Worth an estimated $2.5 trillion, the global fashion industry is under increasing pressure to limit its negative impacts on people and the planet. Media reports continue to decry the labor and environmental costs of fast fashion and describe the startling impact of our addiction to online shopping and free returns.
As consumer preferences shift, ethical supply chains and a push against overconsumption are finally having a moment in mainstream fashion. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) released a sustainability report in January, which includes recommendations for sustainable manufacturing and calls-to-action for companies in the industry. Sustainability also emerged as an ongoing trend at New York Fashion Week, with Chromat and Collina Strada theming their entire collections around climate change and sustainable materials on display from the likes of Livari and Nicole Miller.
As top designers continue to debut their collections in New York, we’re tipping our hats to some of the leading players in the sustainable fashion space—from retail to runway.
American designer Mara Hoffman advocates responsible consumption with her eponymous fashion line. She uses responsibly-sourced organic, recycled and regenerated materials to create minimal womenswear that's built to last. The company also utilizes fair labor and participates in sector-wide partnerships such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Organic Cotton Accelerator and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s Fashion Positive initiative.
The company didn't always operate with such a laser focus on sustainability. After a decade of success in mainstream fashion, Hoffman began to shift her practices about five years ago upon realizing the impact of her industry. "We’ve been making things too rapidly, and there’s too much of it," she told Vogue. "There’s this daunting feeling that you can’t change [an industry] that’s been in motion for so long, but I couldn’t keep showing up if we weren’t going to make some changes.”
Hoffman was honored for her efforts at an event during New York Fashion Week on Monday, receiving a Champions of Sustainability award from textile solutions provider Unifi for her commitment to conscious fashion. A major player in its own right, Unifi has turned more than 14 billion plastic bottles into its signature REPREVE fabric. Hoffman uses the fabric in her swimwear collection, while larger brands like Nike, Target and Polartec have each utilized over a billion bottles in their products, according to Unifi.
While most sustainable labels seek to disrupt the “fast fashion” model, millennial favorite Reformation takes the opposite approach. Its online and retail stores feature new items every few weeks, but the label trades throwaway threads for durable statement pieces made from sustainable materials, such as vintage and deadstock fabrics. The company operates its own factory in downtown Los Angeles, where workers are paid fair wages.
The company's relaxed designs, sustainability focus and responsible manufacturing have proven a hit with fashion A-listers and everyday shoppers alike. Supermodel Karlie Kloss invested in the company back in 2015, and the label counts celebrities like Rihanna and Emily Ratajkowski as fans.
You could say that designer Stella McCartney was ahead of her time when she founded her namesake fashion label in the 1990s with sustainability front and center. In the years since, McCartney and her company have crafted an ethical supply chain based around sustainable and vegan textiles. More recently, the brand has moved to the next level to embrace a circular economy, in which materials are infinitely cycled or returned to the earth as compost and nothing becomes waste.
The company worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on a 2017 report that identified a $500 billion opportunity in circular fashion. The brand is also a founding member of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s Fashion Positive initiative and continues to introduce recyclable and biodegradable materials that support circularity in fashion.
From designer representation to model casting, New York Fashion Week has a longstanding diversity problem. But, at long last, the winds are beginning to shift. The spring/summer 2019 presentation, held in September, was by far the most inclusive ever with respect to model casting, according to data analyses, and runway lineups continue to include emerging designers from diverse backgrounds.
One such up-and-comer is South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi and his unisex fashion line by the same name. Mdingi's high-end collection emphasizes materials that are biodegradable and sourced responsibly from South Africa, reducing impact at all stages of the product life cycle.
This zero-waste brand reclaims vintage denim and transforms it into new, perfectly fitted and even made-to-measure jeans. The line is designed and manufactured in East London, with an eye toward minimizing water and energy footprints, according to the company. “For me it’s just common sense,” Anna Foster, founder of E.L.V. Denim, told Vogue U.K. last year. “There are more pairs of jeans in the world than there are people.”
Cult e-commerce favorite Everlane was founded on the principal of "radical transparency." The company discloses the true cost of manufacturing and shipping each piece, as well as its markup, and provides detailed information about each of its partner factories online. At the Remode conference in Los Angeles last year, founder and CEO Michael Preysman said the company's sustainability practices—such as fair labor and materials sourcing—increase costs by about 10 to 15 percent per garment, which the company absorbs rather than passing on to the customer.
