice of the population, having access to a sustainable t-shirt or ethically made garments is at least a step in the right direction.’
What brands can also do, Orsola points out, is find a balance between setting achievable targets, and others that are too far out. Unfortunately, it will take more than a year or two for them to become fully sustainable, however, no longer using single use plastic should happen now, rather than by 2030, as some brands have pledged.
Cora Hilts, founder of sustainable shopping platform, agrees it is all about balance, ‘Brands need to be looking at a more holistic approach to sustainability – oftentimes designers will focus on a hero fabric like organic cotton but then if everyone starts to use that it becomes a strained resource, takes up a lot of land and a lot of water. I also think looking to blend innovation with time honoured techniques in fashion and supporting local communities to empower them and keep production super local.’
How can consumers be more sustainable?
Much like you would check the sell-by date on a yoghurt pot, Orsola recommends first checking the label of what you buy, as certain fabrics are not recyclable.
‘We know that polyester sheds microfibres at each wash and we also know that polyester pollutes a lot at its very extraction, at the very start of its life, so we need to make sure that we can buy 100% recycled polyester and learn how to care for it,’ she says.
For example, you could simply sponge outerwear rather than machine wash, and you should also look out for fabric blends, as these aren’t recyclable (‘technology for recycling clothes is limited, so whilst we can recycle 100% cotton and 100% poly, we cannot recycle a blend of cotton and poly’).
What is ethical fashion?
As Meghan Markle put it when she spoke at the British Fashion Awards, 2019 is the year where ‘it’s cool to be kind’, and ethical ethical fashion has never been higher on the agenda. From luxury brands to the high street – shout out to Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney for pioneering the movement – everyone is turning to green as it’s becoming more and more apparent that fast fashion is damaging the planet.
Stella put it beautifully by saying her goal is ‘to portray who we want to be and how we carry ourselves; our attitude and collective path. Our man-made constructed environments are disconnected and unaware of other life and the planet which is why there is waste.’
In short, it’s designing, sourcing and manufacturing clothes in a way that benefits people and communities while minimising impact on the environment, to be precise.
How ethical is ethical?
There are different ways to produce ethical fashion, and according to the Ethical Fashion Forum, they fall into three categories, social, environmental and commercial, specifically tackling these issues:
- Countering fast, cheap fashion and damaging patterns of fashion consumption
- Defending fair wages, working conditions and workers’ rights, and supporting sustainable livelihoods
- Addressing toxic pesticide and chemical use, using and/or developing eco- friendly fabrics and components
- Minimising water use
- Recycling and addressing energy efficiency and waste
- Developing or promoting sustainability standards for fashion
- Providing resources, training and/or awareness raising initiatives
- Protecting animal rights
The best ethical and sustainable fashion brands
Now if you’re worried going ethical and sustainable means a wardrobe full of lumpy, itchy, hempy pieces, think again. Every brand and designer listed below has made a step in the right direction when it comes to sustainability, and while we have a long way to come, .
Scroll on to get to know the best brands that are winning when it comes to sustainability, employee rights, fair trade and great style…
The designer only produces in small runs to avoid waste. Every garment that Isabelle Fox produces is made 100% ethically in the UK. In order to honour this promise while also keeping price points accessible, Isabelle Fox doesn't wholesale its collections, remaining a direct-to-consumer brand so clients and customers don't pay more as a result of retailer mark-ups.
Since 1991, People Tree has partnered with Fair Trade producers, garment workers, artisans and farmers in the developing world to produce ethical and eco fashion collections.
Stella McCartney is always exploring ways to become more sustainable, whether that is in its fabric (organic cotton, recycled nylon and polyester, vegetarian leather) or auditing its suppliers and manufacturers to ensure social sustainability.
Browns has launched a Conscious category, in the aim to work with designers and champion those that endeavour to integrate the circular economy into their business and work with sustainable materials. As part this, the collection from Dutch designer and LVMH nominee Duran Lantink, which is a selection of past season pieces that he then reworked into a completely new collection.
LVR (a luxury fashion destination) works to find a curated selection of sustainable brands and special projects to benefit social causes. The project aims to build a global community interested in ethical fashion, planet and people.
The Swedish fashion brand works hard on being innovative and sustainable in all aspects of the business. This includes the launch of its Re:Design collection, made of up cycled garments from pas seasons, which means using fewer resources and extending the products’ lifeline. In 2017, it also launched WE Women by Lindex, to take action for gender equality in the supply chain, and work to create more equal opportunities.
Operating from their London Atelier, BITE make and produce everything on-site in their east London factory space, using only natural, certified organic fabrics with a record of social and environmental responsibility. The collection consists of a maximum of 20 fixed and updated styles each season, an evolutionary archive which is now stocked at over 10 global retailers.
This East London handbag brand, founded by Nika Diamond-Krendel, supports the area’s declining leather goods industry. The collections hand-crafted in East London, uses thick, vegetable-tanned leather, chosen to allow the bags to retain their shape and improve with age, while the gold fittings are a focal point, conveying the stories and ideas behind each collection. The trademark designs draw inspiration from and celebrate different aspects of society, psychology, culture and the arts.
Rêve En Vert is a luxury yet sustainable fashion platforms that stocks over 30 brands who all adhere to the motto: organic, remade, local and fair. Everything from the clothing to the packaging is ethically sourced, and even the office environment is a ‘green’ office.
Baum Und Pferdgarten has revealed a CSR strategy which includes clean water and sanitation, reduced inequalities, responsible consumption and production and life on land amongst many other issues. Currently 40% of their SS20 collection is responsible and the aim is to increase this percentage each season. BuF is planning to meet the goals in 2024, with a minimum 65% of their collections will be 100% recycled or organic.
Creative director and founder Caroline says, 'At SKIIM we place such an importance on consciously sourcing every material and component that goes into our product, helping us minimise the impact on the environment and its precious resources where possible. We are committed to sourcing our leather from sustainable suppliers who adhere to globally recognised social and environmental standards. We look for leathers that are a bi-product of the organic meat industry and we work with tanneries whose dyeing process is not damaging or contaminating our earth's natural resources, where possible opting for natural, vegetable tanning processes.'
PLF is a socially conscious sleepwear brand, which was started by Karen Fowler and actress Robin Wright. Through employment and skilled trade initiatives, the collections help support women living in the Congo and other conflict regions of Africa.
Established in 2004 Parisian sneaker brand Veja works with small producers across Brazil. They focus on respecting the environment by using materials such as vegan leather, as well as human rights.
Scandi brand Swedish Hasbeens have been using sustainable materials since they started in 2006 (their tagline is ‘Better shoes for a better world’). Their clogs and accessories are made from ecologically prepared natural grain leather since it’s the most beautiful and the highest quality at the same time as it’s environmentally friendly. Every shoe uses naturally tanned vegetable leather, entirely hand-made but traditional artisan craftsmen making every shoe unique. Swedish Hasbeens are now a global phenomenon selling in 20 countries.
TOMS, famous for its one for one giving policy and yearly animal initiatives, helps provide shoes, sight, water and safer birth services to people in need. TOMS has also launched its ‘Stand for Tomorrow’ initiative, to invest in tackling current issues such as homelessness, female empowerment and social impact.