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