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5 Brands That Really “Get” Sustainable Fashion
04.22.16

Before we get into the responsible shopping portion of this event — and it is coming if you keep scrolling, it’s important to understand what actually makes a brand sustainable. There are no hard and fast rules here, but in general, you can tell a lot about a brand’s commitment to sustainable production by doing these three things before you buy your next piece of clothing.

1. Model: Read the brand’s “About” page for a sense of the company’s overarching purpose.

If sustainability is a core value, you’ll read about it in a sincere and substantiated way. Sustainability isn’t an after-thought or a gimmick; it’s a guiding principle that a company relies on when the time comes to make difficult decisions.

Aside from being clear about their business model, sustainable brands often make statements rejecting the speed and volume of modern consumption. These companies use words like “timeless,” “carefully curated,” “smaller,” “better,” “less,” and “made to last for a long time.” This approach signals a fundamental departure from the business-as-usual formula of pushing customers to just buy more.

2. Make: Look for where (and how) the clothing is made.

By reading the description of individual pieces of clothing, you can get a sense of a company’s production practices. Are the clothes made domestically? In developing countries? Are measures taken to compensate workers fairly? To ensure their safety? If the clothes are handmade, traded fairly, made domestically or manufactured with pride in the process, that will be explicitly stated. Companies that invest time, energy and resources to produce their clothing ethically say it outright.

3. Materials: Consider the clothing’s fiber composition.

Given the volume of clothing produced each year, the material composition of our clothes takes a heavy toll on the environment. Sustainable brands are aware of these challenges and take active measures to use more responsible materials like linen, hemp, Tencel (lyocell), organic cotton, alpaca and recycled or organic non-mulesed wool. Companies might also use vintage or deadstock material to mitigate their environmental impact.

Applying these criteria to your next purchase is where the fun really begins. You can gather information, reach out to companies with questions and make your own decisions about whether a company deserves your support. There’s so much power and possibility in that. In the mean time, here are five brands you can feel really good about getting behind.

PeopleTree

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What: Everyday clothing that can seamlessly fit into an existing wardrobe. Think go-to’s like solid color tops, lightweight knits, poplin shirts and yoga pants. They have women’s accessories and men’s clothing, too.

Price: $

Why it’s better: PeopleTree is a pioneer in sustainable fashion. For 25 years, it has pursued an ambitious social and environmental agenda. It was the first company to implement a seed-to-garment supply chain for organic cotton. Its mission is to have a 100% fair trade supply chain and currently 90% of its products and materials are sourced from certified fair trade suppliers. Production is done mostly in India, in factories and artisanal cooperatives that are individually listed on the company’s website.

PeopleTree producers are paid a fair wage in exchange for their labor and given additional training and financial support to nurture their trades. Over 80% of the company’s cotton is certified organic with the goal of mitigating the harmful effects of cotton production on the environment (water and soil pollution) and on workers (exposure to pesticides). Steps are taken to reduce carbon emissions by utilizing hand weaving (to reduce energy reliance) and shipping by sea when possible. With respect to animal rights, PeopleTree sources non-mulesed wool. It is taking steps to develop a traceable, organic, fair trade wool supply chain.

The company has published two social reviews to evaluate the impact of their operations. Read more about PeopleTree’s work here.

Shop at PeopleTree for: Striped short and long-sleeved tees at an affordable price.

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Kowtow

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What: A minimalist take on flexible basics for work and weekend. The brand plays with shape and structure, opting for a largely solid color palette with a few prints mixed in.

Price: $$

Why it’s better: Kowtow is one of those rare apparel companies that has nailed the formula for both social and environmental responsibility. Production for the brand takes place in Kolkata, India and adheres to a strict set of standards. The company exclusively uses 100% certified fair trade organic cotton. Attention is paid to the sustainability of the dyeing process as well as to details like the use of recycled hemp buttons.

Kowtow employees are compensated with a living wage and receive benefits like social security, paid vacation, medical insurance and a pension, among others. Safe employee working conditions are a priority and children of employees receive free schooling. The company also engages in projects to support community development. Learn more about Kowtow’s philosophy and practices here, and see images and video of their production process here.

