Think of the fashion world as the film Zoolander. Now think of widespread production practices as Ben Stiller’s character, Derek Zoolander.
Now think of sustainable fashion and ethical clothing as Owen Wilson’s character, Hansel. It’s so hot right now. And not without good reason, to be honest. In case you didn’t get the memo, our planet is basically breaking, and it turns out that a lot of it is down to the way we make stuff.
It’s this dynamic of “trendy through necessity” that makes sustainable fashion such an interesting area right now.
On the one hand, there are undoubtedly designers out there exploring ethical clothing because it makes them look good – that’s how trends work, after all – but there’s loads of other labels exploring new and pioneering techniques now because it’s more than likely that they’ll eventually become the norm if society wants to continue living as comfortably as we have up to now.
I recently discussed this in the context of adidas’ explorations in sustainable fashion and the question of who is leading who.
But what this interplay ultimately creates is a wide field of brands creating ethical clothing from different starting points, which means that you can dress ethically and still look good, or look good and still dress ethically. With that in mind, here’s a selection of some of the best sustainable brands out there making product that just might help us stop killing polar bears.
There are plenty reasons for New York label Noah to be getting attention, and being founded by former Creative Director of Supreme, Brendon Babenzien, certainly hasn’t done any damage to the label’s profile.
The brand’s roots in skateboarding, punk and nautical culture has created a unique and exciting identity at a time when so many other brands seem to be imitating everybody else, but their passions are more than surface level.
Babenzien makes no secret of the values he wants his brand to represent; they’ve released product to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, written extensively about issues like pesticides and ocean pollution, and are constantly working to manufacture their product using sustainable practices.
The reverse of the care label on each of their garments even features a fact about the damage humans are doing to the ocean – most recently, that there are over 500 “dead zones” in the world’s oceans; areas where pollution has made life completely unsustainable.
Simple name, simple product, simple pleasures. Brainchild of Gail and Lonny Richards, Organic Threads is a sustainable brand that produces one thing and one thing only: socks made from 100% organic cotton grown and manufactured in the USA.
They’re so proud of their fabrics that they don’t even dye them, resulting in beautiful, earthy tones that I promise will go great with whatever the on-trend color palette du jour happens to be.
Word of warning though; don’t visit their website unless you want to feel like you’ve been shot through a wormhole back to 1997. Spare your eyes and grab a pair from Kinoko.
You don’t have to look at Scandinavian denim brand Nudie Jeans’ laid-back, surfer vibe for long to figure out that they’d probably align themselves with ethical clothing, but they’re doing a lot more than putting waves on the back pockets of their jeans.
They manufacture all of their product with 100% organic cotton (using 91% less water than traditional methods in the process), they pay everyone in their supply chain a living wage, they recycle and resell second-hand garments, and they perform unannounced checks on their factories and suppliers to make sure everyone is keeping to their high standards – and they even publish these reports online for everyone to see.
One of the world’s most famous and respected outdoor brands, Patagonia put in a lot of work to show their love of the natural world is about more than rain jackets and fleeces – and it wasn’t always that way.
They openly admit that they haven’t gotten everything right in the past, and they’re now working hard to try and put that right, making sure their product is safely and ethically produced, revising their entire supply chain to reduce the environmental impact of their production, and providing their workers with health insurance, paid maternity and paternity leave and subsidized childcare.
They’re even trying to discourage their customers from buying more product by offering to restore Patagonia product to good as new with their Worn Wear program. Sometimes it’s nice not to be sold anything.
Started by 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater, Outerknown comes from a similar spirit to Supreme; a bunch of surfers who wanted to dress the same way they always had, but look a bit more grown up and stylish.
They build on this, however, with a pure premise of challenging the norms of the clothing industry and pursuing strictly ethical, sustainable production.
100% cotton T-shirts, fair-trade suppliers, even turning reclaimed fishing nets into nylon board shorts, Outerknown effectively turns surf culture’s love of the ocean into a sustainable brand that lives by that very same ethos.
Hailing from the spiritual home of all things progressive and eco-friendly – Portland, Oregon – Nau is a sustainable fashion brand that makes a range of casual and outdoors clothing with an ethical touch.
Organic cottons, recycled polyesters and PFC-free waterproof treatments ensure their product is environmentally-friendly, and they donate 2% of every sale to a number of partners, helping to fund a range of initiatives across the world including People for Bikes and Mercy Corps.
