I made the switch to all organic baby clothing with my youngest years ago for several reasons. I’m careful about where I get my produce and animal products from, so why not the clothes my family wears too? Here are the best healthy sustainable clothing brand options and why you’d want to switch from conventionally made clothing.
There are health and ethical concerns to consider when shopping for conventional apparel. Like our food, clothing comes from plants and animals. How they’re produced has an impact on both our health and the environment. Chemicals for agriculture, ranching, or textile processing end up in our food and water. They also get into our bodies, increasing inflammation and leading to health issues.
The Problems With Conventional Clothing
Many people already choose natural fibers over synthetic ones. They assume they’re shopping smart and doing a service for the environment. Yes, cotton and wool are natural fibers. But this doesn’t take into consideration how they’re produced or processed after harvesting.
Let’s start with cotton: the “fabric of our lives.” Conventionally produced cotton uses pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Both of which end up in our water and food supply.
Pesticides on Cotton
Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the United States and the world. While cotton only uses 2.4% of farmland globally, it currently accounts for 4.7% of the world’s pesticides. In the US, cotton is the third most sprayed crop after corn and soybeans. That pesticide run-off ends up in our water, and some of the residue remains in the finished product.
The most commonly used pesticides for cotton include glyphosate, ethephon, and dicamba. Researchers have linked Glyphosate to cancers, especially non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We also know it can cause gut dysbiosis and even gluten intolerance. Ethephon causes reproductive problems in animals. Dicamba seems to increase liver cancer in humans.
These are just a few examples of the harms of traditional cotton farming. Cotton isn’t the fresh and clean inhabitant of our closets that television ads have told us.
Chemicals in Manufacturing
When cotton and other materials go to manufacturing, the chemical application continues. The textile manufacturing process can use several chemicals. These may include mercerizing agents that help with dye uptake. Then there are the chemical dyes, dispersants, leveling agents, soaping agents, and more. The dying process is particularly toxic, as outlined by a 2020 review.
The run-off has to go somewhere. These chemicals are another way clothing manufacturing leads to the poisoning of our environment.
Another consideration is the types of fabrics in our clothing. Polyester and nylon are very popular in today’s styles. Polyester is our go-to sweatshirt fabric. Nylon provides a synthetic alternative to silk.
Traditional synthetic fabrics, like nylon and polyester, come from petrochemicals, like plastics. When you wash them, they shed microplastics into the water, ending up in our oceans and waterways.
Fast Fashion Leads to Waste
According to Merriam-Webster “fast fashion” refers to designing, manufacturing, and selling cheap clothing. Companies do this to keep up with trends. It leads consumers to buy new clothing often, discarding them after the season has passed. Then they gear up for a whole new wardrobe the following season.
In the 1980s, consumers bought around 30 new clothing items a year. Now, it’s at least twice that many.
The fast cycling through clothing leads to a lot of waste. Many people throw clothing away rather than donate it to charity or pass it on to friends or family. Continuing to buy new clothing and throw away the old fills up the landfills and pollutes the planet.
Another consideration is the working conditions at textile manufacturing companies. Are they certified GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices)? Are they using child labor?
Even if they aren’t exploiting children, do they pay fair wages to their employees? That’s a real concern. Many companies overseas and in the United States don’t pay their workers a living wage. That’s why I try to shop for not only clean clothing options but ethical ones.
What to Look For With Sustainable Clothing Brands
If you’re evaluating a company or brand to see how organic or sustainable they are, here are some things to look for:
- Organic cotton is grown from untreated, non-GMO seeds in healthy soil. Farmers replenish the soil through crop rotation and increased organic matter. Instead of pesticides, these farmers control weeds by adding beneficial insects and trap crops. The whitening process uses peroxide rather than chlorine bleach. The finishing and dyeing processes are all done with natural pigments.
- Eco-friendly materials are good to see on a company’s website or labels. But you would need to verify what exactly does eco-friendly mean? Generally, it means the clothing doesn’t harm the environment. It should also be safe for humans and other living things. Your best bet is to look for an ecolabel from the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA).
- Carbon neutral refers to manufacturing. It means that item (or company) results in zero new carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.
- Low carbon footprint is a good thing to see on a company’s website or labels, but it’s a claim. You would need to verify what exactly this means. A carbon footprint is the amount of CO2 emitted by a product’s manufacture and transport.
- Compostable materials break down naturally, but they still need moisture and air. Nitrogen or carbon feeds the microorganisms that break them down.
- Biodegradable materials are eventually broken down into their base elements by microorganisms. These may be bacteria, fungi, or other biological processes. Biodegradable doesn’t necessarily mean organic. These materials tend to take longer to break down than compostable materials.
Certifications For Sustainable Clothing Brands
Take your sustainability shopping to the next level. Here are the certifications to watch for when choosing sustainable clothing brands:
- Fairtrade certified – There’s a way to know whether your favorite brand supports fair labor. Fairtrade certification ensures safe working conditions for employees. It also promotes environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, and community development funds. The funds help pay for clean water, education, housing, and healthcare.