Shop here for: Versatile building blocks like this jumper and these pants. This shirtdress is also really cool for the beach.

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Shaina Mote

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What: Fresh, light LA clothes in a dreamy, neutral palette with a hint of Lower East Side edge. The collection is a good mix of casual pieces that can be elevated with accessories, as well as items that are dressier, but still laid back.

Price: $$$

Why it’s better: The entire design and production process is done in LA so as to promote domestic apparel manufacturing. Local craftspeople are enlisted for their skills and the company works to nurture these relationships and trades over time. In terms of materials, the brand favors natural, renewable fibers over oil-based synthetics (like polyester) and works with sustainable fabrics like tencel and modal when possible.

I like how the company admits to the practical limitations and need for tradeoffs in the process of choosing sustainable materials. Clothes are designed with an eye for longevity — the neutral color palette and collection’s clean lines make the pieces relevant for a long time.

Shop here for: These wrap pants, this multifunctional dress and this awesome tee.

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Jesse Kamm

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What: The kind of effortless yet spot-on wardrobe you fantasize about wearing to a candle-lit garden party in your dream Southern California life when you’re actually in the depth of New York winter. A collection of paired down but thoughtful pieces designed for impact and long-term wearability.

Price: $$$

Why it’s better: Jesse Kamm runs a sincerely admirable operation from start to finish. All of her clothing is produced in California, where she lives, because she is passionate about supporting local manufacturing. She uses high-quality, well-constructed textiles that will last a long time. Some of her clothes are made of modal, others are made from American-grown cotton and she uses deadstock fabric when she can. All of this is commendable, and yet it is her philosophy on work and life that I think makes Jesse Kamm one of the bright lights in sustainable fashion. She believes business should be of a specific size and scale — bigger isn’t better. She is a one-woman operation who does her own sales and PR and personally delivers her collections to the stores that carry her brand. If you email her company, she’s the one who responds.

Shop here for: Kamm’s signature sailor pants.

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Fonnesbach

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What: A collection of timeless pieces with clean lines and an uncomplicated elegance. What you’d wear if you worked at a Copenhagen art gallery and biked to work, yet managed to arrive looking impeccably put together.

Price: $$$$

Why it’s better: Fonnesbech is a sixth generation Danish family-run heritage label. Originally established in the mid 1800’s, it was re-launched in 2014 with a core focus on sustainability and promoting responsible consumption. The company sources environmentally conscious materials like recycled viscose, organic wool and cotton. It works with suppliers who are certified by sustainable textile standards like Global Organic Textile Standards and Oeko-Tex. Production is done in Europe, with a focus on craftsmanship and making products for the long haul.

Before entering into a relationship with a supplier, Fonnesbech requires the company to sign a Code of Conduct based on the principles of the United Nations Global Compact, which is an initiative to promote sustainable business and corporate responsibility worldwide. The company lives and breathes sustainability, seeing it as both a moral imperative and a necessity in today’s world. Learn more about the company’s holistic approach here.

Shop here for: The suiting, like this blazer and this jacket.

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Have a favorite sustainable brand? Tell us about it in the comments!

Nadine writes about sustainability, personal style and our relationship with fashion. Read her musings here and follow her on Instagram @onewhodresses

Jesse Kamm look book photographs courtesy of Jesse Kamm; Shaina Mote courtesy of Shaina Mote; Kowtow photographs via Kowtow; PeopleTree photographs via PeopleTree; Fonnesbech courtesy of Fonnesbech.

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  • Neeltje Schraa

    Studio Jux should definitely be in this list. Being frontrunners in this area

    • Nadine Farag

      Thanks for putting Studio Jux on my radar!

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  • Katie N.

    I can’t believe Reformation didn’t make the list! Isn’t that what their whole ethos is, and why they are named Reformation in the first place? Isn’t every day Earth Day for them? If it’s not, that is a true conundrum.

    • Nadine Farag

      I love Reformation! I included them here: http://www.manrepeller.com/2016/03/sustainable-fashion.html. Just spread the love by including different brands. 🙂

    • Anni

      I think part of it is that Reformation is super informative but their products (and quality) don’t always line up with the price point. From personal and friend experience, they have issues with sheerness in quality control common from their use of deadstock fabric but I think most importantly, while informing everyone how terrible dry-cleaning is, many of their products are actually “dry-clean” only. 🙁 I don’t think they’re unethical and I think their designs are gorgeous but as far as consistent messaging & quality control could use a little work considering the pricepoint they are at.

