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Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion: Curating an Ethical Wardrobe

Unfortunately, it's clear that the fashion industry is hurting our environment. As a consumer, your choices can help accelerate change, and Perch is here to help with everything you need to know about sustainable fashion. Learn how to make more eco-friendly decisions about your wardrobe and the brands you buy from.
Sustainable clothing in a storefront

Open your closet and look at the labels.

Do you see polyester, nylon, or rayon? Shein, Boohoo, or Forever 21? It’s tempting not to think too much about what we buy, especially when it costs pocket change and you just know it’s your style. Hence the preponderance of fast fashion brands that prioritize low cost and TikTok trendiness above all else.

But this fashion landscape is a major contributor to fossil fuel emissions, overflowing landfills, and environmental degradation—and it’s not just Shein and other “worst offenders” that are responsible. This article will dive into what’s wrong with modern conventional fashion, why “sustainable fashion” can be a misleading answer, and how you can shift your relationship with clothes to be healthier for the planet, your wallet, and even your psyche.

How does the fashion industry damage the environment?

Let’s start with the bad stuff: Today’s conventional fashion landscape is an environmental disaster. Offenses fall into three main categories.

  1. Emissions: Whether from fossil fuel extraction for plastic-based fabrics, exhaust from factories and shipping, or the truckload of clothes burnt or buried every second, the clothing industry produces a full ten percent of annual global greenhouse gasses (GHGs).
  2. Environmental impact: Viscose demand fells forests, cotton fields divert water from food crops, and untreated wastewater turns rivers to toxic sludge.
  3. Human rights repercussions: Garment workers (as The Real Cost excellently explains) face long hours, low pay, and working conditions that include beatings, unsound buildings, and toxic chemicals. Plus, people who raise, shear, and slaughter animals often face human rights issues exacerbated by both the daily and final misery of their charges.

Any way you cut it, our clothing massively and negatively impacts social and environmental issues both local and global. But how did it get that way?

The rise of fast fashion: How did looking chic get so unsustainable?

Before TikTok haul videos and free two-day shipping, clothes constituted a durable good. Your clothes, like your house or car, were valuables to use and repair for years. Then, in the 1920s, advertisers like Earnest Elmo Catkins had a hot new idea: pitch these once long-lasting items as something not to use, but to use up–to dispose of, in other words, as carelessly as one would a cigarette.

Today, our clothing consumption rivals Marie Antoinette’s. Granted, at seven wears per garment, Americans are—so far—scoring better than the cake connoisseur, who supposedly never wore the same outfit twice. But given Marie Antoinette’s less-than-runway-ready ending, a mere six-point lead isn’t so reassuring.

Enter sustainable fashion

With its emissions, pollution, and human rights violations, our fashion debacle needs a drastic solution. Sustainable fashion could be just the hero we need—if we differentiate it from its villainous cousin, greenwashing.

Simply put, sustainable fashion benefits the people, animals, and environment touched by each garment’s lifecycle. It also focuses on the “Five Rs of Fashion”: Reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, and resell.

Ideally, we buy only what we need, purchasing from secondhand stores or from brands with high sustainability standards. Then, we wear, repair, and resell each garment until, as well-loved as the Velveteen Rabbit, it begins a new life through recycling or composting.

This idea of circular fashion is essential to a sustainable relationship with our clothes. For an example of a well-known brand embracing circularity, check out Patagonia. They manufacture their clothing from recycled materials, repair damaged items for (usually) free, and host a resale platform, WornWear, where people can buy used clothing or exchange their own for store credit. And while clothes from Patagonia and similar places may cost more (it’s not called “Patagucci” for nothing), they will last much longer than cheaply-made peers.

Granted, any growth-centered brand involves conundrums when many argue degrowth should be retail’s target. But within our economic system, such measures constitute a good start. To support circularity in our own wardrobes, we need to think about what, how much, and where we buy – and even whether we’re buying at all.

