‘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 ethical clothing 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 clothing?
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 clothing, 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 clothing 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 – and while you’re here, shop our favourite ethical jewellery brands too.
Launched in 2019, Cult Mia has quickly become the leading fashion e-commerce platform for designer discovery. Having gained recognition from tastemakers around the globe, Cult Mia introduces small and emerging brands that you haven’t heard of yet, but probably should have.
To celebrate its first anniversary, it is spotlighting 10 special brands, including the likes of Janashia from Tbilisi, ESSĒN from Melbourne, and VienSo from London.
This contemporary sustainable womenswear brand celebrates individuality, authenticity and sustainability. In just 13 years, Amy Powney has gone from sweeping the cutting-room floor at Mother of Pearl to taking the helm as its Creative Director. Sustainability has been a life-long passion for Amy and she’s been on a mission for Mother of Pearl to reduce its impact on the planet. Clothes are made from organic and natural materials, with a transparent supply chain, putting social responsibility, respect to animals and low-environmental impact first and foremost. Their website is set up so you can see the sustainable attributes of each piece, allowing you to see what we have achieved garment-by-garment.
The luxury footwear label believes that shoes are the foundation of a well curated wardrobe and the bases of a great outfit. Inspired by her Dutch and Australian roots, Marre Muijs aspires to simplify people’s wardrobes, by encouraging them to buy less and buy better through offering hardworking classics that are aesthetically beautiful, supremely comfortable and ethically made. Each style is a limited release, hand made in Italy, Portugal and Spain in solar-powered factories by expert artisans who have been making shoes for generations. From the leather selection, the engineering of the lasts and the hand finishing of the shoes, the entire range is handmade by people who care about every single pair produced.
The label blends active and streetwear and primarily uses two sustainable materials: recycled nylon, which is made from waste plastic water bottles, and certified organic bamboo, made from biodegradable bamboo pulp.
Designed and manufactured in the UAE, The Giving Movement - founded by British expat Dominic Nowell-Barnes - ships worldwide and donates $4 (£3.21) to charity for every item sold.
This sustainable fashion brand for men and women’s clothing specialises in plant-based and recycled fabrics such as bamboo, organic cotton and peace silk, which is made from abandoned silk worm cocoons. Other sustainable measures include reducing the impact on the planet (all packaging is recycled, recyclable and biodegradable) and a ethical workplace (ensuring fair wages and hours).
The UK designer ensure that sustainability is an ongoing goal for the brand. For example, it ensures that manufacturers and suppliers share its values and treat their workers fairly and with respect. The brand has built strong relationships with factories and suppliers in Europe and South Korea, who it visits regularly in order to maintain our confidence in their work practices and manufacturing quality. Whilst it is not a vegetarian brand, it is committed to upholding the best animal welfare standards and as such there are certain materials or fibres it doesn’t use, such as fur and exotic skins. Finally, for every product made, the brand considers: the aesthetic, quality, functionality and sustainability attributes of the materials used, to source and develop environmentally preferred materials such as TENCEL and recycled polyester.
To help make your clothes last longer, & Other Stories has developed ‘With Care’, a project that includes two laundry products with oat-based formulations.Through biodegradable formulations with renewable ingredients these products are efficient yet kind to both fabrics and the environment. The new LA capsule collection is also made of sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton, Tencel Lyocell and EcoVero).
The Parisian brand is making an effort to use environmentally-friendly materials, i.e. those with a truly minimal environmental impact, such as organic cotton, recycled polyester, linen, lyocell as well as certified materials. At the Solitaire Paris boutique, they resell pieces left over from shoots and test fittings to practice circular fashion, and profits are donated to DEMAIN (helping children whose prospects are unfairly disadvantaged). The aim is to create a new collection of 100% eco-friendly pieces, as well as a systematic reduction in packaging, reconstruction of our tote bags, and fastidious commitment to being eco-friendly at every level of our operations.
Over the next three years, GANNI has pledged to focus on four areas, the planet, people, the product and prosperity. These goals include reducing CO2 emulsions by 30% per kg of clothing, a gender equality policy, using more sustainable fabrics and investing in innovative projects to support the planet.
For Earth Day, the brand is donating 20% of sales made today to the reef restoration foundation in support of a sustainable future for our reef and sea life. The collection is produced entirely in Bali, painting close relationships with local factories and employees who have worked with the brand for almost a decade.
