Sustainable Fashion

The Complete Guide to Sustainable Fashion

What is sustainable fashion? Why is it important? And how can you dress more sustainably? Let's find out...

Sustainable Dress

Whether you’re new to sustainable fashion, or just want to brush up on the basics, you’ll find the answers you need below.

Table of Contents

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is a movement to manufacture and use clothes, shoes, fashion accessories and jewellery in a way that minimizes harm to both the environment and to people. It involves making environmentally and socially responsible choices through the entire lifecycle of the product.

The ABLE Merly Jacket (source:

This includes how raw materials are grown or produced, how workers are treated, and the manufacturing methods used, as well as consumer behaviour such as shopping habits, how clothes are cared for, and what happens to them once the owner is finished with them.

Sustainable fashion encompasses many related sustainable practices, including circular fashion, slow fashion, conscious consumerism, fair trade fashion, and many more. It also involves far more than just fashion brands – every business in the fashion industry supply chain, as well as governments, retailers, and consumers (that’s you!) have a part to play.

Is Sustainable Fashion The Same As Ethical Fashion?

Some brands use “sustainable fashion” to emphasise environmental aspects and “ethical fashion” to emphasise social aspects, but we believe there is no difference. Fashion is not sustainable if it involves acting unethically, and a brand isn’t ethical if it ignores its environmental impact. As far as we are concerned, sustainable fashion and ethical fashion are the same.

Is Sustainable Fashion Cruelty Free and Vegan?

Some sustainable fashion brands are vegan, but many are not. In the case of non-vegan sustainable brands, they will typically have their own ethical guidelines for using animal products.

For example, sustainable brands are typically against animal testing. When wool is used, it is often either recycled or sourced from select suppliers who provide guarantees about their animal’s welfare. Similarly, some brands use leather, which may either be recycled or taken from sources where the animal is not raised specifically for its hide.

Is Vegan Fashion Sustainable?

Many cruelty-free fashion brands are also sustainable, but not all. For example, clothing made from polyester and nylon is vegan, but it isn’t sustainable.

What is the Sustainable Fashion Industry?

The sustainable fashion industry is the businesses who manufacture sustainable clothes, shoes, and accessories, and the supply chain who provides them with raw materials. It does not include other parts of the sustainable fashion movement, such as consumer behaviour.

How Big Is The Sustainable Fashion Industry?

The ethical fashion industry is worth $7.5 billion (The Business Research Company, 2023). The sustainable fashion industry has a 4.7% revenue share of the total apparel market and this is projected to increase to 6.14% by 2026.

How Fast Is The Sustainable Fashion Industry Growing?

Since 2017, the sustainable fashion industry has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.5%. Analysts predict the industry will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8.1% between 2023 and 2027. At this growth rate, the industry will be worth $11.1 billion in 2027 (The Business Research Company, 2023).

How Many People Work in the Sustainable Fashion Industry?

We estimate that 14.1 million people work in the sustainable fashion industry. No precise research is available at this time, so we calculated this value by multipling the total number of people employed in the fashion industry as a whole (300 million) with sustainable fashion’s market share (4.7%).

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Why Is Sustainable Fashion Important?

The sustainable fashion movement is important because the global environmental impact of the fashion industry is huge: it is responsible for up to 10% of global pollution (Nature), 8.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Quantis), 20% of water waste (UN Economic Commission for Europe), and 35% of primary microplastic pollution in our oceans (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2019).

This is a growing problem: we consume 62 million tonnes of textiles per year, but this is expected to grow by more than 60% by 2030, reaching 102 million tonnes (Nature). And most of these clothes end up in landfill: studies estimate that 87% of clothing fibers are either landfilled or incinerated (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

Unfortunately, many of our clothes are still ending up in landfill sites, like the one shown on the right

Without changes in the behaviour of manufacturers and consumers, pollution and waste is going to grow substantially over the next 20 years.

What Are The Benefits of Sustainable Fashion?

The main benefits of sustainable fashion are reduced waste, reduced pollution, and an improvement in workers rights and safety. Other benefits include the production of healthier products containing fewer harmful chemicals, the promotion of conscious consumption, and better promotion of artisanal and handcrafted items.