Patagonia Responsibiliti-Tee

The importance of being cynical

Fashion is ephemeral: It abandons the old to welcome the new. Sustainability, on the other hand, is about the long haul. The German translation, Nachhaltigkeit, even translates as “longevity.” To resolve these extremes, we need to resist fashion’s emphasis on the latest and greatest–including the siren song of brands claiming green credentials without sufficient grounds. LED bulbs do not alone flip the sustainability switch.

By buying less and buying better, we can curate wardrobes that support a healthy relationship with the climate and the broader environment. But we need to be skeptical of brands selling “sustainable” styles by the armful.

Rather than replace one set of brands, fabrics, or factories with another, we need to reevaluate our Instagram feeds and the corner sale rack alike. And keep in mind that many brands marketing their products as “green” may lack credentials to back their claims. Armed with skepticism—and creativity—we can curate a wardrobe that helps us feel good and look great while supporting a healthier planet.

In short: Craft a look you love that emphasizes fewer, durable, ethically sourced pieces that find another life after you’re finished with them.

Quote in scrabble letters reading "Buy less. Choose well. Make it last."

Sustainable fashion and the circular economy

According to the Helen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy in the context of fashion “creates better products and services for customers, contributes to a resilient and thriving fashion industry, and regenerates the environment.”

A circular economy creates products that are:

  1. Used more
  2. Made to be made again, and
  3. Made from recycled or renewable inputs

Additionally, the Helen MacArthur Foundation says, a circular economy is equitable, inclusive, and helps to “tackle the root causes of global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.” Sounds like ideas we should be keeping top of mind, if you ask us.

To execute this theory, you need guidance you trust. We heartily recommend Good on You. First, their directory rates brands according to Good on You’s rigorous environmental, labor, and animal standards. Second, their recommendations (like for swimsuits or winter coats) curate picks from brands rated “good” or “great”. Third, overviews of everything from the perils of fast fashion to the potential of natural dyes provide an excellent gateway to sustainable fashion expertise.

Sustainable fashion tips: How to be ethically fashionable

Here, we’ll give you eight tips to focus on real sustainability as you update your wardrobe.

Buy less clothing and think twice before every purchase

If you need to fill a hole in your closet, the first step is to identify exactly what you need, so you require as few new purchases as possible. For a specific benchmark: only buy what you’ll wear at least thirty (or, if you’re feeling frisky, one hundred) times before donating, reselling, or recycling it.

Simple closet, with sustainable clothing

Start with secondhand—think thrift stores, resell apps, and your friend’s sibling’s closet

With pre-loved clothing, you can find high-quality brands at budget-friendly prices. Go old-school and search your own network and neighborhood. It’s also easier than ever to shop secondhand online.

Check out clothing resale apps like Vinted, and the designer-oriented Vestiaire Collective. On other platforms, like Buy Nothing (not to mention a friend’s closet), you might even find some pieces free. Whether you go analog or digital, be prepared to sift for gold—as the NYT argues, the flood of fast fashion has made it tougher to score a stellar thrift find.

And remember: One benefit of thrift shopping is that you’re the recycler—anything you pick, you give a second life.

A note of warning: many clothing donation vehicles, whether GoodWill or parking lot bins, send some or all of the garments to be recycled or resold overseas. People disagree on how to perceive this reselling. Some say it's a prerequisite to functional large-scale recycling, while others bemoan the corporate greed of turning someone’s donation into another’s profit.

Still, others expose landfills from Ghana to Chile which overflow when distribution sites receive more clothes than they can handle. All in all, these sources present a cautionary tale: donate old clothing, yes, but don’t consider giveaway bins a panacea for a “take, make, waste” relationship with your closet. After all, when the tub is overflowing, the first step is to turn off the faucet

Thrift store shopping

Purchase new clothing only from sustainable, ethical brands

If you must buy new, opt for a sustainability-made piece that will last years. As previously mentioned, Good on You is great for finding high-performing brands. Additionally, B Lab offers a directory of clothing brands that score 80 or higher on its “B Impact” scale of governance, workers, community, environment, and customer issues.