The brand only produces to order meaning there is never any stock left over. The cutting system automatically allows to maximise efficiency of fabric consumption thus reducing drastically the waste of fabric. Any fabric leftovers are then given to a highly specialised company for recycling into new yarn, wadding or insulation. All fabrics used are Azo and Reach compliant.
The brand currently has 300+ earth-friendly wearable products, and another 300+ clean beauty products available online. The wearable collections include ethical products made by hand, to previously loved vintage, to styles designed with eco-conscious materials and processes. Since launching in April 2019 these styles have reduced our global warming impact by up to 80%, and to date have helped save 50,000 kilograms of C02 from entering the atmosphere.
The MARFA STANCE concept is based on buildable, adaptable, reversible and personalised clothing. Each piece can be worn in multiple ways and with multiple functions, promoting a buy less and buy better approach. Unique, buildable elements are available in each collection to evolve key styles, offering the ability to update and sustain your signature wardrobe season upon season. In addition the collection has a modular element where if a customer buys multiple items from the collection, the pieces can button into each other and create new ways to wear for different times of the year. Seasonless, timeless design and colour palette encourage forever wear, focusing on the garment's longevity and functionality as an investment piece.
In an effort to be carbon neutral by 2025, Pandora recycles, reuses and repurposes 100% of waste products from their jewellery manufacturing process, and use recycled 88% silver grain for their jewellery, the rest of which comes from ethical mining. Its eco-factor in Thailand is solar powered and also recycled from local materials.
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. BuP is planning to meet the goals in 2024, with a minimum 65% of their collections will be 100% recycled or organic.
SAND’s collection is created using post-industrial recycled polyester from plastic water bottles. The process begins with recovering the plastic bottles in Italy and then completely producing the yarn and the fabrics in Italy also. This guarantees that the 100% Recycled fabric Made in Italy strictly follows the prescription of the Global Recycled Standard. During the weaving and finishing process, only chemicals allowed by the Global Organic Textile Standard are used.
Le Kasha mission is to make beautiful & timeless clothing suitable for every place and every season, usuing only natural and noble material, at Le Kasha Eco label factory. Le Kesha’s new 'Lin de Voyage' collection is a complete summer capsule made of 100% Organic Linen.
Stella celebrates Earth Day’s 50th anniversary by hosting an Ocean Outdoor screen takeover in London’s Picadilly Circus until midnight 26th April. With the capital completely empty, it highlights optimistic messaging and is a symbol of how, when humanity pauses, nature continues.
Launched on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Zalando’s latest sustainable fashion campaign brings attention to the company’s aim to become a sustainable fashion platform with a net-positive impact on people and the planet. Titled “A collaborative approach. Zalando on sustainability.”, this campaign stars Zalando employees, who are passionate advocates of sustainability in their personal lives. They are captured wearing the platform’s sustainable partners including Veja, Mother of Pearl and Gestuz.
For World Earth Day. Milanese sustainable sneaker brand YATAY will plant 365 trees in their Kenyan forest, in recognition of Earth Day, on 22nd April 2020. The brand will go on to plant a further 365 trees every year. This will be in addition to their Trees for Shoes campaign, whereby one tree is planted for every pair of sneakers sold.
It is the first British brand to sign a Fairtrade contract committing to source denim in an ethical way. Their recently launched Doing Good Stuff denim collection has partnered with the cleanest, most sustainable factories, using only a fraction of the water and energy used in traditional denim production. In addition to cutting water and energy, they are reducing their environmental impact by donating the toxic by-products to make bricks for building projects in local communities.
Away that Day's bikinis are made from recycled ocean plastic and fishing nets, a fabric called called ECONYL. It is an initiative that Aquafil founded in 2013, whose purpose is to clean the oceans and seas of marine litter such as derelict fishnets responsible for the needless death of marine animals creating a regenerated Nylon. The brand also has eco packaging and compostable mailing bags and pioneers small family owned factories to ensure they are aware of the entire process and this is as ethical as possible.
Sheep Inc. makes weaters out of New Zealand ZQ-certified Merinowool, which is spun into Cashwool® yarn in a North Italian yarn mill that runs on 100% renewable energy. Each sweater is 100% biodegradable, but designed to last a lifetime. An NFC tag is also sewn onto the hem, and thanks to its unique serial number, you can scan it and track your sweater’s carbon footprint.
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.
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 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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.