If you’re anything like me, you’re getting just a little bit bored of clothing brands taking the absolute mick out of the planet and people. Fast fashion is responsible a third of microplastics found in the ocean, 10% of our entire carbon emissions outputs and uses up water like there’s no tomorrow (2,700 litres for one cotton t-shirt!). But perhaps we consumers need to change our behaviours too. We’ve been lapping up fashion brands at the rate of 80 billion items of clothes a year. Our wardrobe obsession has become a throwaway industry where consumers buy 60% more clothes than 15 years ago and only keep them for half as long. 11 billion pieces of clothes end up in landfill or burnt, with 60% destroyed or discarded within a single year of being made.
So how do we change our ways and how do we know what makes clothes eco in the first place? And how do we spot the real sustainable clothing brands from the greenwashers?
Since the sharp rise in concern about the climate crisis, everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. Greenwashing is rife in almost every industry and fashion is no exception.
Buzz words ‘conscious’, ‘green’, ‘slow fashion’ and ‘organic’ are thrown around like confetti to make us think these are genuinely sustainable brands but in fact, there are no legal regulations on how this green language is used.
That means it’s far too easy for companies to push pretend eco-credentials, or over-inflate a barely-there green campaign.
So to disguise themselves as Sustainable fashion brands is pretty easy, whilst in reality they’re doing next to naff all.
So it looks like it’s down to us as the consumers to sniff out greenwashing.
That means we need to be armed with all the know-how on what to look for when searching for the best affordable sustainable clothing brands.
Here are the top things you should be thinking about if you really want your wardrobe to be green and sustainable.
Eco Friendly Fabrics
If you want eco friendly fashion, then obviously it’s good to know what materials it’s made from and the environmental impact of those materials.
Unsurprisingly, most people think that environmentally friendly clothing must be made out of natural fibres rather than synthetics, but that’s not necessarily the way to ensure you’re being a green queen or king.
Let’s begin by looking at some of the main fabrics used in nasty fast fashion (ew) and (yay) eco conscious clothing.
If you think of cotton, it seems like a good bet since its natural.
Actually, cotton needs a ridiculous amount of water to grow a crop – 10k litres just for a kilogram in fact.
That’s not taking into account the huge amount of soil killing pesticides that need to be used either. A whopping 24% of global insecticide is used on cotton crops.
If you love to wear cotton, then organic clothing brands might be a better bet, because at least you’ll know it’s been grown sustainably and won’t have the pesticide abuse attached to it.
The most sustainable clothing brands are part of a sustainable cotton initiative, where you can expect better workers’ rights, respect for the environment and better quality.
Polyester, acrylic and nylon
These are basically swear words when you’re looking at sustainable women’s clothing.
Production is almost always the cheapest method possible, with cheap factories run on fossil fuels and oil used to make the clothes.
The other key problem with poly and all those synthetic nasties is that they’re filled with microplastics. These basically never degrade and they wash into our waterways every single time you wash them in your machine.
Generally speaking you aren’t going to find cheap ethical clothing so unless its second hand avoid avoid avoid!
Always tricky for the conscious consumer is leather. Is it a by-product of meat we’re already consuming? In which case – does that make it better?
Well it depends who you talk to, but the bottom line is cows are bad for the planet – at least mass cow production is. Milk, beef and leather might be in high demand, but it could well be the cause of our demise too.
A phenomenal 62% of all agricultural emissions and 18% of global emissions come from cows. A single cow producing 220 lbs of methane, which is a greenhouse gas we’re trying to reduce to stop global warming.
On top of the actual cow rearing (and killing), the processing used to wash and tan leather for our clothes, sofas and shoes uses a lot of chemicals and water.
Leather might have some advantages in terms of warmth, appearance and versatility, but in terms of environmentally friendly fabrics it ain’t that.
One way to wear leather sustainably is to wear second hand (are you getting that this is my go to advice now), or at the very least check that your best sustainable brands are using leather that’s a part of animal welfare and traceability and that the leather is a by-product of food production.