  • Beatrice

    I’m super happy to see this post/a list that includes brands beyond Reformation (for real, cannot wear sexy bodysuits to work)! Thanks Nadine, always excited to see your sustainability pieces <3

    • Nadine Farag

      So glad you found it useful. Thanks so much, Beatrice! 🙂

  • Shelley Neuman

    Being Apparel! http://beingapparel.com – they are just starting out but going to make waves in the “athleisure” industry 🙂

    • Nadine Farag

      Will be watching them! Thanks for sharing!

  • I don’t think it’s good blog etiquette to promote my own brand in the comments but I’m going to anyway – I run brm, which specialises in vintage-inspired womenswear in organic and fair trade fabrics, designed and made in the UK. We are mostly made-to-order at the minute and you can find us at http://www.brm-studio.co.uk

    • Nadine Farag

      Happy to learn of brm!

  • Fibre Athletics! Great workout tees sustainable made and fair trade certified!

    http://www.fibreathletics.com/

    • Nadine Farag

      Hi Katie! Very cool. I love seeing athletic clothing made from recycled PET. I hadn’t heard about this brand- thanks for sharing it!

  • I wish sustainable fashion was more of a regular thing – but I do have high hope for the future 🙂

    • Nadine Farag

      I’m so encouraged by the interest in sustainable fashion and am sure that will only continue to grow!

  • SO happy to see sustainable fashion being talked about more regularly. I was an ethical fashion blogger for 2 years before deciding to launch my own responsibly made clothing brand that will actually be launching on Kickstarter in May 🙂

    Thank you for introducing me to new brands because I’ve never heard of Jesse Kamm or Shaina Mote!

    • Nadine Farag

      Congrats! Sounds so cool. I’m glad you found the piece informative!

  • fashiongermane

    This is fabulous post, especially on Earth Day. It is so important to give recognition to those brands who produce sustainably. I really enjoyed how yo wrote about the key factors one should be looking at in order to guarantee the products sustainability. These companies go beyond pulling a PR stunt by claiming sustainability. They truly care about the environment and will put in more time and money in order to guarantee this. I wonder if these companies were not advertising sustainability, if they would have the success they do?

    • Nadine Farag

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

  • Bos Agus

    Best design, I like you mode fashion, Im from indonesia.

    http://www.bosagus.id

  • Shari Seeger

    I absolutely love how you’re incorporating sustainable fashion more and more! So important and fun! Maybe also take a look at the german label Jan ‘n June. They even have a QR code sewn into their clothing so you can track where exactly everything bit of your clothing came from
    Anyways keep it up!

    • Nadine Farag

      Thanks, Shari!

  • This is such an awesome educational post! Thanks a bunch! xx

    http://uneditedbytes.com

    • Nadine Farag

      Thanks so much, Benazir!

  • Nicole Groenke

    Amour Vert https://amourvert.com/pages/about
    Visited their adorable shop in Hayes Valley per GOOP’s suggestion about ‘brands that give a shit’ and was welcomed by awesome customer service and incredibly soft tees. Very nice silk pieces too.
    Oh AND they plant a tree for every t-shirt you buy.

    • Nadine Farag

      Love their striped tees!

  • Looove this list. PeopleTree is one of my favorites and I am excited to check out these other lines! Also, Zady has made me a woman obsessed with alpaca. So. GOOD.

    • Nadine Farag

      Thank you, Jess! And alpaca really are the best…ever.

  • kent

    Fyi: Fonnesbech does not produce in Denmark, but within Europe.
    And another really great danish sustainable fashion brand is Armoire officielle.
    http://www.armoireofficielle.com

    • Nadine Farag

      Hi! I’ve corrected this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! And happy to learn of Armoire.

  • amanda

    Hi Nadine, Would love for you to include my line Calder Blake sometime. Please check it out at Calderblake.com as I and a one woman show who manufactures in Los Angeles supporting a living wage and fair ethical guidelines with a timeless line. wishing you all the best!

