The Ultimate Guide To Sustainable Fashion

The Ultimate Guide To Sustainable Fashion

Fashion has become a huge part of our lives. Fashion trends influence everything from the clothes we wear to the shoes on our feet. 

While many people think that fashion can be harmful and environmentally unfriendly, there are ways to style yourself sustainably!

Read more for tips and tricks on how you too can enjoy your closet while also being conscientious about sustainability.

Is it time to start shopping for your next event? Are you looking for a way to be more sustainable?

We have compiled the ultimate guide of sustainable fashion brands so you can look fabulous and green at the same time. 

For those unfamiliar with what "sustainable fashion" means, it is simply a movement towards reducing textile pollution by choosing clothing that has been created ethically.

The only thing left now is finding which one suits you best! Choose from monochrome looks or brightly coloured denim jackets; each brand offers something different! 

You know you want to live a more sustainable life and be eco-friendly. You've seen the headlines about how toxic our environment is, and you don't want to contribute to that anymore.

But how do you find clothing that will last? How can you find clothes without harming the earth?

This blog post will teach you all about sustainable fashion, what it means, who needs it, and where to get it! 

So many people are trying their best to live a more sustainable lifestyle these days.

They're concerned about the world they're leaving for future generations after seeing so much bad news in the media about just how harmful our planet has become.

What's hard is finding things that are both affordable AND environmentally friendly.

Fashion is a fun and necessary part of our lives, but it can also be complicated.

The Ultimate Guide To Sustainable Fashion will teach you how to make your clothes last longer, reduce waste from shopping, and feel good about yourself. 

Where do you want to be in 10 years? The answer is simple: you want to look back and know that your choices for today made a difference.

You want to know that all those small decisions, like picking up this book now or wearing those jeans tomorrow, will have long-lasting effects on the world around you. 

Sustainable fashion can help with this goal as it offers an alternative way of shopping and living every day.

This blog post is only the beginning – we encourage everyone reading it to explore sustainable fashion more and find their own path!

Do you want to know more about what it means to be mindful of the environment while shopping? Then, you can stop worrying because this blog post is packed with all the information you need.  

This article has everything covered, from how to shop sustainably, where to shop sustainably, and tips on creating your own wardrobe using only sustainable materials.

After reading through it, I hope you will feel empowered knowing that there are many ways to make our lives easier by being mindful of what goes into our wardrobes!

Let's get started!

What Is Sustainable And Ethical Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is a term that’s increasingly used (and overused, often with little to back it up) these days, as we all become ever more aware of the serious environmental impact of our clothes —with the industry responsible for a shocking four to 10 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions every year. 

But what does sustainable fashion actually mean?

In short, it's an umbrella term for clothes that are created and consumed in a way that can be, quite literally, sustained while protecting both the environment and those producing garments. 

That’s why cutting CO2 emissions, addressing overproduction, reducing pollution and waste, supporting biodiversity, and ensuring that garment workers are paid a fair wage and have safe working conditions, are all crucial to the sustainability matrix.

Considering the number of factors involved, there are still too few brands out there currently tackling all of these complex issues, and even those that are will admit that there’s always room for improvement. 

This means simply shopping for items labelled 'sustainable' is not enough; we need to rethink our purchasing habits and consume clothes completely.

Wikipedia actually has a pretty good general definition so let’s start there: “Sustainable fashion is a movement and process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice.”

Essentially, ethical and sustainable fashion is an approach towards sourcing, manufacturing, and designing clothes that maximise the benefits to the industry and society and minimise the impacts on the environment. 

The two overlap in ideology, but each has slightly different concerns, both equally important to prioritise.  