  1. Reduced Waste: At the manufacturing stage, sustainable fashion brands use recyclable and biodegradable materials, as well as recycling or upcycling offcuts and other waste (circular economy). Consumers are encouraged to purchase fewer pieces of higher-quality clothing that last for longer.
  2. Reduced Pollution: Sustainable fashion brands use organic, recycled, or low-impact textiles, non-toxic dyes, and more eco-friendly manufacturing processes that use less water and chemicals. When chemicals are necessary, these are contained and reused as much as possible within a closed loop system.
  3. Improvement in Workers’ Rights and Safety: Sustainable fashion encourages ethical labour practices including fair wages, decent working conditions, workers’ rights, job security, and the abolishment of child labour. In the long term, these practices contribute to social equity and poverty reduction.
  4. Production of Healthier Products: Sustainable fashion favours natural fibres and the use of non-toxic chemicals, including dyes. This is better for consumers, especially those with allergies.
  5. Promotion of Conscious Consumption: The sustainable fashion industry raises awareness of the environmental and societal impact of our purchase decisions, encouraging consumers to buy less and make items last. This can lead to changes in behaviour that extend to areas beyond fashion.
  6. Better Promotion of Artisanal and Handcrafted Items: Sustainable fashion often values traditional crafting techniques and indigenous textile practices, which helps to preserve cultural heritage and skills that can otherwise be lost in mass production.

Sustainable Fashion vs Fast Fashion

Sustainable fashion and fast fashion differ greatly in their approach to production, consumption, and overall impact on the environment and society.

What is Fast Fashion?

Fast fashion is the selling of cheaply produced garments designed to take advantage of the latest fashion trends. These clothes are sold at low price and consumers are encouraged to treat clothes as disposable, short-term purchases that should be regularly replaced. To enable this low-cost business model, brands in the fast fashion industry often use unsustainable practices that create significant waste and pollution.

Fast fashion brands include many big names, including Primark, Boohoo, and Pretty Little Thing.

How Is Sustainable Fashion Different to Fast Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is closely linked to the slow fashion movement, which promotes manufacturing and shopping habits that limit consumption. Additionally, sustainable fashion promotes ethical labour practices, which is another key area of concern about the fast fashion industry.

Take a look at the table for a full overview of the differences between sustainable fashion and fast fashion:

Points of DifferenceSustainable FashionFast Fashion
Production ProcessEmphasizes quality over quantity using eco-friendly materials and fair labor practicesRapid production using cheap, harmful materials and low-wage labor
Environmental ImpactMinimizes environmental footprint by using eco-friendly materials, reducing waste, and recycling or upcyclingSignificant negative impact, contributes to landfill waste and pollution
Economic PracticesEncourages investing in high-quality pieces promoting economic sustainabilityAssociated with a “throwaway” culture promoting excessive consumption
Social ImpactPrioritizes ethical production, providing fair wages and good working conditionsOverlooks fair labor practices, leading to poor working conditions and unfair wages
Consumer BehaviorPromotes conscious consumption, encouraging consumers to buy less, choose well, and make items lastEncourages constant buying to keep up with rapid trend cycles, leading to overconsumption
Lifespan of ProductsItems are high-quality and durable, intended to be worn for a long timeItems are not made to last, contributing to buy-wear-discard cycle

What Are The Best Sustainable Fashion Brands?

The top sustainable fashion companies are People Tree, Reformation, Warp + Weft, Mara Hoffman, Ninety Percent, Outerknown, ABLE, Pact and Tentree.

These are all ethical brands that are making a concerted effort to reduce their damage to protect both the environment and the people on it through the use of natural and sustainable raw materials, sustainable production processes, and ethical labour practices.

What Makes a Fashion Brand Sustainable?

A fashion brand is sustainable when it makes environmentally and socially responsible choices when making and marketing a product. This includes the materials and manufacturing processes, how garment workers are treated, as well as who they partner with in their supply chain and how accountable they are about their efforts to be sustainable.

Being sustainable is not the same as being perfect; sustainable brands are those who minimize their impact as much as they can. Everything we do has a footprint, and there is no way to completely avoid that.

What Are The 3 Best Affordable Sustainable Fashion Brands?

The best budget sustainable fashion brands are ABLE, Pact, and Reformation. Each of these three brands features a wide range of clothing at lower price points than other brands:

  1. Pact – Pact is Fairtrade and GOTS-certified, as well as net carbon zero. They offer a wide range of sustainable clothing with t-shirts starting at $24
  2. ABLE – ABLE is a woman-run company that offers a wide range of ethical clothes. They guarantee their products for life and will repair or replace items that wear out – making the long-term cost of their clothes considerably less than comparable brands. Their t-shirts start at $35.
  3. Reformation – Reformation are certified Climate Neutral and are working towards becoming Climate Positive. They use deadstock fabrics and sustainable materials to make their clothes. Overall, their clothes use 48% less CO2 and 41% less water than comparable products.