- GMP certified – GMP stands for Good Manufacturing Processes. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates these practices. GMP is sometimes preceded by a “c” for “Current Good Manufacturing Practices.”
- Bluesign certified – Bluesign is a technologies group that comes alongside a company. They go over every step of the company’s manufacturing processes. The result? Fewer toxic chemicals and less pollution. This can lead to more efficient operations, safer workers, and consumer safe products. The Bluesign® system claims the world’s strictest chemical safety requirements for sustainable clothing brands.
- Oeko-Tex® – Oeko-Tex develops testing and other standards to ensure sustainable practices. It also considers consumer safety. It covers both the textile and leather industries. Oeko-Tex® consists of 17 independent institutes from Europe and Japan.
- GOTS certified – Founded by the US, UK, Germany, and Japan, GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard. They’ve developed processing standards for organic textiles. GOTS has also defined environmental standards and fair labor practices. They have two separate labels, one for 95- to 100% percent organic fibers and another for 70- to 94% percent organic fibers.
- Certified B Corp – Certified B Corp businesses are certified by the B Corporation (also B Lab or B Corp). B Corp is a non-profit regulatory agency. It assesses for-profit companies for their social and environmental impacts. To receive certification, companies must achieve a score of 80 or above. B Corps use their profits to not only benefit their stakeholders, but also the planet.
- Made in the USA — Support the home team! Buy American-made or what’s local to you whenever you can.
Watch Out for Greenwashing
Watch out for green-washing, which even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns about.
“A growing number of American consumers are looking to buy environmentally friendly, “green” products, from recycled paper to biodegradable trash bags. Companies have responded with “green” marketing touting the environmental benefits of what they’re selling. But sometimes what companies think their green claims mean and what consumers really understand are two different things.”
That’s where terms like eco-friendly, green, and natural can be deceiving. Look for the certifications listed above to find truly sustainable fashion brands. The certifications help to verify they’re good for you and the planet.
Top Sustainable Clothing Brands
Here are some USA- and Canada-based sustainable “slow fashion” brands to check out. There are many more, but do your research on their initiatives and values and find one that speaks to you. Some of these brands include synthetic fabrics along with natural ones, so be sure to check the descriptions.
Pact is a sustainable, GOTS-certified organic clothing company based in Boulder, Colorado. They specialize in fair trade organic clothing that’s comfortable to wear. This company features plenty of basics, from activewear and loungewear, to t-shirts and leggings. They also offer sports bras, outerwear, and clothing for the whole family.
Outerknown is a sustainable clothing brand based in California that specializes in denim jeans. They have two physical retail locations in California, or you can buy or sell their secondhand items on their site. Outerknown is committed to becoming a zero-waste company by 2030.
Reformation is a trendy sustainable clothing brand based in Los Angeles, California. They have a beautiful collection of cashmere, including cardigans, turtlenecks, and sweater dresses. They’re climate neutral certified and focus on safe and fair working conditions.
Reformation is an excellent online source for sustainable jeans and special occasion dresses. You can even send in used clothing to recycle for store credit. Not all of their clothes are made from natural fibers, so be sure to check the product descriptions.
Quince is a sustainable, yet affordable clothing company based in San Francisco, California. The Good Trade media brand listed it as one of their top sustainable brands in 2022. They look at sustainable clothing and accessories as “the standard, not a luxury.” They also believe “everyone should be able to afford nice things.”
You’ll find a wide range of clothing and home goods items for the whole family here. There are some synthetic fibers, but they also offer toxin-free natural fiber clothing. So be sure to read the labels before buying.
Tentree® is a sustainable Canadian company focusing on casual and comfortable clothing. Textiles used include organic cotton, Tencel, and hemp. Part of their commitment to the planet includes planting 10 trees for every item sold. Ten tree… 10 trees – Get it? Tentree’s clothing line includes tees, sweatshirts, cardigans, comfy dresses, jackets, loungewear, and more.
There’s a familiar brand! Good ol’ Levi Jeans is holding its own with “organic and sustainable.” They’re working toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2025. Levi’s is also committed to using less water in their manufacturing. You can buy their clothing secondhand on their Levi’s Secondhand website.
Vetta was named “best for capsule wardrobes” in sustainable clothing by The Good Trade in 2022. This company utilizes deadstock fabric and is GOTS-certified organic. They’re on a mission to help simplify your closet.
Their method? A high-quality, 5-piece capsule wardrobe designed to be lasting and timeless. The 5-piece set means you can make 30 or more outfits with just these pieces. You can even build your own custom capsule to fit your style and preferences.
Vetta even uses solar power to support its Los Angeles-based partner factory. Again, not all of their fibers are natural, so check the descriptions first.