Sustainable fashion, to us, predominantly applies to environment-related things:

  • How the textiles are made (e.g. avoiding the use of pesticides and insecticides by using organic methods)
  • What materials are used (e.g. hemp vs nylon)
  • What standards are applied (e.g. GOTS or Fair Trade which affects the sustainability of local communities who are involved in the production and manufacture of the textiles)
  • Whether the materials are upcycled and recycled.
  • How the textiles are packaged and whether recycled / recyclable material is used for packaging
  • Whether they make use of any energy-saving initiatives
  • How wastewater and pollutants are managed and treated
  • How they attempt to offset any environmental damage incurred

Ethical fashion deals with the moral side of the industry, namely animal rights, human rights, inclusivity, and supply chain transparency. It asks #WhoMadeMyClothes? and questions like:

  • Where are textiles made?
  • How much were the workers paid to grow the crops and to make the garments?
  • Are their working conditions acceptable?
  • How do their employers treat them?
  • Are Fair Trade policies and initiatives followed?
  • Do they use animal materials, and how do manufacturers or their suppliers treat the animals (e.g. silk and wool)?
  • Are their messages and sizing inclusive and diverse?
  • Do they reveal their fair work policies and factory locations?
  • To what extent are they open and transparent about other aspects of their supply chain?

Ethical fashion is not just concerned about who fashion could potentially harm, but who it benefits, as well.

Namely, is a brand in it for themselves, or do they give back?

  • Do they give to charity and have any charitable initiatives and policies?
  • Do they support their local communities?

Now that we've at least sort of cleared up what these terms mean, let's dive into how you can tell if a company meets these sustainable and ethical fashion criteria.

What To Consider When Looking For Sustainable And Ethical Fashion Brands

As with 'natural' and 'organic' in the food and cosmetic industry, 'sustainable fashion' and 'ethical fashion' are not well defined. 

On the one hand, this is positive as these are evolving concepts and subject to ongoing refinement based on present-day needs and ideologies, especially in the case of 'ethical', which is, by its very nature, subjective.

On the other hand, some argue that brands and companies are free to make sustainable and ethical claims based on false or misleading audits and standards without a formal definition. 

That these terms, by and large, serve as nothing more than marketing lip-service in efforts to greenwash what's going on. 

Because the fashion police don't want police fashion where it matters, it's up to us as consumers to develop a working understanding of what sort of things constitute sustainable fashion brands.

Of course, there are no easy answers to expansive supply chains and the subjectivity of the very notion of ethics itself.

Look For Sustainable Materials

Choose garments made from sustainable fabrics and materials.

This is one of the most important sustainability criteria, and it's also a huge source of industry greenwashing.  

For example, companies may claim their garment is compostable, even though, by certification standards, it can't break down in a home composter. 

It's especially important to remember here that biodegradable does not necessarily mean compostable.

Companies may also claim their fabrics are sustainable and biodegradable, even though they've been treated with chemical dyes that would contaminate wherever it biodegrades—all things to be aware of when looking at the choice of fabric.

Let's start by looking at the types of fibres used in sustainable fashion manufacturing. The most ideal at this point in technology would be fibres that are:

  • natural (cellulosic)
  • organically farmed
  • harvested in the fairest way possible
  • fit for purpose (e.g. nice to wear)
  • 100% compostable

With that in mind, these are the most sustainable fabrics (not all of them meet the above ambition).  Essentially, sustainable fibres fall into one of three categories: natural, processed natural, and recycled synthetics:

1. Natural Fibers (Cellulosic Fibers)

These are just what they sound like, natural fibres with minimal processing, like cotton (though we don't include traditionally grown cotton on this list for obvious reasons, already mentioned in this article). 

Instead, we only want organically grown natural fibres, so it's important to look for organic certifications. The most important, common certifications are:

This means no chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers, or even machine harvesting at any stage in the manufacturing from packaging and labelling must meet these criteria.

  • Oeko-Tex 100: Ensures the fabrics and devices used to process them do not contain any harmful chemicals like heavy metals, colourants, preservatives, and formaldehyde. It also keeps everything at a skin-friendly pH

Be careful here because (as we’ll see shortly) this cert can apply to either raw or finished materials, but not necessarily both, which leaves some room for greenwashing if we’re not careful.

  • USDA-Certified Organic: This certification only applies to the raw material level.  It says something was made with USDA-certified organic crops but says nothing of the processing beyond that.
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): Ensures plants are harvested using sustainable methods from well-managed forests. This minimises the risk of deforestation and the endangerment of animals and ecosystems due to careful control of where sourcing occurs.

