More and more, we’ve discovered that brands are using words like “sustainable” or “ethical,” without being clear about what those words mean to them. As the world becomes more educated on the negative impacts humans are creating on the environment, consumers want to be more mindful about their purchases. Brands are responding to that desire with varying degrees of authenticity.

So — how can you tell the difference between a brand that is truly sustainable versus one that is using the word as a marketing ploy?

We put together this handy guide so that you can learn what sustainable fashion is and how to tell which brands are truly sustainable.

What is sustainable fashion and why does it matter?

If you’re on this journey with us at Pildora, you probably already have an idea of why sustainability matters.

The sustainable fashion movement is crucial because it counterbalances the incredibly toxic effects of the larger fashion industry as a whole. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. The footwear and apparel industries combined produce more carbon emissions than international flights and maritime shipping. There is a dire need to find a new way to produce and consume clothing.

Simply defined, sustainable fashion is a movement of designers and brands who opt for fabrics and practices that do less harm and are fully transparent about all aspects of their supply chain.

Most sustainable fashion brands and designers make this information readily available on their website, if not on the garments themselves. Transparency is never a given, especially in the fashion industry, so this focus on integrity and authenticity is truly revolutionary.

There are many opportunities along the supply chain to introduce sustainability, from textiles to the packaging and everything in between.

Start your research by looking at the issues of the broader fashion industry and finding out how a brand or designer addresses them. We’ve divided the issues into three categories:

  1. Ethical
  2. Economic
  3. Environmental

1. Ethical

This refers to the way manufacturing processes and conditions of labor directly impact other beings. Ethical concerns are often focused on fair wages and equality for all. Since the vast majority of fashion manufacturing is done abroad, often in developing countries, there is low visibility in the way that workers are treated. The ethical component of sustainable fashion is focused on ensuring that workers are paid a fair wage and have good working conditions.  

We recently spoke with a designer who personally visits all the factories where her clothing is produced. The factories are family-owned and provide both good working conditions and livable wages. This designer also checks to make sure that no child labor is used in the production of her garments.

Another factor in ethical fashion is the treatment of animals. Furs and skins from rabbits, minks, foxes and other animals are coveted as luxury items. This often sits poorly (understandably!) with animal rights activists. Most sustainable brands choose not to use fur or skin in their designs.  

Fairtrade is a designation used to signify that a company is invested in ethical goals. One of the first steps to attaining Fairtrade certification in the textile industry is empowering local workers to unionize and voice their concerns about their conditions. Companies must also adhere to fair labor laws, ensure worker safety and provide livable wage standards.

2. Economic

This means boosting local economies and supporting charitable organizations. Many sustainable brands design and manufacture locally, pumping jobs and money back into their local economy.

Recently, we spoke with Zero Waste Daniel about his make/shop, a workshop based in New York City where designers work on clothing as customers browse the racks. His ability to connect to people directly through his workspace is one example of local economic impact.

Many sustainable brands donate a portion of their proceeds to charitable organizations they care about. Some match a customer’s purchase with a donation of the same item to a person in need. A brand I admire, CHNGE, donates 10% of the profits from one of their shirts to a local women’s shelter.

Investing in one’s community helps grow the local economy and provides a way to connect with customers and workers. It’s often more expensive to produce in the U.S., especially in larger cities, so it says a lot about a company that chooses to do their business locally.

3. Environmental

Perhaps the biggest issue sustainable fashion addresses is the environmental impact caused by the fashion industry. Sustainable brands are very sensitive to the carbon footprint of their production cycle. They ask questions about the materials used, the chemicals in dye and the use of synthetics, among other things. They think about the effects of packaging on the environment as well.

When possible, sustainable brands may upcycle — or reuse existing materials — to create new fabrics. Abandoned fishing nets pollute oceans and harm wildlife, but some independent brands found a way to transform these nets into textiles that become sustainable garments.

Certifications are also very important here. Organic materials are prized because they are naturally produced without pesticides or environmental contaminants. Querencia Studio uses all organic fabrics for their unique shirts.

How can I tell the difference between a sustainable garment and a not-so-sustainable one?

As you shop online or at a retail store, there are a few ways to quickly tell if a garment is sustainable. Examine the item closely and look for some identifying information. Where is it made? What is it made of? What do you know about the designer or company?

I took a look at the shirt I own from Fleur du Mal. The shirt’s tag said it was made in China — a generic location that could encompass any number of working conditions or practices. When I examined the textile components of the shirt, I found that it contained a lot of synthetics comprised of plastic or acrylic. These signs led me to believe that the shirt wasn’t produced sustainably, and I couldn’t find much to refute that belief on their website.

In contrast, I own a shirt from A New York Affair, a company that advocates for “ethical production and empowerment.” Right on the shirt tag, I saw that it was designed in Brooklyn and ethically made in India. The fabric is 100% cotton and fair trade certified. Their site has robust informational sections about ethical production, dyes and more. Transparency at its finest.

Shopping sustainably isn’t an exact science, especially with the proliferation of marketing that uses “sustainability” as a buzz word rather than a true philosophy. But rather than focusing on the negative, deceptive aspects of the fashion industry, I choose to celebrate all the people and brands who value ethical, economic and environmental advocacy.

We hope you’re similarly encouraged and will shop with an eye for the brands that make a positive impact, both in their words and actions.