Don’t Forget About Handbags
Handbags and other accessories can be as much a part of ethical fashion as clothing. So why not seek out a company committed to sustainability? You may even find a local one that produces them in small batches. You can likely find a small-scale artisan on Etsy or in a local city or small town.
Feeling Crafty? Rev Up Your Sewing Machine
You can also make your own ethical clothing. As long as you know how to sew, you can buy some sustainable fabrics and do the work yourself.
Like regenerative agriculture, regenerated textiles focus on a circular economy. It makes former waste into new styles. Regenerated textiles include lyocell, bamboo viscose, modal, seacell®, smartcell®, and sustainable protein fibers. Here’s a summary of a few of them:
- Lycocell is an organic form of rayon. It’s considered low-impact as it’s a regenerated cellulose fiber from wood pulp. It’s also biodegradable, which makes it environmentally friendly as well. Lyocell was originally developed and marketed as Tencel™ in the UK. Later, other companies created their own versions.
- Bamboo viscose is a fabric made from bamboo wood pulp. The cellulose is dissolved in sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. It then goes through a process to help it come together and thicken, resulting in a bamboo rayon. It’s considered a better option because bamboo plants grow so fast.
- Modal fabric is a rayon-like fabric made from beech tree wood pulp. Beech trees use much less water than cotton to grow. As a result, modal is considered a sustainable alternative to cotton. Modal is both low-impact and biodegradable. In fact, modal water usage is 1/10 to 1/20 that of cotton.
- Deadstock fabrics are leftover fabrics from fashion brands or text mills. They’re essentially “fabric waste.” Deadstock may occur due to overproduction, quality issues, or even small flaws in the fabrics. Why have these still-usable textiles end up in landfills? Instead, sustainable brands can buy them to incorporate into their products. Some fabric stores will also buy them in bulk, making them available for consumers.
Need a Cheaper Alternative? Go Thrifty
You can save money and the environment by shopping secondhand. That way, you’re not increasing demand for new clothing. Instead, you’re reusing what’s already in circulation.
Local Thrift Stores
Why not start your secondhand search by shopping locally? These can include thrift, re-sale, or consignment shops. There are usually plenty of options for great finds. When you travel to another town, hit up thrift stores in that area as well. While organic is still my first option, I’ve been able to find natural fiber clothes at secondhand stores.
Etsy is an online platform mostly for handmade, vintage, and thrifted clothing. You can specify organic and sustainable materials in your clothing search. With well over a million items for sale, it’s not hard to find something. You can connect with individual artisans to find vintage, reused, or upcycled clothing. You may even find some jewelry, shoes, purses, and other accessories.
ThredUp is an online consignment and thrift store that focuses on sustainability and upcycling. I like that they give store credit for donated clothing. I’ve been able to find organic and natural clothing for my kids and myself here.
Other Sustainable Clothing Strategies
Supporting sustainable brands, thrifting, and being your own seamstress are all great practices. Still, there are a few other things you can do to affect the fashion industry. Here are a few ideas:
One thing you can do that doesn’t need more manufacturing is a clothing exchange. It’s something many of us tend to do automatically for baby clothes. Family or friends pass on cute onesies or jumpers to the new mom in the group. Many moms also do this for kids’ clothes, since they outgrow them so quickly.
But we don’t have to stop at a certain age. Arrange a get-together with friends or family and hold a clothing exchange. It’s a cheap and easy way to freshen up everyone’s wardrobe.
Whether it’s an old dress or a pair of jeans, you can also choose to “upcycle.” Maybe you shorten the dress and cut off the sleeves. Perhaps you add a belt or trim. Maybe even make old jeans into cut-off shorts. Upcycled clothing is often unrecognizable from the original piece and is a great way to get something new.
Yes, it’s possible to go minimalist when you have a family! Does everyone need a jam-packed walk-in closet? Probably not. Why not just choose some classic pieces that mix and match well? Your closet will be more organized and visually appealing. Getting rid of excess clothing was one of the best things I did to save time on laundry every week.
Consider a Capsule Wardrobe
As you move toward a minimalist lifestyle, you may want to consider a capsule wardrobe. I created capsule wardrobes for our kids that have really simplified getting dressed in the morning. In this case, I’m talking about a collection of sustainable clothing designed to mix and match.
With a 5-piece capsule collection you can create 30 or more unique outfits. You can also add accessories to vary your look. Vetta and Quince are two sustainable clothing brands that make capsule collections or you can create your own.
Final Thoughts on Healthy Sustainable Clothing Brands
A lot of sustainable brands still use synthetic materials (aka recycled plastics) which isn’t something I like to use. It is possible though to find organic and natural fiber clothing both new and used. By keeping my closet minimal, I’m able to focus on high-quality, natural materials that are good for my family and the environment.
Have you ever considered organic or sustainable clothing? Do you buy anything second-hand? Will you consider it now?