This certification is awarded based on seven social and economic sustainability principles, including minimisation of harmful crop protection (i.e. pesticides), water stewardship, soil health, biodiversity preservation, fibre quality, promotion of decent work for employees, and effective management.

Those are the biggest sustainable fabric certifiers (though there are a few more specific ones we’ll list below with their appropriate fabrics):

Organic Cotton: Cotton grown and processed without any chemicals, including pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

Organic cotton certifications also ensure cotton farmers are treated and paid fairly and work in safe, hygienic conditions. Organic cotton farming also requires 88% less water and 62% less energy than traditional cotton.  

  • Certifications: Better Cotton Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

Recycled Cotton: Repurposed cotton derived from post-industrial (fabric scraps from manufacturing) or post-consumer (thrown away garments) waste. 

Recycled cotton is sustainable because it puts waste that would have otherwise gone to the landfill to use.  

It’s unsustainable in the sense that it’s pretty much impossible to regulate or determine the types of cotton that came together to make it or how any of that was grown. 

There's no way to certify recycled cotton because we just don't know organically. The only certification it can obtain is Oeko-Tex 100, which would test the finished product for chemicals.

  • Certifications: Oeko-Tex 100

Organic Hemp: One of the oldest fibres around and is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics.

Aside from converting into fabric sustainability, it requires 50%+ less water than even organic cotton and no pesticides.

It's also incredibly useful, being excellent at temperature regulation, both in hot and cold climates and has natural UV protective properties. In addition, hemp can be converted into fabric sustainably.

  • Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

Organic-Linen: Linen is pretty much identical in sustainable growth and manufacturing and fabric properties as hemp but instead derived from the flax plant.

  • Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

Organic Bamboo in (raw form, not processed), often called Bamboo Linen: Bamboo is one of the fastest renewing plants on earth as it can be harvested without killing the core plant.

It also requires only natural rainfall to grow and consumes more carbon dioxide than hardwood trees. 

Bamboo linen is made similar to other types of linen (like hemp or flax per the above), using a largely mechanical process. 

This type of bamboo fabric is a bit rougher… i.e. not the super-soft bamboo you've probably come to find very attractive and, unfortunately, not very common.

So it's unlikely you'll come across this fabric much! 

Bamboo must be approached cautiously as it can either be one of the most sustainable fibres or the least, depending on how it's made into fabric. 

We'll talk a lot more about this in the next section on processed natural fibres, which are the much more common types of bamboo fabric (Rayon / Viscose and Lyocell)

  • Certifications for Organic Bamboo in raw form: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

Protein fibres: These are all animal-based fibres and are thus not vegan. They include ethical leather, ethical wool, down, silk, angora, alpaca, llama, cashmere, mohair, camel, and vicuna. 

  • Certifications: Leather Working Group, Responsible Down Standard (RDS), Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), Climate Beneficial by Fibershed (usually for wool)

Pros of natural fibres

  • Should be compostable at the end-of-life
  • Plenty of certification bodies make identifying good options easier

Cons of natural fibres

  • For protein fibres, the ethical treatment of animals can be a serious concern.
  • Some require heavy water use to grow (linen, hemp, and bamboo being the primary exceptions)
  • Heavy chemicals used in growing (if not organic)
  • They are often blended with synthetic fibres for their stretch and moisture-wicking abilities but are still marketed as natural

2. Processed Natural Fibers (Processed Cellulosic Fibers)

These have natural fibre bases that have been converted into different types of fabric.  These include:

TENCEL

TENCEL Lyocell: Often called by its brand name TENCEL (it’s by Austrian Lenzing Industry’s TENCEL brand), lyocell converts wood pulp into a fibre which can then be turned into a fabric.

The solvent spinning manufacturing process is made with a closed-loop process that uses non-toxic cellulose solvents (like amine-oxide) rather than sulfuric acid. 

All water and 99% of the chemicals can be recovered and reused for the same process repeatedly.

