This article is a part of CNN Underscored’s Earth Week, a weeklong focus on our planet and ways to celebrate and preserve it. We’ll be featuring tips on how to live more sustainably, products to help you spend more time in nature and exclusive deals all week, so check in every morning to see what’s new, and be sure to subscribe to the CNN Underscored newsletter to see it all.
Whether it’s composting or using recyclable and refillable beauty products, there are many things we can change in our daily routines to live in a more earth-friendly way. One way you can cut down on your environmental impact is ditching fast fashion and instead shopping sustainably. But it’s not as easy as you might think. Sustainability has become somewhat of a marketing ploy for many companies; that’s why we talked to experts to figure out what brands are actually sustainable and what you should look for when trying to make the switch to sustainable fashion.
So what exactly does sustainable fashion mean? “Sustainable fashion usually means eco-friendly practices in the fashion industry, referencing the approach of designing, producing and consuming clothes that respect the planet by causing little to no damage, and therefore sustaining the environment,” says Katrina Caspelich, the director of marketing for Remake, a nonprofit fighting to end fast fashion. “At Remake, we define this term holistically by looking at both the planetary and human impact, defining sustainable fashion also as the industry’s practice of sustaining the healthy lives of the people who make our clothes through living wages, safe work conditions and maker well-being.”
But before you even research clothing brands for eco-friendly practices, know that wearing what you already have or buying secondhand is the most sustainable thing to do. “The best way to practice sustainability is by shopping your closet before purchasing anything new,” says Caspelich. She also recommends checking out vintage, rental and consignment stores or “shopping” your friends’ closets before you buy brand-new clothes.
If you’ve exhausted all those options and still want to buy new, the good news is that there are tons of brands taking initiatives to make more sustainable clothes, whether that means using recycled materials, lowering carbon emissions in manufacturing or paying workers fair wages. However, Caspelich says you can’t always trust brands that claim to be eco-friendly. “Where many individuals wish to make meaningful change in their purchasing choices, marketing heads of fashion companies use greenwashing, manipulative tactics to make sales, without doing the hard work of running a truly sustainable company,” she says.
Avoiding these marketing ploys and giving your money to companies that are actually taking strides to become sustainable can sometimes be hard, but Kimberley Smith, chief supply chain officer at Everlane, has a few tips to help you find well-intentioned brands.
“Consumers should look for brands that put an emphasis on transparency in their supply chain. There is no regulation of the word ‘sustainable fashion,’ and in an industry that is already opaque, some brands can be dishonest about their environmental impact,” says Smith. “It’s also important to keep an eye out for partners and standardized certifications that can support sustainability claims. For example, The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) for organic cotton, Global Recycled Standard (GRS) for recycled products, the LEED certification for reduced energy consumption in factories or Bluesign for chemical and environmental management.” It’s also good to look for Certified B Corporations, which meet a strict set of standards measuring a company’s environmental impact.
Elizabeth Cline, author of “The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good,” echoes many of Smith’s tips. “Keep in mind that the vast majority of fashion’s impact happens in manufacturing, so the area where brands are doing the most work to be green is in the materials,” she says. “So to choose a more sustainable option, start by looking more closely at the fabrics brands are using.” Cline also says to remember that sustainable fashion goes beyond brands. “You don’t have to buy anything to be involved. Resale, shopping thrift, caring and mending the clothes you already have and throwing a clothing swap with friends are all easy ways to be green and fashionable. What’s more, sustainable fashion often starts with a shift in mindset.”
As you can see, there’s a lot of research to do when making the switch to sustainable fashion. But if you don’t want to spend hours digging through the “About” sections of dozens of brands, there are resources such as Remake’s Sustainable Brand Directory and the site Good On You, where you can search for specific brands to see their environmental impact.
To give you a head start, we’ve compiled a list of sustainable clothing and shoe brands that put sustainability at their forefront, some of which come recommended right from our experts.
Caspelich recommends Girlfriend Collective as a great option for activewear, bras and underwear as well as a few outerwear pieces. The brand uses 100% recyclable packaging, and all of its clothes are made with eco-friendly materials, whether it’s with fabric made out of recycled water bottles and fishing nets or a fiber made from waste from the cotton industry. We’ve tried some of Girlfriend Collective’s leggings in the past and absolutely loved them. You can learn more about Girlfriend Collective’s sustainability efforts on its site here.