One brand that is making an effort with this is Mulberry, who also work with a non-profit group called Leather Working Group who are the world’s largest sustainability programme.. Might go some way to explaining the price for a handbag.. Sort of. For a list of all their members for future purchases, click here
Or you could explore the some vegan leather market.
Although vegan leather is much better for the animals, it often contains polyurethane, which isn’t biodegradable…
Plant based ‘unleather’ can be made from cork, mushrooms or pinatex (pineapple leaves), but still not the 100% eco clothes we want because it’s coated in plastic to keep it stronger.. and maybe to stop it disintegrating. I like that big brands like Lululemon for Eco yoga clothes, Stella McCartney (a given) and Adidas and Birkenstock who are now making shoes out of this stuff.
The choices for sustainable leather are growing by the season and go well beyond sustainable yoga clothing, eco hoodies and environmentally friendly t shirts so check it out.
Any way, if you’re interested, here’s a video all about how mushroom leather or Mylo as it’s known within the industry is kicking off in the fashion industry.
One of the best ways to check up on your favourite fashion brand or clothing shop is to see if they belong to any industry bodies that take steps to improve sustainability.
Ethical made clothing means to treat the people who make the clothes well, so it’s also important to check if the companies offering cheap clothes are not doing so off the back of slave labour.
The best sustainable fashion brands are using a fabric called tencel, which is a man-made material manufactured out of wood.
Big names like ASOS, Esprit, Guess…? J.Crew, Ted Baker and Whistles are all fans of tencel, giving shoppers more confidence to buy.
If a high fashionista was to mock those ‘bloody hippies’, then they might assume hemp clothes are a given because they get you stoned as well.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Hemp and it’s druggie cousin marijuana are two entirely different species.
Eco friendly clothing certainly doesn’t mean it has to be made out of hemp, although undoubtedly hemp has some major advantages.
For affordable ethical clothing, hemp is definitely one of the better eco materials there are.
Hemp is also the most sustainable fabric of all. Apart from growing quickly and easily, it requires minimal water and is strong durable and versatile.
Like hemp, bamboo grows incredibly quickly, uses very little water to grow and produces strong durable and soft materials to make clothes from.
That said, there are some major environmental down points for bamboo. For a start, forests and their eco-systems were cut down in order to meet the demand for bamboo, which obviously counteracts any environmental good.
More worrying is the bamboo viscose, where toxic substances are used in the production from raw bamboo into the cellulose used to make rayon for thread.
Obviously since it only really grows en-mass in Asia, the main problem with bamboo is the transportation, which carries an eco price of its own.
Ethical Fashion Brands
If you’re like the average person in the West, a lot of your clothes will have come from a place where the people making them aren’t even paid a living wage.
In fact, a staggering 93% of brands fail to pay the basics.
Luckily public interest in sustainable clothing is on the rise, and this seems to have gone hand in hand with ethical clothing brands. Where big brands start to notice a dip, they at least then start to offer green alternatives.
Fashion Industry Bodies
As we’ve already seen, cotton is a bit of an eco disaster when left unchecked, with bamboo hiding unpleasantries with leather and polyesters just not helping.
So should we all just go naked, second hand or only wear hemp for ever more?
Well, there are some folks doing some amazing things within the fashion industry, with various collaborations helping to change the path of fast fashion.
Environmentally Friendly Clothing Initiatives to Look Out For
Circular Fashion is an overall concept that encourages clothing brand to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution via the production of clothing.
The idea is that products will be
- Used more and for longer
- Made to be used again
- Made to be safe
- Made to be recyclable or renewable
Fashion masters Burberry and Stella McCartney are both participants in the scheme.
THE BETTER COTTON INITIATIVE
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a great one to choose if you love your cotton clothes.
A non-profit cotton sustainability programme, the BCI is leading the way towards a better approach to cotton production. This is not just for the environment but for the garment workers that make clothes out of it.
Well known retailers involved with the BCI include M&Co, Tommy Hillfiger, Diesel, Burberry, Nike and H&M, which does give some hope that they’re shifting away from the planet damaging behaviours of before.