TENCEL fibres were largely marketed as made from eucalyptus but now appear to be made from various types of wood pulp from sustainably managed sources.

What we really like about these fibres is that "TENCEL™ standard Lyocell and Modal fibre types have been certified by the Belgium certification company Vinçotte as biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil and marine conditions, thus they can fully revert back to nature" – TENCEL.

  • Certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

TENCEL Modal: Also made by Lenzine and often confused with Lyocell because it was lyocell's predecessor, Tencel Modal is made from the wood pulp of beech trees.

The process is slightly different from Lyocell's, but it's still closed-loop and produces a similar soft fabric (if only a bit thinner and lighter). 

  • Certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

BAMBOO

Bamboo: Before we get stuck into the detail, given there is a ton of confusion and opportunity for greenwashing in the bamboo industry, here is a short summary on bamboo fabrics which come in 3 forms, all of which vary in their sustainability attributes:

  • Ultra natural/raw form Bamboo Linen (as mentioned above): rougher fabric but can be made sustainably using a mechanical and organic process, although sadly not very commonly used.
  • Bamboo Viscose/Rayon: Most common form of bamboo fabric, given its soft silky feel. Made from bamboo fibre and processed using harmful amounts of chemicals and energy. Not considered sustainable. 
  • Bamboo Lyocell: Also soft and silky. Also made using a chemical process but made in a closed-loop system where the chemicals are reused repeatedly. More sustainable than viscose/rayon

For, more this is the best guide we’ve been able to find on Bamboo – key details elaborating on the above, included below:

Bamboo Viscose / Rayon

Bamboo rayon is not a sustainable option, and sadly, it makes up a large portion of "bamboo fabrics".  

Turning bamboo into rayon viscose requires a huge amount of water and toxic chemicals (like sodium hydroxide, carbon disulphide, and sulfuric acid), which puts the workers who handle these fabrics at extreme health risk not to mention the toxic environmental impact.

This form of bamboo “has largely been discredited as an [eco friendly] alternative source.” Bamboo Rayon cannot be GOTS certified. 

This leaves room for tons of greenwashing. Of course, many companies will claim their products are just bamboo rather than rayon made from bamboo. Can you say bamboo-zled?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US now requires companies using bamboo rayon to actually say on the label "rayon made from bamboo" to avoid greenwashing. 

Best to avoid Bamboo Rayon/Viscose (and all other types of rayon) altogether.

Bamboo Lyocell

Much like TENCEL, Bamboo Lyocell is made using less toxic chemicals in a closed-loop system.

This means the chemicals are reused repeatedly and that workers and the environment are not exposed. 

This one still has us bamboozled because there seem to be a bunch of sustainable brands using "sustainable" bamboo lyocell.

Still, we just could not find any suppliers that seem to make sustainable lyocell, unlike TENCEL Lyocell, where it's very clear that sustainability has been included in product design (e.g. FSC certified wood sources).

We eventually found Monocel® (although they seem to keep a low profile and don't have much information available) and Ettitude; the bedding manufacturer has made their CleanBamboo™ process. 

Before buying bamboo lyocell products, we’d recommend checking in with the brand to understand their sustainability metrics more fully.

  • Certifications for Organic Bamboo in raw form: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

3. OTHERS

  • SCOBY: Kombucha drinkers may be familiar with this one. The live cultures used to make this delicious probiotic drink can be dried into a material similar to leather.

It's 100% compostable, thermo-bondable (meaning it can be bonded with heat rather than harsh chemicals), and they self-label as the "material of the future".

  • S.Cafe: Made from spinning ground coffee beans into yarn. The conversion process takes very little energy, and the fabric dries 200% faster than cotton and provides natural UV protection. The only con (or pro depending on how you view it) is that it always smells a bit like coffee)
  • Qmonos: Quite possibly the weirdest option here, this pioneering Japanese fabric (still in testing mode) is a vegan silk alternative made from synthetic spider silk. 

Using biotechnology, the company Spiber Inc has achieved this through non-chemical microbial fermentation. Pretty futuristic!