Caspelich and Cline both recommend Outerknown, which is a fantastic brand for simple clothing basics such as shirts, shorts, sweaters, jeans and more. Ninety percent of the fibers the brand sources are organic, recycled or regenerated, and 100% of its trunks are made with recycled or renewable fibers. Read more about Outerknown’s sustainability here.
Everlane is perhaps one of the most popular sustainable fashion brands, and for good reason. The brand’s commitment to transparency allows consumers to research the ins and outs and find that 97% of Everlane’s apparel materials containing polyester and nylon are now made from certified recycled fibers, 100% of its virgin plastic shipping bags are now made from either 100% recycled plastic or FSC-certified paper and its jeans are made in a LEED-certified factory that recycles 98% of its water. Learn more about Everlane’s sustainability here.
Another brand approved by Caspelich and Cline, Nudie Jeans uses exclusively organic, fair trade or recycled cotton, which consists of 93.8% of all the fibers used in its clothing. The organic cotton Nudie Jeans uses is also certified by GOTS, the Organic Content Standard 100 or the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), depending on the origin and supplier. Read more about Nudie Jeans and its sustainability efforts here.
Caspelich also recommends Organic Basics if you’re searching for basics such as shirts, sweaters, underwear, bras and more. The brand puts a heavy focus on working with certified factory partners, and you can even look at each individual factory it works with. Plus, it only uses natural, renewable, recycled, biodegradable and/or low-impact textiles. You can read more about the details of Organic Basics here.
Cline also likes Reformation, another big name in sustainable fashion, thanks to its chic style and commitment to sustainability. The brand is certified as carbon neutral by Climate Neutral, with the goal of becoming climate positive by 2025, and even provides environmental impact reports so consumers can stay informed about its efforts. Check out more about Reformation’s sustainability here.
Another expert-approved option for jeans, Caspelich and Cline both recommend Mud Jeans since its jeans contain up to 40% postconsumer recycled denim and are made with 581 liters of water per pair, compared to the industry standard of 7,000. For more info on Mud’s circular denim process, check out its website.
Patagonia is a popular brand in the outdoor scene, and while you might just recognize its puffy jackets and iconic fleeces, you may be surprised at how sustainable the brand is. Patagonia uses Fair Trade Certified factories and sources most of its fabrics from sustainably produced materials, and comes recommended by Caspelich and Cline. Take a deep dive into Patagonia’s sustainability and activism efforts on its site here.
Cotopaxi is another outerwear brand recommended by Caspelich, as it’s a Certified B Corporation and puts 1% of its revenue toward addressing poverty and supporting community development. It puts a lot of emphasis on only using fair, sustainable working conditions, and each year provides targeted grants to nonprofits. To learn more about all of Cotopaxi’s efforts, check out its website.
Naadam has been one of our favorite brands for a while now, thanks to its luxurious cashmere sweater that’s only $75. However, there’s a lot more to the brand, including a commitment to transparency and sustainability. It works directly with herders in Mongolia to pay them a fair wage, and in 2019, 100% of the materials it used came from renewable or recycled sources. You can read more about Naadam’s efforts and even dive into its Social and Environmental Impact Report here.
Another Certified B Corporation and a brand Cline recommends, Eileen Fisher is a great option for fashionable clothing, shoes and accessories. Its website details the many facets of its sustainability efforts, including using organic materials, working with fair and ethical factories and tracing its supply chain.
Nisolo is a Certified B Corporation that makes high-quality shoes and accessories from responsibly sourced leather. The brand owns its own factory in Peru and gives the workers there a living wage — not to mention it combats climate change by protecting trees from deforestation. You can read more about Nisolo’s sustainability and read its latest impact report for more in-depth information on the brand’s supply chain here.
Allbirds has taken the sneaker game by storm, offering ridiculously comfy shoes made from eco-friendly materials. It’s constantly finding and using more sustainable and recycled materials, plus it’s actively looking at ways to lower its carbon footprint, with a goal of becoming climate positive. You can dig into more of Allbirds’ sustainability efforts here.
Cariuma centers itself around sustainability in many ways, from its eco-friendly materials to its deforestation efforts. For every pair of sneakers you buy, Cariuma plants two trees in the Brazilian rainforest (it’s planting 10 trees for every pair through April 30). Learn more about Cariuma’s shoes and sustainable practices on its website.
Rothy’s is a popular shoe brand that turns recycled plastic bottles into its signature thread that’s featured in all of its products. Stylish shoes from flats, sneakers and boots to accessories like handbags and totes are available from the brand. You can dive deeper into Rothy’s sustainability efforts here.