Though the brand emphasizes competitive pricing, it also encourages responsible consumption and leverages its own buying power to address the global waste problem. It's part of the Next Wave Plastics partnership, which rallies top companies to collect ocean-bound plastic and turn it into new products. Through the partnership, Everlane launched a line of outerwear made from recycled plastic and pledged to eliminate new plastic from its supply chain in 2021. "Plastic is destroying our planet and there is only one solution: Stop creating virgin plastic and renew what's already here," Preysman said in a statement. "Companies have to take the lead and any company that hasn't made this commitment is actively choosing to not improve our environment."
Launched in 2018, the aptly-named women’s label Ninety Percent shares 90 percent of its distributed profits with charitable causes and the people who design and manufacture its collections. The London-based label sources organic and recycled materials for its contemporary daywear line, which has already received mainstream accolades from the likes of Harper’s Bazaar.
Customers are prompted to join “a consumer movement that empowers makers and wearers” by selecting a cause to benefit from their purchases. "People are starting to wake up when it comes to environmental, consumer and political movements—and not just within the fashion industry," creative director Ben Matthews told Refinery29. "It’s so important that people are becoming more mindful about the world we live in today.”
California-based Amour Vert works directly with mills to pioneer new fabrics that are durable and desirable, as well as sustainable. Its signature textiles include a carbon-neutral beechwood fabric, cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and Mulberry silk sourced from family-owned operations and colored with nontoxic dyes.
The company works with small garment manufacturers in Northern California, and 97 percent of its clothing is made within a few miles of its San Francisco office—decreasing carbon emissions and supporting fair labor. If that's not enough, Amour Vert also plants a tree in North America for every T-shirt it sells, in partnership with American Forest, and has supported supported 21 reforestation projects to date.
“Ten years ago, I decided to take baby steps toward making clothes that helped versus hurt the planet,” designer Eileen Fisher told Inc. magazine back in 2014. “But recently I realized we're not moving fast enough: We have to start sprinting, and actually lead the fashion industry to make these changes now.”
The powerhouse entrepreneur followed through on her pledge with a set of bold 2020 goals for her eponymous fashion label. The company known for its women’s basics made from organic and recycled materials has pledged to become carbon neutral by the end of next year. It’s also striving to create an entirely ethical supply chain with a focus on fair labor and human rights and “use the most sustainable fibers we can lay our hands on,” among other targets.
Though you're unlikely to see its designs stomp the runway, this brand's work to repurpose large volumes of unwanted material stands out from the pack. Based in Portland, Oregon, Looptworks partners with top companies and organizations, such as Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team, to turn their unwanted and retired materials into new products. Most recently, the company created a line of accessories from 350,000 pounds of retired Delta Airlines uniforms in what Looptworks called "one of the largest, single-company textile diversion programs in U.S. history."
The uniforms were cleaned and processed by adults with barriers to employment, in partnership with the Portland nonprofit Relay Resources, before being upcycled into accessories like totes and backpacks. A portion of sales from the collection will support environmental education programs through the Captain Planet Foundation.
Skate, surf and snowboarding brand Volcom has been quietly shifting toward more sustainable practices in recent years, introducing better fiber sourcing and advocating for the natural spaces its customers love. Most recently, Volcom and its parent company, Kering, partnered with the social enterprise CottonConnect to track 27 tons of organic cotton from farm to garment.
The traceability project will form a proof of concept for Farm to Yarn, a socially conscious raw materials initiative that traces organic cotton back to the farm and provides social and education programs for the Indian farming villages where the cotton is sourced. “Partnership has been the key word used to describe the success of this launch,” Big Tony Alvarez, Volcom’s VP of global compliance and supply chain, said in a statement. “Without good partners on the ground, a program like this rarely stands a chance.”
It's hard to discuss sustainable apparel without mentioning Patagonia. The outdoor gear favorite and its founder, Yvon Chouinard, have a long history in the space—and their ambitions continue to rise. The company switched to 100 percent organic cotton all the way back in 1996, and recycled wool, down, nylon, and polyester are also featured in its line of gear and apparel. In 2013, Patagonia became one of the first mainstream labels to offer Fair Trade fashions and now boasts more than 300 certified styles in its portfolio.
The company is also a key player in the growing Brands Taking Stands movement. It continues to advocate for the protection of outdoor spaces, standing against the Donald Trump administration's move to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and joining with REI and other outdoor labels in a lawsuit against the administration to protect public lands.
Images courtesy of Amour Vert
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.