Rent or borrow for special occasions

Ethically and sustainably made clothing is more expensive than fast fashion. Part of making slow fashion work for your budget is saving your purchases for what you’ll wear on repeat. If it’s floor-length, sequined, and might not fit by this time next month, don’t add it to your permanent wardrobe! Instead, opt to rent or borrow special occasion outfits. Who knows—one day, the pre-wedding clothing swap could become as much a fixture as the bachelor(ette) party.

The appeal of “temporary clothing” extends beyond special occasions. You can rotate your wardrobe without emptying your trash bin through foraging friends’ closets or cruising clothing rental services. Places like Rent the Runway offer a la carte and subscription-based rentals that enable you to experiment with new styles and trends without spending a ton on something you’ll only wear once or twice.

Beware the greenwashers

As discussed above, many brands will exaggerate or fabricate their sustainability credentials in a bid for your money. Fight them: Invest your dollars elsewhere.

Woman with an H&M shopping bag

Avoid clothing that goes through harmful manufacturing processes

Supply chains are an environmental and ethical hazard. From cotton linked to Uyghur labor camps to chemical dyes poisoning local water, pitfalls are everywhere. We’ve already discussed Good on You as a great platform to check a brand’s sustainability. But many brands, especially small ones, aren’t rated there. So it’s helpful to know a few rules of thumb.

First, know your fabrics. The seven most sustainable fabrics available right now are a mixture of stalwarts—think organic cotton, linen, hemp, and recycled wool—and futuristic newcomers like Bananatex, Econyl, and anti-bacterial, moisture-wicking Tencel Lyocell. Natural dyes without toxic mordants are the most preferable color agents, but they’re much tougher to come by, especially among established brands. And if you’re thinking about leather, read this low-down: Although some brands are improving leather’s sustainability profile through methods such as chromium-free vegetable tanning, second-hand is still the way to go.

Second, know your certifications. Bluesign, Fair Trade, and OEKO-TEX—all labels to look for—test for similar but slightly different things. Organic and recycled materials are great, especially when buying new. While organic cotton is much more sustainable than conventionally grown kind, organic fraud means not all cotton you see labeled as organic may actually be so. Looking for labels certified with GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) can help.

Try to get your clothes a second life by recycling, donating, or upcycling those items

As we discussed in our eco-friendly-moving piece, many charity shops and donation centers are overwhelmed by the volume—and often disappointed by the quality—of clothes they receive. Rather than drop bursting trash bags of discarded garments, place individual outfits with people you know who might like them, or list them on resale apps so people can buy them directly.

Alternatively, you could recycle your clothing directly in bins from companies like Helpsy, who sort what should be recycled with what can be resold. While recycling alone is not a full solution for fast-fashion waste, it is a vital component of a circular economy.

When you do donate, Spruce Home suggests finding out exactly what donation centers need, sorting and labeling items by category, washing fabric items, and pairing shoes before delivery. Dirty items like stained sheets are best suited for animal shelters. Some other common questions, answered: Formal apparel is a “yes," bathing suits a “sometimes," and undergarments a “no way”.

One other note: Quality over quantity is as relevant at the end of a garment’s life cycle as it is at the beginning. An investment piece like a 100% recycled wool sweater or a 100% linen summer dress will be much easier to resell (and much more welcomed if donated) than a polyester-rayon-etc blend. And the better you’ve cared for your clothes, the more likely you can find the next home for them, too.

And if that sweater just wants to put its sweater days behind it? Check out these ideas for upcycling old garments.

Learn to take care of your clothes properly so they last longer

First rule: Wash less.

We’re not asking you to wear underwear for a week straight, but most clothes—think jeans and other pants, sweaters, and dresses—can stand many wears between washes. Tricks like spot cleaning pants stains, airing sweaters in the sunshine, and other fixes can further reduce washes and increase longevity. As frequent machine washing accelerates the aging of most garments, it’s also smart to learn what to handwash and how.