Why Are Sustainable Fashion Brands So Expensive?

Manufacturing clothes sustainably while paying a fair wage costs money. Fast fashion companies use cheaper, faster manufacturing techniques that enable them to offer lower prices, but at the expense of producing garments in a way that is unsustainable.

The marketing and pricing that fast fashion companies use leads us to believe that sustainable companies are expensive. However, we encourage you to think about it another way. Instead of asking why a sustainable brand is so expensive, you might want to consider why non-sustainable brands are so cheap. There’s always a cost to someone.

What Are The 3 Best Women’s Sustainable Fashion Brands?

The best sustainable fashion brands for women are Ninety Percent, Reformation, and People Tree:

  1. Ninety Percent – Ninety Percent use vegan and certified-organic materials to create their clothing. Every year, they share 90% of their profit with the workers in their supply chain and five charitable causes.
  2. Reformation – Reformation are certified Climate Neutral and are working towards becoming Climate Positive. They use deadstock fabrics and sustainable materials to make their clothes. Overall, their clothes use 48% less CO2 and 41% less water than comparable products.
  3. People Tree – People Tree were the first fashion company to be awarded Fair Trade status. They only use natural fibers or fibers that follow closed loop processes (no waste) including GOTS-certified organic cotton and TENCEL™ Lyocel.

What Are The 3 Best Men’s Sustainable Fashion Brands?

The best sustainable fashion brands for men are Warp + Weft, Outerknown, and Tentree:

  1. Warp + Weft – Warp + Weft is a family-owned denim company. Their eco-friendly mill enables them to limit water usage to just 10 gallons per pair of jeans (traditional methods use 1,500 gallons per pair)!
  2. Outerknown – Outerknown are Fair Trade Certified™, Fair Labor Certified, and regularly give back to non-profit organisations. They have a large men’s range and also offer customers the opportunity to buy and sell pre-loved pieces through their Outerworn platform.
  3. Tentree – Tentree are certified Climate Neutral and plan trees for every product purchased – so far they’ve planted more than 100,000,000 (100 million) trees!

What Are The Most Important Sustainability Certifications for Fashion Brands?

Sustainability certifications such as B Corp and Fairtrade are awarded to brands in recognition of them meeting set sustainable and ethical standards. The requirements for each certification are different, with some focusing on general practices while other hone in on something very specific.

The most important sustainability credentials in fashion are Certified B Corp, Climate Neutral Certified, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS):

  • Certified B Corp – Certified B Corp is a comprehensive certification that covers both social and environmental performance, taking into account factors such as management & transparency, their treatment of employees, their supply chain, and their impact on the environment.
  • Climate Neutral Certified – Climate Neutral Certified businesses are certified carbon neutral. This means they offset their carbon footprint through carbon and clean energy credits.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) – GOTS is the leading textile standard for organic fibers. GOTS labelled clothes are certified as having a minimum of 95% organic fibers. The certification process also requires checks on workers’ rights, that only low-impact chemicals are used, and that the product is high-quality.

Other sustainability credentials include Fairtrade, Cradle to Cradle®, Bluesign®, Global Recycle Standard (GRS), Oeko-Tex, and Fair Labor.

You are unlikely to see one brand with all these credentials because in most cases brands must pay a third-party to certify them. This means that most brands will pick a one or two certifications they believe are most relevant to them and their audience and stick with those.

Who Are The Most Famous Sustainable Fashion Designers?

The most famous sustainable fashion designs are Eileen Fisher, Mara Hoffman, and Stella McCartney:

  1. Eileen Fisher: Eileen Fisher has been designing sustainable clothing since 2009, long before sustainability became trendy. Her commitment to ethical and sustainable fashion and circular design has led her to win several awards, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Award for Circular Economy. Eileen Fisher is also a partner in Altante Capital, a female-founded venture capital fund that invests in sustainable businesses.
  2. Mara Hoffman: Mara Hoffman founded her brand after graduating from the Parsons School of Design. She is committed to sustainability, including the use of recycled and regenerated materials and by encouraging customers to buy less. In 2019 she became the first person to receive the Unifi “Leading the Change” award in recognition of her work in sustainable fashion.
  3. Stella McCartney: British designer Stella McCartney is committed to sustainable practices including the use of innovative biodegradable and renewable materials and by following the principles of circular fashion to reduce waste. Her clothing is fur-free and leather-free and she is a long-time supporter of animal rights.