  • Pinatex: A durable, vegan-friendly leather substitute made from pineapple leaves. It provides a use for the scrap leaves, which typically have no other value. In addition, the decortication production process requires no harsh chemicals. 

It's often combined with wood-derived PLA and would be totally biodegradable/compostable, except that it is currently typically coated with resins that are not. 

Being such young technology, we hope it develops more into a totally compostable option.

Pros of processed natural fibres

  • Still (typically) compostable at end-of-life

Cons of processed natural fibres

  • With some fabrics, greenwashing can be a problem as in some cases, harsh chemicals and plasticisers are used to convert raw natural material into workable fibres.
  • Subsequent human rights and environmental concerns about exposure to these chemicals and runoff from factories
  • Plenty of opportunity for greenwashing, given confusing processing methods

4. Recycled Synthetic Fabrics

Some crazy innovations are going on in the Waste-to-Wardrobe world.

These comprise recycled synthetic fibres, which typically have a plastic petroleum base (i.e. polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, polyethylene, and polypropylene).  The most common recycled synthetic type is PET (plastic #1), like old single-use water bottles.

Some specific recycled synthetic fibres are:

ECONYL

Produced by the Italian company Aquafil, this is one of the most notable recycled synthetics. 

It's made from recovered ocean plastics such as ghost nets or abandoned fishing nets which make up 1/10th of all ocean plastic.  

ECONYL is a great option for making stretchy yet shape-retaining fabrics that just can't be accomplished with natural fibres.  That's why it's used in a lot of ethical swimwear and ethical activewear.

Spanflex 

Not super well-known or used as of yet, a Taiwanese company, Spanflex, is fully recycled spandex certified by the Global Recycle Standard (GRS).

The holding company (Sheico group) is certified by Bluesign.

Unfortunately, we haven't yet seen much of Spanflex in the market, hoping this will change. 

Recycled synthetic fabrics may not have quite as good of an end of life outcome as biodegradable fabrics. However, they're still far better than their virgin synthetic counterparts and to us, using existing plastic that is currently polluting our waterways is a win. 

Pros of recycled synthetics

  • Repurposes non-biodegradable plastic waste already in the system, reducing plastic 

building up in landfills and oceans and reducing the need for crude oil harvesting

  • Often linked to social enterprises to collect the plastic from the oceans or developing countries (e.g. collecting ghost nets and getting paid a fair wage)
  • Manufacturing requires up to 90% less water, 85% less energy and produces up to 90% fewer CO2 emissions.
  • It can be recycled pretty much infinitely, repeatedly melted down and remade into new fibres (but this hinges on consumers properly recycling them)

Cons of recycled synthetics

  • They're still plastic, so there's just really no good end of life outcome (except for recycling)
  • Produce microfibres in the wash (solved with a guppy bag)
  • Lots of potential for greenwashing (some companies say they use "recycled materials" when it's just a small percentage of the blend)

5. Eco-Friendly Fabric Dyes

Even if you have an organic cotton t-shirt, it's not sustainable, eco-friendly or compostable if it's saturated with toxic dyes that use excessive amounts of water and damage communities…

So what are the options? 

  • Eco-friendly, natural dyes: Colorfix is one example and a particularly innovative one where a group of scientists figured out how to use non-polluting renewable chemistry to create natural dyes that use ten times less water and are non-toxic. 

Their dyes can be used on both synthetic and natural fabrics. In addition, other innovations are contributing to solving the problem, including developing dyes from agricultural waste.

  • For synthetic fabrics: CO2 dyeing, created by Dyecoo, uses no water, less energy and 100% of the dye itself (no wasted dye).  Another company called Colrep uses patented AirDye technology, also using less water and less energy.

While most seem to agree it uses less water, the concern seems to be about the inks used.

Again, Kornit seems to be the most advanced, using a waterless system and non-toxic inks. 

You're probably wondering how on earth you figure out what dyes or inks were used. Once again, your best bet (outside of asking the question of the brand) is to go for companies that are Bluesign certified and GOTS certified. 

