With so many so-called sustainable fashion brands and eco-conscious lines appearing in stores and on our feeds, it’s not always clear who is actually doing the work and who is benefiting from the halo effect of being socially and environmentally responsible.
The reality is that fashion has a massive waste problem—on average, Americans generate about 75 pounds of textile waste annually, an increase of more than 750% since 1960—and businesses cannot become sustainable overnight.
Sourcing organic, recycled, regenerated, or innovative materials requires far more investment than the cheap textiles that make up most of our clothing today. It takes years of planning to build environmentally responsible supply chains.
For us consumers, it’s easy to fall victim to greenwashing marketing tactics, such as brands using fluffy jargon and misleading images or hyper-focusing on one green business practice while conveniently ignoring everything else, especially if these messages come from a retailer or designer we love and regularly shop with.
However, we must clean up our act just as much as our favourite labels, and you can help propel the industry forward by educating yourself and supporting companies striving to do better.
To help you make sense of all the cryptic messaging, we enlisted the help of three fashion sustainability experts to develop useful benchmarks for distinguishing brands that are doing the work from those that are simply issuing performative statements without the receipts to back them up.
Of course, we all know that you can’t buy your favorite clothing brand. As your way into sustainability, you can make more informed shopping decisions.
So, what are some characteristics to keep in mind? Here’s what the experts think.
The simpler the fiber content, the better, so look for natural, organic materials that use less water and don’t contain pesticides or microplastics. Wool, silk, flax, hemp, linen, okra, and bamboo are all excellent alternatives to nonbiodegradable fabrics such as polyester and nylon.
Some sustainable fashion brands, such as Pangaea and Adidas, are also pioneering using sustainably sourced materials and innovative processes.
Levi’s Denim production can be incredibly wasteful, but the heritage jeans brand is working to change that. By 2025, Levi’s plans to use 100% sustainably sourced cotton, use 100% renewable energy in Levi’s owned and operated facilities, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% across its entire supply chain.
The company is also a leader in developing innovative, long-lasting fabrics that produce less waste and use fewer resources. Levi’s also has a Worker Well-Being programme. It works with suppliers and local organizations to implement financial empowerment, health and family well-being, and equality and acceptance programmes.
DL1961 is another excellent example of a sustainable denim producer. DL1961 claims its average pair uses less than 10 gallons of water, whereas the average pair of jeans uses approximately 1,500 gallons.
That is no easy task. By controlling every aspect of the manufacturing process, from spinning the yarn and weaving the fabric to cutting and sewing the garment, DL1961 can keep its carbon footprint to a bare minimum.
Cuyana is doubling its commitment to responsible manufacturing clothing brand, partnering primarily with family-run businesses to produce limited quantities of timeless, high-quality designs that will not end up in landfills.
The brand wants you to enjoy your purchase and wear it frequently for years. Furthermore, Cuyana has committed to using only sustainably sourced materials by 2022, and it is already keeping that promise this year with its traceable, single-origin cashmere collection.
This direct-to-consumer brand sources its cashmere directly from herders in the Mongolian desert, eliminating the middleman and delivering higher-quality products at a lower cost. The company has made significant investments in the communities of herders and prioritizes livable wages throughout its supply chain.
Naadam is also very transparent about its material sourcing and has provided a lot of information in its Social and Environmental Impact Report, which details its goals for 2025 and how far it’s come.
Adidas has been at the forefront of sustainable activewear for many years, with the primary goal of eliminating plastic waste. It regularly works with Parley for the Oceans to incorporate recycled plastic debris and certified fabrics into its designs.
Half of its collections are recycled polyester, but the brand has pledged to eliminate all virgin plastic from its products by 2024. In addition, the activewear behemoth has a long history of collaboration with Stella McCartney, a pioneer in sustainable womenswear design.