How Can I Dress More Sustainably?

To dress more sustainably, you should:

  1. Borrow, Swap, or Rent Clothing – Buying clothing you may only wear a few times is wasteful. Instead look for an alternative: could you borrow what you need or swap for it?
  2. Purchase Second Hand – Purchasing second-hand is an excellent way to reduce your impact. Sites like Vinted and Thrift+ make it easy.
  3. Purchase from Sustainable Clothing Brands – If you need to buy something, get it from an eco-friendly brand.
  4. Buy Less, Use It More, and Make It Last – Durable sustainable staples that you can wear again and again will help limit your impact. Don’t buy clothing or shoes you’ll only use a few times.
  5. Wash Your Clothes Less – A significant proportion of your clothing’s footprint comes from washing (often more than manufacturing). Try to spot clean more and wash slightly less often.
  6. Repurpose, Donate, or Recycle Your Clothes and Shoes – What you do with your clothes after you’ve finished with them is just as important. Do everything you can to reduce post-consumer waste.

How Can I Spot Sustainable Brands?

You can spot sustainable brands by the materials they use and the sustainability credentials they hold. Look for materials such as Organic Cotton, Linen, Hemp, and Lyocell, and credentials such as B-Corp, Climate Neutral Certified and GOTS.

A sustainable brand should be able to back up their claims by providing visibility into their materials, manufacturing processes, and supply chain. Be wary of brands that provide no evidence of their claims of sustainability and are just saying it for marketing purposes – this is called greenwashing.

Where Can I Buy Second-Hand Clothes?

You can buy second-hand clothes on sites like ThredUp, Vinted, and eBay. Some sustainable brands also offer customers the opportunity to buy and sell second-hand, check out Eileen Fisher Renew, Mara Hoffman Full Circle Marketplace, and Boyish Pre-Loved.

How Can I Make My Clothes Last Longer?

You can make your clothes longer by choosing durable materials such as Linen, Hemp, Wool and by caring for them properly. Wash them less often at a lower temperature and air dry when possible.

What Materials Are Used in Sustainable Fashion?

Materials used in sustainable fashion include natural fibers such as organic cotton, hemp, and linen, semi-synthetic fabrics like Lyocell and Ecovero™, and fabrics made from recycled materials such as Econyl®. Rubber and cork are used to make shoes, while recycled metals, such as silver and gold, are used in jewelry.

Other emerging materials include Piñatex, a vegan leather made from pineapple leaf fibers, and Mycelium, from mushroom roots.

What Are The Most Sustainable Fabrics?

The most sustainable fabrics are recycled cotton, organic hemp, and organic linen:

  • Recycled Cotton has a very low impact because no resources are used to grow new plants. It is recyclable (but not endlessly) and biodegradable.
  • Organic Hemp produces 250% more fiber than cotton per acre and requires little water to grow. Hemp production is carbon negative and hemp fabric is natural, recyclable, and biodegradable.
  • Organic Linen is derived from Flax, which is fast-growing, requires few or no pesticides and fertilizers, and requires relatively low amounts of water. Linen (made from flax) is durable, as well as being recyclable and biodegradable.

Organic cotton is another highly sustainable fabric, however its resource requirements are higher than hemp and linen and so it isn’t considered as sustainable. Fibers made from recycled plastics, such as Econyl®, also use little in the way of resources, however fabrics contribute to microplastic waste when washed, and so become less sustainable when used for clothes.

What Are The Least Sustainable Fabrics?

The least sustainable fabrics are petrochemical-based fibers, including polyester, nylon, & acrylic conventional cotton, and cheaply produced rayon & viscose fibers:

  • Petrochemical-Based Fibers such as polyester, nylon, & acrylic are made using oil using chemical processes that require significant amounts of water, involves toxic chemicals that are released in water waste, and results in significant greenhouse gases. They’re also non-biodegradable and contribute to microplastic waste.
  • Conventional (Non-Organic) Cotton requires significant water and chemical fertilizer and insecticides use, and is also linked with deforestation. Conventional cotton production is responsible for 25% of all insecticide use, and it is estimated that one cotton shirt requires 2700 liters of water to produce.
  • Cheap Rayon and Viscose fabrics are semi-synthetic materials made from bamboo pulp. Producing them requires significant