  • melusine sanchez

    Hey Nadine! Thank you for your article, it is really good. I am happy to discover new ethical brands, and your list of criteria is very interesting.

    Maybe you want to have a look at this brand (Re)vision Society (https://www.revisionsociety.com), I think that they are very good as well.

    Have a lovely day. X

  • Check Brothers We Stand for lovely menswear ladies. : D

  • Thank you for continuing to shine a light on brands taking the time to produce things, generally, the hard way. Staying true to their ethics.

    We have a hopeful outlook though as brands like you mentioned (and my brand, Olderbrother), crop up to tackle sustainability in their own way. At Olderbrother, we focus on eco-conscious textiles, natural dyes and American manufacturing. Keenly aware of trade-offs (water vs. energy, etc) when producing ‘sustainably’.

    We’ve found it’s all about education opportunities. The general population is still mystified about how and where their clothes are made. Informed consumer choices can shift the industry.

    Thank you for your work and getting the message out there!

  • Shenae Cabban

    I really like Thii. I learned of them at a studio tour arranged by NJAL in December, and really liked the fact that they are producing all of their clothing in New York. They only work with factories recommended by the CFDA as ethical factories in terms of labour laws etc. and their own studio sewers and pattern makers are paid substantially higher than minimum wage and regular New York factory wages. They mostly purchase fabrics from small family run mills which I think is really nice. But the main thing is; their clothing is absolutely gorgeous in person. I ended up purchasing a light blue silk suit that day and wore it for my birthday, I felt so powerful.

  • MonaAndersen16

    Great article and thanks for sharing sustainable brands! Another really great brand is a danish sustainable brand located in New York as well called MALAIKA. They make their clothes in USA as you so spot on explained above. They do it so that they can follow the ethical standards but also to oversee production and bring back the garment industry to the USA. Besides this they do many other great things such as planting trees for each garment sold, recycle fabric scraps and up-cycle materials such as plastic bags (which has become such a huge problem especially in New York) . Find it here http://www.malaikallc.com.

  • Hannah Cole

    My favourite topic of discussion ???

  • JUST

    love this list- thanks @nadinefarag:disqus ! There are some brands new for us to check out!

  • Jula

    You totally forgot JAN ‘JUNE from Germany! I’d say rather $ and super minimalistic and beautiful <3

  • Jula

    I spelled it wrong, sorry! JAN ‘N JUNE

  • Lgraymc

    I’ve been creating a capsule closet but, have found the research for sustainable clothing so exhausting. Many of these small, independently run brands all adhere to a different type of “sustainability”. I am interested in vegan fashion and have found it frustrating when I find “high-quality leather” or silk. Sure, PeopleTree is great, but, quite the hassle to return anything to them via mail if you live outside the UK. And these designer pieces for an “impact” are lost on those of us trying to create a minimalist wardrobe. I don’t need a big pink puffy coat that costs $500. I need one great coat that can go with everything that I can use on a daily basis. What the sustainable clothing industry needs is an Amazon-like search warehouse (these brands would join this bandwagon hopefully) with an ability to filter not only on what you are looking for (size, color, and type of clothing) but also, providing filters for “transparent pricing” “made in the US” “Fair trade” “Fair-wage” “vegan” “made from recycling” etc. – whatever type of definition that they use to brand their label “sustainable”. This would help those who truly want to buy sustainable, but for our pet-causes to find a simple, perfect little black dress (the basics) or a designer impact piece. This system should give us options from high-end to on a budget. If this doesn’t happen, the sustainable clothing industry will never take off because even the best consumers will end up in the GAP (like I did) if you can’t find a simple pair of black jeans.

  • JESSICA

    ELIZABETH SUZANN.com!!!

  • helen

    Much of the Phader Ewaw clothing is sustainable. It is all made in the usa, many of the items made from recycling. All of it is vegan except some of the real wool. Its also sewn without a machine, only by hand.

  • how cool you have neem thinking a lot about sustainable fashion lately!. Keep thinking and share your thoughts please!.

  • Usha Yarns Ltd

    Nice to see these budding brands which have decided to choose this tough path but the only way to save our future.