Are the most popular ‘sustainable’ clothing brands actually sustainable?

As a devoted thrifter (and broke college student), I’ve only recently gotten into buying from sustainable clothing brands. I’ll always love thrifting, but there are some things that can be extremely difficult to find in thrift stores like mom jeans that actually fit and leggings that aren’t paper thin. When I first started doing my research to find brands that I both liked and could afford, I was surprised to find how big the world of ethical apparel is. There are so many brands popping up all over the world focused on combating the environmental and social issues so deeply associated with this industry; however, not all sustainable brands are equal. Some do better with the environmental issues, like using sustainable and recycled fabrics and minimizing the use of toxic chemicals, while others focus more on the social ones such as providing living wages and safe working conditions for their workers. Some popular sustainable brands, on the other hand, don’t do very well in either but ‘greenwash’ themselves, meaning that they market their brand as transparent and environmentally friendly when really nothing could be further from the truth.

As a consumer, it’s extremely difficult to differentiate between which sustainability claims are real and which ones are just pure greenwashing. It wasn’t until after I made my first “sustainable” purchase (and discovered that the company is not actually as sustainable as they market themselves to be) that I found out about this issue and discovered an app that I now never make a new purchase without.

Good on You, an app first released in Australia in 2015, aims to change the fashion industry buy giving consumers the information necessary to make sustainable and ethical choices with ease. In an interview with Dazed Digital, Sandra Capponi, one of the cofounders of the app, said “Fashion isn’t like food, where all the ingredients are on the label – it’s a massive, complex industry with opaque supply chains and it’s hard for people to unpick that.” In order to make manufacturing and sourcing information from these brands more accessible, the team behind this app uses over 50 different independent rating projects, certification schemes (Fair Trade, Global Organic Textile Standard, etc.), as well as the brand’s public statements and data, to create the most comprehensive rating as possible about how sustainable the brand is in three categories: People, planet, and animals. Transparency also plays a role in the rating, so even if a brand may be more sustainable than the average clothing company, a lack of transparency about their practices will earn them a lower score. The app uses a five-point scale, going from “We avoid” to “Not good enough” “It’s a start” “Good” and “Great.” Good on You has rated over 2,000 brands and continues to add to its database.

Today, I’ll go through the most popular brands for each category of clothing using the information and ratings provided by Good on You to discover which brands are truly sustainable. For each category, I’ll also provide a recommendation that is similar to the more popular counterpart but has a five star rating from the app.

Outdoors & Outerwear

Brand: Patagonia ($$)

Good on You Rating: Good (4/5)

Patagonia, popular among environmentalists and frat boys alike, delivers on its sustainability claims. All of the cotton used in their apparel is organic, and much of the other materials used by them, like polyester and nylon, are recycled. It received 4/5 in the planet category because of the lack of reporting on the carbon emissions of their entire supply chain as well as a lack of a “time bound carbon reduction target” and transparency when it comes to it’s water use and reduction targets. In the animal and people categories, however, Patagonia scores 5 out of 5.

Alternative Recommendation: Bleed

Good on You Rating: Great (5/5)

Bleed provides outerwear very similar in style to the popular Patagonia quarter zips, as well as vests, puffers and rain coats. They carry both mens and womens styles and sell a lot more than just outerwear. When you buy from them, you can be sure that the products are all vegan, long lasting, and made by people paid a living wage.

Tops

Brand: H&M Conscious ($)

Good on You Rating: It’s a start (3/5)

Yes, it’s too good to be true. The H&M Conscious Collection has earned a 3/5 in all three categories (planet, people, and animals). Although it does have a recycle program, that does not change the fact that H&M is still a fast fashion company that mass produces their clothing, which leads to huge amounts of resources used and wasted. Also, For labor, H&M has done very little to get living wages for those manufacturing their clothing and doesn’t have many facilities that even allow the workers to make complaints. In 2016, this brand was also discovered to be sourcing labor from a factory that employed children as young as 14 years old. H&M still uses leather and animal hair, which is why it scored low in the animal category as well. Compared to other fast fashion retailers, like Forever 21, H&M has made big strides towards a more sustainable future, but it’s efforts don’t go far enough.