Buying ethical clothing is one thing, but what about the stuff you’re putting on your skin? In recent years we’re becoming more aware that a lot of skincare and beauty products are loaded with harmful chemicals that might be less than good for your body, and people are looking for clean, sustainable alternatives.
Haeckels is a small skincare brand from the town of Margate on the southeast coast of England who create perfumes and skincare products from locally-sourced ingredients such as pine trees, roses, chalk and blackberries, but most interesting is their range of seaweed-based products.
One of just two companies with a license to harvest seaweed from the English coast, Haeckels are committed to their environmental responsibilities, maintaining the health of the coastline, using glass packaging wherever possible to avoid harmful plastics, testing all of their products on themselves and meticulously documenting their practices – they can even tell you the day ingredients were harvested, the weather on that particular day, and the precise location the ingredients came from.
They’ve already been picked up by tastemakers like Goodhood, colette and Open As Usual and, on a personal level, since buying their facewash on a whim a few months back I have the complexion of a Roman goddess. Recommended.
Portland brand Olderbrother have set their sights on injecting a laid-back attitude and playful aesthetic into sustainable fashion, using progressive production practices to create ethical clothing for men and women that won’t do damage.
Everything is dyed with natural dyes and produced with carefully sourced materials, and their Hand Me Down series re-dyes and recycles old garments to create unique, one-of-a-kind pieces with a conscience. I know, it’s all very Portland, but it’s also very, very good.
With their distinctive “V” branding and understated designs, you’ve probably already encountered Veja’s shoes countless times, but they’re also one of the most committed labels in sustainable fashion right now.
The French footwear brand uses organic cotton and sustainable natural Amazonian rubber to make their shoes, and refuses to work with any leather manufacturers from the Amazon, where cattle farming has been a major contributor to deforestation.
On top of that, they use airtight stock management procedures to avoid overproduction and waste. Not only that, their leather-free vegan models are slick as hell as well, so why not leave the cows out of it for once? Huh? What you got against cows? What did they ever do to you? Leave the cows alone! Alright? Alright.
As anyone living down on the Cornish coast will tell you, surf culture in the UK is pretty far removed from the tropical shirtless stereotype that’s propagated through the media (the long blonde hair is still pretty accurate, though).
If you want to ride waves over here, you’re gonna want to dress for the elements. Much like Kelly Slater’s Outerknown, Tom Kay’s Finisterre has been producing clean, functional outdoors apparel since 2002 with a firm focus on ethical clothing production wherever possible.
They use recycled fabrics in a lot of their clothing right down to the insulation filling, as well as biodegradable treatments and finishes to ensure that when their clothing inevitably returns to the earth, it takes nothing but the good stuff with it.
And when it comes to more challenging products such as wetsuits and technical gear, they’re committed to making sure their product is built to last – buy it once, wear it, and keep wearing it. But if you’re going on a surfing trip in Cornwall, for the love of God please wrap up warm. I’ll only tell you once.
Fall back #menswear, it’s time to get ethical. Clothing is becoming increasingly easy to make sustainable and environmentally friendly, but when it comes to leather shoes, sustainable brands have to think a bit smarter.
Since 2011, Nisolo has been working with select manufacturers in Mexico, Kenya and Peru (where they have their own production factory) to produce quality leather shoes with sustainable, ethical practices.
Workers are paid a decent wage and wherever possible the brand eschews harmful chemicals, opting for vegetable tanning processes over chemical treatments, for example. At $190 for a pair of handmade penny loafers, you’d be crazy not to.
As anyone who lives in Berlin will tell you, when Germans get behind a political cause they can get pretty passionate about it. Enter ethical clothing label Bleed, named for their anti-animal cruelty product underpinned by the tagline “We bleed for nature.”
Seriously though, these guys don’t mess around when it comes to their principles, meticulously detailing the background to each of their materials – using cork, for example, as an ecological and sustainable leather alternative – and collaborating with the likes of Liquid Surf and PETA to keep our oceans clean and our animals healthy and happy.
Everything Bleed produces is 100% vegan and very reasonably priced, so you can rest assured that you’re protecting that other precious, endangered species – your credit rating.
Between their straight-to-the-point brand name to the opening line of their “About” page – “The fashion industry is a dirty bastard.” – there’s not much else to say about Organic Basics.
Looking at the industry-wide push to create sustainable fashion, the Danish label noticed nobody was putting in the work to create ethical clothing when it came to the pieces you put on without even thinking; underwear, socks and undershirts.
The result is a simple collection of sustainable fashion basics for him and her in clean black and white color palettes, and their range of subscription packages means you even have the option of getting a fresh delivery of clean-conscience undergarments to fit your schedule. So you’re on a first date.
