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.
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 of 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; it’s released product to support #BlackLivesMatter, written extensively about issues like pesticides and ocean pollution, and is constantly working to manufacture its product using sustainable practices.
The reverse of the care label on each of Noah’s garments have even featured a fact about the damage humans are doing to the ocean – like that there are over 500 “dead zones” in the world’s oceans; areas where pollution has made life completely unsustainable.
Unexpected among these brands is ALYX Visual, the sub-line of Matthew Williams’ 1017 ALYX 9SM. While Williams has spoken about designing ALYX collections with sustainability in mind, “Visual” is different. The line’s cotton jersey textile is made in collaboration with Recover Tex, a Spanish recycler who converts both pre-worn clothes and ocean waste into upcycled yarn. This yarn is then spun into a fabric used to make tees and hoodies. Your hippie aunt may not love the “Reverse Cowboy Tee” (or its connotations), but it’s every bit as upcycled as her hiking fleece.
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 go great with whatever the on-trend color palette du jour happens to be.
You don’t have to look at Scandinavian denim brand Nudie Jeans’ laid-back, surfer vibe for long to figure out that it probably aligns itself with ethical clothing, but it’s doing a lot more than putting waves on the back pockets of its jeans.
Manufacturing all of its product with 100% organic cotton (using 91% less water than traditional methods in the process), Nudie pays everyone in its supply chain a living wage, recycles and resells second-hand garments, and performs unannounced checks on factories and suppliers to make sure everyone is keeping to its high standards – publishing these reports online for everyone to see.
One of the world’s most famous and respected outdoor brands, Patagonia puts in a lot of work to show its love of the natural world is about more than rain jackets and fleeces – and it wasn’t always that way.
Openly admitting that the label hasn’t gotten everything right in the past, Patagonia now works hard to put that right, making sure its product is safely and ethically produced, revising its entire supply chain to reduce the environmental impact of production, and providing workers with health insurance, paid maternity and paternity leave and subsidized childcare.
The brand even tries to discourage customers from buying more product by offering to restore Patagonia pieces 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.
It builds 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 product is environmentally-friendly, while 2% of every sale goes 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 that creates 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 is committed to its environmental responsibilities, maintaining the health of the coastline, using glass packaging wherever possible to avoid harmful plastics, testing all products rigurously and meticulously documenting its practices – even going as far as to tell you the day ingredients were harvested, the weather on that particular day, and the precise location the ingredients came from.
Portland brand Olderbrother has set its 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 its 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 its distinctive “V” branding and understated designs, you’ve probably already encountered Veja’s shoes countless times, but it’s 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 its 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, it uses airtight stock management procedures to avoid overproduction and waste. Not only that, its 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.
And when it comes to more challenging products such as wetsuits and technical gear, Finisterre is committed to making sure its 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 it has its 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 its 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 its straight-to-the-point brand name to the opening line of its “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 its 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 its clean, understated aesthetic makes it 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 design team to farm workers are paid a fair, living wage for their labor.
The brand has 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 its 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, its 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, exploring recycled wool garments blended with durable recycled polyester constructed without the use of any dyes.
Even more interesting is its 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 has 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 its microfiber lens cloths are made from recycled PET. Even the 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 its workers, providing a fair, living wage and structure for further development.
London designer Christopher Raeburn’s REMADE line focusses on reworked pieces made with surplus materials. The REMADE collection includes tote bags made out of military parachutes, tees that use silk army wraps from the ’50s, and jackets from immersion suits, all in limited editions.
While REMADE makes up for about 30 percent of Christopher Raeburn’s production, every collection from Raeburn’s brand uses organic cotton and recycled polyester, all produced out of its London studio to reduce waste in any way possible. Recently, the label even partnered with fellow sustainable British brand Finisterre on a line of nautical essentials.
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- Lead image: Vincent Desailly / Veja