Photo: Mara Hoffman
When it comes to clothing, the best way to be truly sustainable is to buy secondhand. But if you’re looking for something new, sustainable fashion brands can be a solid choice for reducing your carbon footprint and ensuring that the people making your jeans, dresses, and bags are treated fairly. The problem: The process by which brands get to call themselves sustainable is largely unregulated. With the growing demand for sustainably made clothing, the term is thrown around pretty loosely.
So what does sustainable mean when it comes to fashion? Kristy Drutman, host of the podcast Brown Girl Green, says it prioritizes both environmental and social responsibility throughout the life span of a garment, from raw materials all the way to how long a piece of clothing will last in your closet. According to Haley Boyd, an expert on sustainable fashion sourcing, some brands are going as far as disclosing the wage of the lowest paid worker in their supply chain.
Very few companies are able to achieve true sustainability at every stage of the process, however, and often decide to put their efforts toward one area before moving on to the next. As a sustainability-minded consumer, instead of trying to find the perfect company that’s accounting for everything, it’s easiest to think about what is most important to you — better labor practices, less waste, or renewable raw materials — and focus your purchasing power on a brand with similar aims.
Thankfully, there are organizations that are happy to vet so-called sustainable brands for you and online resources like Good On You and The Fashion Transparency Index. In addition, nearly all of the experts we spoke to say consumers can avoid greenwashing (brands marketing themselves as environmentally conscious without backing up their claims) by looking for third-party certifications like bluesign, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic, OEKO-TEX, fair trade, and B-Corp.
We talked to Drutman, Boyd, and six other experts about the sustainable clothing brands they love and buy from. To make the list easier to navigate, we’ve organized brands by key areas of impact. When a company does a good job in more than one area, we’ve noted that, too. One thing to note: The products below are more expensive than conventionally made clothing because they are made without cutting corners. But they are also made to last longer because that helps the planet too.
This NYC-based direct-to-consumer brand uses GOTS-certified organic cotton for both environmental and reproductive health reasons. According to Elizabeth L. Cline, journalist and author of The Conscious Closet, Knickey “uses high-quality natural materials that biodegrade” and adds that “plastic fibers persist in our environment, pollute our oceans, and are made out of oil.” Organic cotton conserves water, reduces pollution, creates more biodiversity, and is safer for workers because pesticides are prohibited and only natural fertilizers can be used. Additionally, Knickey partners with a NY recycling company to recycle old socks, tights, and underwear from other brands — and keep them out of landfills.
Christy Dawn is known for their flowy floral dresses that are handmade from upcycled materials in Los Angeles. Boyd likes the company it is incredibly conscious of its impacts on both people and the planet throughout the entire life cycle of their products. “We need more metrics to measure how people are treated, but I think someone working on their farm in India or at their factory in L.A. would be 11 out of 10 on the happiness scale,” she says. Christy Dawn also supports an important climate solution called regenerative agriculture, which Boyd explains draws carbon out of the atmosphere and locks it into the soil. “To me, it’s one of the most exciting things happening in fashion,” she says.
Spanish brand Babaà sources the wool for its chunky sweaters from northern Spain. It’s spun and dyed by Spanish artisans, as is most of their cotton, which comes from organic farmers in Andalucia. The brand’s yarns are never mixed with acrylics or any other synthetic fibers, meaning the end product lasts a long time and is biodegradable. Also, all Babaà samples are donated to CEAR (Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado), a refugee center in Getafe, Madrid. “I feel like they are so well made that they could definitely go to my daughter,” says Caroline Priebe, founder of the Center for the Advancement of Garment Making.
Sustainable fashion trailblazer Stella McCartney comes recommended by Priebe, as well as Ciaraleaf Meaney, co-founder and creative director of Tomorrow Collective. “She is doing really cool things cause she’s always investing in actually new fabrications,” says Priebe, who cites the designer’s innovative plant-based leathers, including one that’s made from mushrooms.
Brooklyn designer M.Patmos is a favorite of creative consultant Michele Janezic, who wears the brand’s classic wardrobe staples and says their face masks are her go-to. M.Patmos uses organic materials and innovates with dead-stock fabric to eliminate waste.
This brother-sister design duo uses undyed natural fibers and vegetable dyes from roots, leaves, bark, and berries. Alden Wicker, a freelance journalist specializing in sustainable fashion and editor in chief of EcoCult.com, says, “Everything from this brand is so versatile and comfortable, and it’s truly designed for the female body. Just go to the store and try something on — you’ll be hooked.”