That said, it’s always worth double checking how involved these brands actually are because if it’s only one line of clothes, it’s basically akin to greenwashing.
FASHION FOR GOOD
Fashion for Good is another one to look out for when trying to find your best ethical clothing brands.
Striving for change throughout the whole fashion industry, Fashion for Good wants a more regeneration and restoration summarised in 5 key ways:
- Good materials (sustainable, recyclable)
- Good economy (circular and benefit to all)
- Good energy (manufactured using renewable energy)
- Good water (less water consumption)
- Good lives (good working conditions, living wage)
As Co-founder of Fashion for Good William Mc Donough says:
“The Five Goods represent an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not simply take, make, waste, but rather take, make, renew, restore.”
The Ethical Trading Initiative
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) is another one to look out for on fashion manufacturer websites. This alliance of companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations wants business to make a positive difference to workers lives.
Nine key points of the ETI include:
- Employment is freely chosen
- Workers have the right to belong to trade unions and bargain as a collective
- Working conditions are safe and hygienice
- No child labour
- Workers paid a living wage
- Working hours are kept under a maximum amount
- No discrimination
- Regular employment terms
- No inhumane treatment allowed
A collection over 90 companies have joined the ETI, which go on to positively impact the lives of nearly 10 million workers worldwide.
Fashion houses that have signed up to produce ethical women’s clothing and more include ASOS, Boden, Burberry, Jack Wills, John Lewis, Liberty, Stella McCartney, Superdry, Ted Baker and the White Company.
The Good on You App
You can also keep track of a company’s policies and practices on social responsibility and sustainability on the Good On You app, which has a five-star rating system to compare fashion labels.
Using sources including the Fashion Transparency Index and standards such as Fair Trade, Cradle to Cradle and the Global Organic Textile Standard, it rates a brand’s impact on workers across the supply chain, including practices in child and forced labour.
It reports on a company’s use of resources, including waste management and energy, carbon emissions, its impact on water and microfibre pollution.
The app also checks whether the animal products a brand uses are traceable and on its animal welfare policies and identifies the use of animal skin and hair, including fur, angora, down feather and shearling, and how brands use leather.
For the Best Sustainable Clothing Brands – Read the Small Print
It’s fair to say that ethical and sustainable clothing brands are generally good at shouting about it, but be aware the greenwash can be cleverly hidden.
To really know if eco clothing brands are the real deal, check their website.
Companies are legally obliged to tell the truth (even if that truth is spun around a bit), so think like inspector gadget and investigate fully.
Check out newspaper articles about them, social media comments and campaigns from environmental organisations like Greenpeace against them.
So who really are the most ethical clothing brands and the most environmentally friendly clothing brands?
To know this, we need transparency!
THE FASHION TRANSPARENCY INDEX
95% of brands do not disclose their annual water footprint at raw material level.
The Fashion Transparency Index is an excellent resource, specifically developed by fashion revolution to stop companies hiding important information like environmental impact, waste and working conditions.
250 of the largest fashion brands and retailers have been indexed and ranked according to how much of their policies and procedures they’re being transparent and truthful about.
Highlighting who is and who isn’t dishing the truth about their impact, helps to make these companies accountable.
It’s a pretty sorry story that no brands index score for 2021 was over 80% and that speaks volumes about the overall intention of the fashion industry.
THE TOP indexed clothing brands for TRANSPARENCY IN 2021
The North Face 66%
United Colors of Benetton 60%
Calvin Klein 59%
Van Heusen 59%
Tommy Hilfiger 59%
While high-street brands are in front on transparency, several luxury brands performed well. Gucci (56%) was the top-scoring luxury brand and the only brand to score 100% on transparency for its policy and commitments.
So there we have it. Not quite the definitive guide, but a damned good start on what you should be looking out for if you love fashion but want to play safe for the planet.
The bottom line is that the very best thing you can do is buy second hand. I personally love Vinted and have made a pledge that the only new clothes I’ll be buying from now on is underwear.
What are your favourite clothing brands and why? Comment below and let’s chat!