Look For Supply Chain Size And Transparency

As important as environmental impact is, it’s only part of the picture. We have to make sure the social side is up to scratch across the entire supply chain.  For that, we need some degree of transparency from the company. 

As we mentioned above, full transparency across spider web-like supply chains is a lot to ask, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be demanding to know: #WhoMadeMyClothes?

1. Small, Controlled Supply Chains

While brands themselves may not obtain perfect transparency, they can try, especially by trying to minimise their supply chain. Smaller supply chains mean more control and fewer unknown variables. Some good indications that a company has a pretty good handle on their supply chain:

  • Products are made in their base country (i.e. made in the USA or made in the UK)
  • Products are made in developed countries where workplace health and safety codes are more strictly enforced, and employees are paid living wages.
  • Small product line: The larger the offerings and the wider the types of materials, the larger the supply chain. Smaller offers mean more control. 

Solid brands don't need to offer a huge array of garments, just a few simple things made really well will do. But, unfortunately, our society's valuation of convenience and the one-stop-shop isn't always best.

  • They utilise small, family-owned factories.

If companies source and manufacture overseas (particularly developing countries), make sure they regularly audit these factories (see the next section for certifications on this) and suppliers by either third-party hiring auditors or directly visiting their factories regularly.

2. Transparency Is Important!

We understand that larger brands with huge product lines simply can't keep everything small, but they need to be open about their sourcing if they can't.  

We want not only to see them claiming to have ethical supply chains and sustainable sourcing, but we also want them to tell us exactly where things were made. That way, we as consumers can judge the ethics for ourselves.

Transparency leads to accountability which leads to CHANGE.

This is essentially the thinking behind Fashion Revolutions Transparency Index

Starting in 2017, they conducted a yearly survey of 200 major fashion brands on supply chain transparency, including policy and commitments, governance, traceability, fixing, and spotlight issues.

In the 2019 Transparency Index, the average transparency was a dismal 21%, with no brand scoring above 70%.

That may seem sad, but on the bright side, they’ve seen marked improvements each year of the survey (5% since 2018 where no brand scored about 60% and 9% since 2017 where no brand scored above 50%).  

The demand for transparency is working, but as Fashion Revolution reminds us:

"Transparency alone is not enough to fix the industry's problems, but it is a necessary first step towards wider systemic change. Transparency shines a light on issues often kept in the dark. […] Transparency helps to reveal the structures of the fashion industry so we can better understand how to change this system in a fundamental, long-lasting and positive way."

Look For Ethical Business Practices

Once a company has disclosed some of their business practices and sourcing habits, we can start examining whether they can be considered ethical.

1. Beware Of Greenwashing In “Ethical” Fashion

Again, greenwashing is a big concern here, and companies can claim to be doing something special when really they're just adhering to basic human rights laws across the fashion industry (as lax as they may be).  

There are just some key human rights standards every company should adhere to, and they're not special or extra ethical for doing so. 

One baseline ethical standard is the Social Accountability Standard International SA8000, which ensures fair treatment of labourers.  

Though even here, "fair treatment" is pretty loosely defined and only encompasses really big issues like no child labour (duh) and meeting a country's minimum wage (which, let's be honest, isn't worth crediting the business with ANY gold stars in developing countries).

Unfortunately, companies have gotten so good at greenwashing that they require an absurd amount of mental gymnastics to see through it. 

2. Ethical Fashion Certifications

Fortunately, other corporations exist to do the work, so we don't have to (or at least not quite as much).

The most bulletproof way to know a company isn't BS-ing you is to look for special (non-mandatory) certifications obtained through third-party audits.

Much like different fabrics can be certified, entire supply chains can be certified for ethical practices.

The big two (meaning the strictest and hardest to obtain) are:

  • B-Corp: This is the top-tier all-encompassing certification for both ethical and sustainable criteria.  To get this certification, a business and its entire supply chain must meet high standards across 80 "impact areas", both environmental and social.  This audit is repeated every year to maintain the certification.  
  • Fair Trade: There are lots of different certifying entities here, like the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) along with individual chapters such as the North American Fair Trade Federation, Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade Foundation, and Fairtrade International.