You buy organic groceries? Not bad. You only buy vegan sneakers? They’re impressed. But you’re packaged in ethical underwear? That’s the panty dropper. Scratch that – the ethical panty dropper.
Born from personal passions, Joe Lauder started out producing classic ’60s-style skateboards a few years back, and some unexpected press led him to creating the sustainable brand Satta.
Fast-forward a few years and the South-London brand is producing everything from clothing and skate decks to incense with a heavy focus on ethics, organics and sustainability.
With its laid-back aesthetic and touches of spirituality, the brand has been a hit in its home city, being picked up by the likes of Kinoko, Goodhood and Slam City Skates. The incense, however, is particularly solid.
You: a bulk pack of Nag Champa incense sticks. The guy she tells you not to worry about: Satta’s white sage incense bundles, sustainably harvested from the coastal mountains of California. There’s levels to this aroma game, friend.
Knowledge Cotton Apparel
Hailing from Denmark, Knowledge Cotton Apparel is a casual menswear brand that pursues ethical clothing production with two primary focuses: 100% organic cotton and recycled PET polyester.
PolyEthylene Terephthalate is the oil-sourced plastic used to manufacture most plastic bottles, and its environmental impact is about as ugly as its spelling.
Knowledge Cotton Apparel endeavors to produce as much of its collections using organic cotton and recycled PET as possible, and their clean, understated aesthetic makes them a perfect option for anyone looking for some new wardrobe staples.
Founded in 2007 in Cologne, Germany, Armedangels is a sustainable fashion brand pursuing ethical practices throughout its production chain, using organic fabrics like cotton, wool and linen as well as recycled polyester, and working with organizations such as the Fair Wear Foundation to ensure everyone from their design team to their farm workers are paid a fair, living wage for their labor.
They’ve got a comprehensive product offer for both men and women, available at a price that won’t break the bank. Ball on a budget, with a conscience.
Founded in 2005 by Ali Hewson, EDUN is a New York-based women’s fashion label rooted in promoting production and trade across the African continent.
Through a multi-pronged approach to ethical clothing, the label works closely with manufacturers, artists and local communities to strengthen trade and create lasting business ties with African creators in the fashion world.
In recent years, EDUN has received investment from LVMH, so hopefully the approach will pick up across the wider high-fashion world.
Already firmly established in the Scandinavian fashion scene for their clean and understated menswear and womenswear designs, Swedish brand Filippa K is now making commendable progress as a sustainable brand through a number of groundbreaking initiatives.
First up, their Front Runners collection offers a range of pieces that are heavily scrutinized from material sourcing and production to destruction and disposal to create truly sustainable fashion pieces, the latest chapter exploring recycled wool garments blended with durable recycled polyester constructed without the use of any dyes.
Even more interesting is their Lease initiative, a service which allows customers at a number of Filippa K’s Scandinavian and European flagships to rent a garment for 4 days at 20% of retail price with all cleaning costs included.
It’s a two-pronged attack on modern consumptive practices; look fresh every week without breaking the bank, or buy something sustainably produced that you know will last a lifetime. Smart.
Designed and produced in Los Angeles, Jungmaven is an ethical clothing brand with one basic objective at its core: hemp.
More environmentally friendly than traditional fabrics like cotton, hemp is a wonder-plant in more ways than one, requiring less water to grow and absorbing carbon back into the earth, helping to regenerate soil.
In its fight to promote the plant, Jungmaven produces a wide range of 100% hemp garments alongside a number of hemp-cotton blend pieces for those of us still transitioning to the hemp life. You’ll get there eventually.
In their simplest form, a pair of sunglasses can be made from wood, glass and a few pieces of metal, so it’s surprising there aren’t more shade labels out there putting the work in the make their product environmentally friendly, right? Fortunately, Dick Moby have set out to change all of that.
Based in Amsterdam, the ethical eyewear brand uses 97% recycled acetate for all of its frames (the 3% is black ink), and their microfiber lens cloths are made from recycled PET. Even their glasses cases are made from recycled leather. I can see clearly now, etc. Allow me.
Apolis is a sustainable brand from America that is underpinned by a philosophy of “advocacy through industry.” Founding brothers Raan and Shea Parton launched the label in 2004 after traveling around the globe and recognizing the importance of local, community production.
Their brand works closely with manufacturers around the world to create ethical clothing that supports developing communities and empowers their workers, providing a fair, living wage and structure for further development.
- Lead image: Vincent Desailly / Veja