Alternative Recommendation: People Tree

Good on You Rating: Great (5/5)

A key part of having a sustainable wardrobe is having pieces that you can wear for years, not pieces that will go out of style within a matter of months; however, this doesn’t mean you have to completely sacrifice your style. People Tree’s clothing is somehow timeless and trendy at the same time. They make a variety of different tops ranging from dress shirts and blouses to graphic tees and bodysuits, all of which are made with eco-friendly materials by well paid workers. They play with trends like stripes and wrap tops, but use timeless colors and cuts that make them versatile pieces that you’ll want to wear for many years to come.

Denim

Brand: Everlane ($$)

Good on You Rating: Not Good Enough (2/5)

Shockingly, Everlane, a brand that markets itself as a “radically transparent” company that partners with “the best, ethical factories in the world,” actually has a worse rating than H&M. It has a 2/5 in both the animal and planet categories. This is due to the lack of evidence that they work towards decreasing water consumption and hazardous chemical use throughout the entire supply chain. They also use leather, wool and animal hair in their products. For the people category, Everlane earns a 3/5 because there is no evidence in their reports that they ensure a living wage for those who work for them. They also employ people from countries that have been known to be at high risk of labor abuse.

Alternative Recommendation: MUD Jeans

Good on You Rating: Great (5/5)

MUD Jeans carried 11 different fits in over a dozen different colors and a five out of five in the planet, people, and animals categories; what more could you ask for? Their company follows a circular economy design, which means they recover and recycle old denim rather than let it go to waste in landfills. According to their website they have saved over 12,000 pairs of jeans from landfills in the last three years alone. They also provide a unique “Lease a Jeans” system that allows customers to rent a pair of jeans and return or exchange them once they no longer want them, which ensures that the jeans have as long of a lifetime as possible. MUD Jeans are pushing the boundaries of the average business model while providing both classic and trendy fits and shades for people of all genders.

Dresses

Brand: Reformation ($$)

Good on You Rating: Good (4/5)

Reformation is another great brand that goes through with its claims. This brand has a perfect 5/5 rating for the planet category because their active work to reduce water use and carbon emissions. They also use a lot of recycled fabrics and have taken steps to minimize their packaging. In the labor department, the final step in the manufacturing process is done in the US, but there isn’t much information available about the earlier parts of the process. Reformation also still uses leather and wool in their products.

Alternative Recommendation: Know the Origin

Good on You Rating: Great (5/5)

Know the Origin scores a five out of five for being 100% transparent about its production processes, which includes fair labor standards and environmentally friendly materials. They reduce waste by using offcuts of fabric that are a result of earlier steps in the textile process, and they reduce their carbon footprint by making all of their clothing by hand. They sell all types of dresses- long, short, flowy, fitted, casual, formal- making it easy to find the perfect dress for any occasion.

Activewear

Brand: Girlfriend Collective ($$)

Good on You Rating: Good (4/5)

The famous water bottle leggings. Unsurprisingly, this brand does great things for the environment. Their use of recycled materials as well as non-toxic dyes and low water use make them one of Earth’s allies and earned them a 5/5 in the planet category. They earned the same rating for their labor practices because of the living wages they give their employees throughout the majority of its supply chain. Its animal rating is a 4/5 because they don’t use animal products in their apparel but they have not publicly stated that the products are vegan.

Alternative Recommendation: Pansy

Good on You Rating: Great (5/5)

Pansy, a California based brand that began as an organic cotton underwear company, has expanded to include lounge wear, socks, and, most notably, active wear. The sports bra and leggings are made from 90% organic cotton (grown here in the US) and 10% spandex, made from recycled PET plastic. All of the clothing is sewn in California and dyed naturally. They are a small, woman owned brand that has been increasing in popularity recently because of their transparency, great labor practices, and diversity.

Good on You has proven to be a super helpful resource for me in my search for guilt-free new clothes, but there’s one thing that all of the highly rated brands have in common: they’re expensive. This is because they are all slow fashion companies, which means they take into account the environmental and social costs of clothing manufacturing and actively work to lessen their own impact. Slow fashion is a movement that would take us back to the pre-industrial era of locally made, high-quality clothing that was made to order. Because of this, the clothing is a lot pricier than what we are used to paying. $120 for a jacket or $70 for a single pair of leggings may seem like a lot, but what we pay for is the safety of our environment and of the disadvantaged workers around the world who can’t stand up for themselves. Even though it’ll be difficult, we need to shift our attitudes about our clothing. We need to buy less but invest more in better clothing that will last decades.

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