While these are not ALL the ethical fashion certifications out there, here are some other common, reputable ones:

  • Ecocert: “Independent and impartial certification body assessing the conformity of a product, service or system with environmental and social requirements specified in a standard” – standards vary depending on what’s getting certified. 

For example, they have an organic farming certification, a Fair Trade certification and an organic and ecological textiles certification.

Examples include no forced labour, no child labour, no harassment or abuse, fairly limited work hours, non-discrimination, a healthy and safe workplace, and the utilisation of environmentally-conscious practices.

3. Inclusivity And Diversity

This is the last criteria we use when judging the human rights side of a fashion company

While it's not a make-or-break-it standard, we do our best to prioritise size-inclusive brands and promote diversity in their product image (such as through models chosen).

We say it’s time to end the days of flipping through fashion catalogues and seeing nothing but blonde skeletons. The thigh gap is a lie! 

Truly ethical companies will make clothes for all genders, no matter their size, body type, or skin tone. 

Look At The End-Of-Life Outcome

Sustainable clothing should be made with durability in mind.  In other words, it should last a long time.

Look for brands that use robust materials and back them with a lifetime warranty (if they do that, chances are they’re pretty confident in the quality of their product).

But even the best-made fabrics do break down eventually. So sustainable brands will consider that inevitability when designing their products and business model. 

Look for companies that offer repair or return programs. If they do take things back, do they recycle them?

You can also look for products bearing a Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification.

Products can have one of five levels (basic, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) depending on the LOWEST score they receive when assessed for five things: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Look For Brands That Minimise Their Impact

As important as product impact is, we also need to pay attention to operational impact by looking for brands that consider other business components.

Aside from minimising the impact through fabric choices and garment durability, companies should minimise their impact through: 

Handmade production elements: The less a company relies on machines, the less energy they consume and the machine emissions they create. On the other side of the token, hand-making creates more jobs.

Zero Waste Packaging: Look for compostable shipping materials, tags, sleeves, etc. Or can the packaging be returned to be reused again?

Shipping: Do they use carbon neutral shipping services?  Do they only ship by ground and freight? Do they ship overseas? 

Last-mile logistics (which refers to the final step of the delivery process from a distribution centre or facility to the end-user) account for many GHG emissions.

Therefore, better companies will avoid shipping overseas and avoid shipping by air.

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid carbon emissions.

Conscious companies will be aware of this and purchase carbon offsets to account for it and any other sustainability gaps in the considerations above.

Or offer for customers to pay extra to offset emissions from shipping!

Office policies on waste and impact: Conscious companies will operate low waste themselves, implementing office/factory recycling and composting, utilising renewable energy, and eliminating as much waste as possible.

Deadstock waste: How do they handle it? Most companies don't say (unless they offer a recycling program where even returned used items get remade into new products).

However, it wouldn't hurt to ask! Obviously, burning is not the answer we're looking for.

The ideal is that companies don't overproduce products or, best of all (though rare except among very small fashion brands), are companies that operate on a made-to-order basis.

That way, you know there's never any wasted products being made.

Look For Brands That Give Back

We like brands that give back and are in it for more than just personal profit.

Those who use their profits to better the world somehow, whether it be giving money to charities or organising events and initiatives.

The 1% for the Planet Program (founded by Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard) is one of the most reputable give-back programs. Being a member essentially holds brands accountable for giving back a set amount regularly.  

Just be aware that giving back is not everything. In fact, it's pretty low on the priority list compared to every other criteria.

Unfortunately, it's also not uncommon for companies to hide their unethical business practices with a well-promoted give-back scheme. 

Get Inspired By What’s Next For The Fashion Industry

Well, that's largely up to us. We've seen tremendous progress and truly innovative changes happening within the fashion industry.

Still, the huge amount of work left begs the question: Is it truly sustainable fashion even possible? Or is it just an oxymoronic attempt to cleanse our conscience? 