All of the fabrics from this Finnish company with a 70-year history of colorful and bold patterns are screen printed by hand in Helsinki in a facility that operates on biogas (gas produced from the breakdown of organic matter) and renewable electricity. The majority of the fabrics printed are certified by OEKOTEX. Janezic owns both new and vintage Marimekko pieces and says she’s always searching eBay and Etsy for more.
Based out of a small workshop in Providence, Rhode Island, Lotuff Leather uses vegetable-tanned leather from a generations-old tannery in South America. As opposed to chrome tanning, vegetable tanning reduces environmental pollution and allows the tannery to reuse water again and again. Any residual leather bits and natural dye runoff from this process is turned into fertilizer bricks, which are then used to enrich a nearby Eucalyptus grove that provides the raw materials for the tanning process. “I own a purse that I have carried for several years. I use it daily, am not gentle on it, and it looks just as good as when I first got it,” Janezic says.
Drutman is a fan of Mate the Label’s cozy everyday clothes and has a pair of the brand’s white joggers that she loves. In addition to using organic cotton, Mate the Label reduces its carbon footprint by keeping its supply chain local. Everything is cut, sewn, and shipped from Los Angeles.
Priebe says the term sustainability is actually on its way out and there’s a new benchmark we should all be thinking about: circular fashion. This means nothing is wasted in the clothing-making process. Fabric is cut to reduce leftover scraps, clothing samples are sold or donated, and garments are repaired or recycled rather than thrown out. Both Priebe and Sarah Spellings, fashion news editor at Vogue, recommend Another Tomorrow for its incredible transparency, use of natural materials, and commitment to a short supply chain. But the company also does something few other brands do to ensure a long life for each piece of clothing: They partnered with the company EVRYTHNG to assign a digital ID to every item of clothing they put out in the world. Consumers can scan their garment’s QR code and quickly see its entire journey from raw materials to fabric mill to final quality control.
Tonlé starts by reclaimed fabric bought at remnant markets in Phnom Penh, which they use to create recycled fabrics and yarns to make clothing. Any fabric waste too small to be turned into yarn is collected with paper waste and recycled into new paper. “They are a brand focused on being intentional, inclusive, and regenerative,” says Drutman.
Meaney and Spellings recommend Mara Hoffman’s dresses, swimwear, and other designs. Meaney calls Hoffman’s process “very mindful,” specifically highlighting the designer’s innovative and recycled materials, transparent labor practices, and commitment to the circular economy. The brand’s website has detailed instructions for how to get the most out of their garment. And if you end up with a dress or bathing suit you no longer want, they’ll take it back.
Both Cline and Spellings recommend designer Aurora James’s brand Brother Vellies. Based in NYC, Brother Vellies uses renewable and recycled materials to create some of the industries most coveted boots and shoes. They are also committed to preserving craftsmanship and supporting local artisans in South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Italy, and Haiti. Cline says James is rebuilding a slow fashion cycle, adding that she is “pushing the mainstream industry to include products from Black entrepreneurs, showing that sustainability, inclusivity, and dignified jobs for everyone all have to go hand in hand.”
Nashville-based leather-shoe brand Nisolo is a certified B-Corporation, meaning they meet the highest standards of social and environmental responsibility, accountability, and transparency. “I have a pair of Reina leather high-tops from Nisolo that tick all the ethical shopping boxes for me,” says Cline, who explains that the boots are made out of high-quality leather manufactured in factories that follow strict environmental guidelines, and for each pair sold, a contribution is made to protect forests in the Amazon basin. She also says that Nisolo pays living wages, offers health-care benefits, and provides a healthy work environment to their factory workers in Peru.
Similar to the farm-to-table food movement, San Francisco brand Umber & Ochre does something they call field to fabric. They partner with family-owned workshops in remote villages that each have a specialized craft, including yarn spinning, natural dyeing, traditional wooden loom weaving, woodblock carving, and printing. Janezic visited several of these village workshops and experienced firsthand how they operate. “One family has owned a block-printing workshop in the desert for ten generations — 500 years!” she says. Umber & Ochre clothing is handwoven and naturally dyed, and their silk is made without harming the silkworms.
Started by model and activist Liya Kebede, Lemlem clothing and accessories are ethically made by female artisans in Kebede’s home country of Ethiopia, as well as other African nations. Wicker has one of Lemlem’s simple cover-ups and recommends the brand for their commitment to elevating artisanship and expanding production and jobs across Africa.
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