On the spot-cleaning front: Spruce Home’s tips to make clothes last starts with treating stains as they happen. Speed is essentia! Carry a stain removal pen for immediate attack, then check the stain before washing so the hot water doesn’t lock in remaining smudges. Other laundry advice? Sort clothing according to color, fabric, drying temperature, and fragility, and FOLLOW THE CARE INSTRUCTIONS—especially if you’re a clothing-care novice. Want to get really expert? This NYT Magazine piece has advice on what to fold, what to hang, and what old perfume bottles have to do with moths.

Annoying though moths may be, they pale in threat compared to microplastics. You may have heard about how they have now become so ubiquitous in global waterways that scientists have identified whole new bacteria species which feed on the stuff. Every time we wash—or even wear—clothes made from synthetics like polyester, nylon, and Lycra, the fabrics release microfiber threads into our water and air.

According to Ocean Clean Wash, up to 35% of the primary plastic in our oceans comes from plastic particles that seeped from laundered synthetic clothing. Just one laundry load can release up to nine million of these threads—each thinner than a human hair–into local wastewater. While we don’t know the full health effects of plastic lodged everywhere from our lungs to our raindrops, we do know that the clothing industry is responsible.

You can combat global buildup of these teeny tiny plastics with a few easy changes. If you do buy synthetic fabrics, go for ones with tighter weaves. When you wash, use the cold-water setting on a front-loading machine fitted with a filter or Guppy Bag to capture stray threads. Run fuller loads less often, use liquid detergent instead of powder, and toss dryer lint in the trash, not the sink. And remember our prior principle: Don’t wash the whole garment when you can just treat a stain.

And finally, but essentially, mend. While it’s tempting to think a hole in your sweater or a rip in your jacket condemns the whole piece to the trash can, it’s far more sustainable (not to mention cost-effective) to repair it yourself. Whether you darn a hole so no one can see it or reinforce a knee patch by learning sashiko, mending is a challenge that feels empowering and even rebellious to tackle. It’s trending, too—articles in Vogue, the New York Times, and others attest to how this return to sartorial past has become a symbol of the present.

If you don’t feel like adding needle and thread to your next Netflix session, innovators like the German startup Repair Rebels are enabling people to book repairs from their own couch. Overall, why sacrifice your favorite jeans on the altar of disposability when, with colored thread and some doodling time, you can turn them into your own personalized work of art?

Sustainable fashion garment

Slowing the sewing

Overall, fixing the fashion industry is not as easy as patching your jeans. A switch to "vegan" leather, for example, may reduce your consumption of animal products. But most varieties (innovators like apple, mushroom, and pineapple leather aside) are petroleum based—meaning they will clutter landfills for millennia, while discarded cow hides rot in landfills.

Questions around other tradeoffs are similarly prickly. Which is more sustainable, clothes bought firsthand from brands rated “great” by Good On You or second clothing from less scrupulous origins? And are the higher prices of organic, fairly produced, naturally dyed, even compostable clothing worth their healthier impact?

The most important advice is to buy less, buy better, and (re)use longer. But let’s not lose the closet for the jeans. Some solutions often have unintended consequences. Returning garment factories to US shores may improve that supply chain’s working conditions, but it won’t address the low wages and poor conditions of current clothing producers abroad. Instead, we need a systems approach that weaves all the threads—from tracing product supply chains to treating factory workers fairly, from adopting regenerative agriculture to coloring with natural dyes.

Most of all, we need to shift our expectations from a linear closet—in which clothes are purchased cheaply, worn seldom, and discarded—to a circular one, in which the garment and its materials are repurposed again and again. Such a change will need big-picture thinking and broad-scale collaboration. But luckily, with style, the world is our canvas.

After you've mastered sustainable fashion, check out our guide to sustainable grocery shopping.

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