Maybe fashion will never be sustainable by absolute ideals, and industry recognition of that fact is a sign of the truly better fashion companies out there. 

Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia and their anti-growth business model is arguably one of these (scoring among the top spots in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index survey).

Still, founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard writes in his memoir Let My People Go Surfing:  

“Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable non-damaging product. But it is committed to trying.” 

Perhaps sustainable and ethical fashion as distinct from fast fashion should not be thought of as a dichotomy but rather on a spectrum. Some brands and businesses are just further along the line than others.  

This approach is conscious of and allows for a changing landscape of what constitutes sustainable and ethical.

It also encourages brands and businesses to improve rather than create an "us and them" scenario.

Fast Fashion Countermovements And Communities

If you need some inspiration about proof that change can happen, we encourage you to tap into these resources. Below are some of the most notable movements and entities pushing to make fashion a force for good.

1. Slow Fashion

Designer Kate Fletcher’s answer to fast fashion. Borrowing from the Slow Food Movement, Slow Fashion encapsulates much of what made that trend successful: awareness, responsibility, quality over quantity, protection of cultural identities, choice and information.

Slow Fashion, she envisaged, would enable "a richer interaction between designer and maker; maker and garment; garment and user", and the future would herald "an opportunity for business to be done in a way that respects workers and the environment and consumers in equal measure".

There is now a growing contingent of slow fashion brands embodying these slow fashion principles.

2. Fashion Revolution

The founder of Fashion Revolution Week, which is perhaps the best expression of the purchaser's power, is the world's largest fashion activism movement.

The annual event takes place over the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster on April 24.

In many ways, Fashion Revolution Week has formalised the Slow Fashion Movement.

There are now teams in more than 100 countries across the globe and hundreds of thousands of people attending local events asking the simple question #WhoMadeMyClothes.

The aim is to open a dialogue with retailers and brands, look at their supply chain and encourage transparency.  

Fashion Revolution aims to reform the fashion industry via the 3 M's: Model, Material, and Mindset.

They are an AMAZING resource for all your fashion industry facts and updated info about counter-fast fashion movements. We could (and have) spent all day just browsing their information to help us be better consumers.

3. Traid

This UK based charity is working toward a circular fashion economy by stopping clothes from being thrown away. Instead, they "turn clothes waste into funds and resources to reduce the environmental and social impacts of our clothes". 

They do this by increasing clothes reuse and educating people about the impacts of textile waste and production.

4. Fair Fashion Center

The FFC works with fashion industry CEOs to develop market-based solutions that economically incentivise a shift toward sustainable business practices. It's essentially a think tank for coming up with ways fashion can be neutral and a positive force in the world.

One of their projects is setting up a sustainability accounting standards board for the fashion industry.  

We analysed this organisation more in-depth and interviewed its founder, Cara Smyth, on our podcast.

5. Remake

This nonprofit aims to educate people about the problems of fashion as well as turn the tides on the industry. They started by making documentaries designed to bring people "face to face with the women who make our clothes".  

They've got a ton of great resources for learning the ins and outs of sustainable fashion, including the Pre-Loved Podcast and a film archive exposing the realities of the fashion industry across the world. 

All these films are short and must-sees. 

To get a grasp on what circular fashion means, check out their circular fashion workbook.

6. Sustainable Apparel Coalition (Sac) Higg Product Module

In 2020, the SAC launched the Higg Product Module (Higg PM), which helps companies determine the full life-cycle impact (seed-to-shelf, socially and environmentally) when produced at an industrial scale. 

This can be a huge turning point in creating a more widely accepted set of sustainable fashion criteria and legally enforced corporate responsibility.

Final Thoughts

We know this article has been overwhelming, with lots of fatiguing figures and some inspiring innovations. The fashion industry has just gotten so out of control, and it takes a lot to understand the full picture.  

We do our best to put in the work, so you don't have to, and now you hopefully understand how we approach our sustainable fashion guides.

We will always look for brands that meet as many of these ideals as possible and adequately mitigate their impact. 

Read more

What Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?

What Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?

Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

The Three Pillars of Sustainability