It's 2023, and the climate crisis continues to grow. The fashion industry in particular has come under fire for being a major contributor to pollution and waste. Shoppers, especially Gen Z, are becoming increasingly aware that their consumption habits are also contributing to the issue. In response to this shift, many brands have upped their sustainability efforts to serve consumers who want to shop more mindfully. But are brands that claim to be sustainable actually making a difference?
The short answer: it's complicated. Fast fashion (a.k.a. churning out high volumes of brand new styles for cheap, which requires the use of poor materials that tend to quickly fall apart) often presents as the more accessible and available option. Maybe it’s the only place you’re able to find trendy plus-size fashion on a budget since so many retailers still don’t offer a diverse-enough size range. Or maybe fighting for a more sustainable world seems like such a daunting task that you find yourself justifying the seemingly-minimal impacts of a few fast fashion hauls.
Sustainable fashion companies are the ones that make clothing with the long-term well-being of the planet and people who live on it as a top priority, rather than just using words like "green" without explaining how they're being green (a.k.a greenwashing). "It's about transforming the people, processes, and materials of a fashion brand's supply chain so that human rights and the rights of nature hold power," notes Carry Somers, founder of Fashion Revolution.
To avoid being deceived by greenwashing, keep an eye out for vague sustainability claims. "Making any product has an environmental impact, so look for companies that back their claims and aren't afraid to be honest about their switches and trade-offs, even if they're imperfect," notes Elizabeth Cline, author of The Conscious Closet. Lea d'Auriol, founder and Creative Director of Oceanic Global, suggests checking for labels that are backed by credible institutions. "Look to see if it has any third-party verifications from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the Blue Standard, Fair Trade, etc," she explains. You can also look for GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or B Corps certifications.
Ready to start supporting eco-friendly, ethical, and totally cute fashion brands with your dollar? The brands below are instituting more planet-friendly practices like offsetting their carbon emissions, using biodegradable packaging, reusing post-consumer plastics, minimizing textile waste, and recycling their old products into new items. Here, we present Seventeen’s 2023 Sustainable Fashion Awards — the winners are taking notable strides to make the clothes you know and love, as ethically and sustainably as possible.
The Most Eco-Friendly Clothing Brands At a Glance
Best Overall Brand: Reformation
Best Jewelry Brand: Ana Luisa
Best Athleisure Brand: Outerknown
Best Denim Brand: Ética Denim
Best Intimates Brand: Knickey
Best Inclusive Brand: Girlfriend Collective
Best Bag Brand: Baggu
Best Leather Brand: Able
Best Shoe Brand: Cariuma
Best Swimwear Brand: Thunderpants
If you haven’t checked out Reformation yet, you’re missing out. The brand stocks prom-ready floral midis, sophisticated slip skirts, and some really, really good jeans. But on top of being a go-to destination for vintage-inspired frocks and blouses, Reformation is one of the biggest mainstream brands leading the sustainability charge with transparency — and style.
So, what are they actually doing? Are they recycling materials? Are they carbon neutral? Efficient energy? Yes, yes, and yes. Reformation uses 90% recycled cashmere (they’re on the way to 100%, BTW) as well as recycled cotton and circular denim from fabric scraps. They’ve been carbon neutral since 2015 (!!) and on track to actually be *carbon positive* by investing funds into solutions that remove more greenhouse gasses than they’re emitting. Plus, the brand is offsetting its energy usage with 100% wind power suppliers — and they’re committed to sourcing ALL their fabrics from recycled, regenerative, or renewable materials by 2025.
“We are 100% carbon and water neutral. And we’re never going back,” states the Ana Luisa website. Every emission that’s produced, from sourcing raw materials to sending your package, is offset. Also, any flawed or returned pieces aren’t being thrown away or burned. Ana Luisa donates their “nearly-imperfect” pieces to Dress for Success, a global not-for-profit organization that supports women in need by providing free professional clothes and career development resources. Plus, they only use lab-grown diamonds — no mining required.
Your initial investment in high-quality jewelry will help you avoid having to keep replacing it — gold rings won't turn your fingers green with rust the way that cheaper costume jewelry does. You'll be able to wear your fave jewelry for years to come.
“It’s ok to go slow,” declares the outdoors-y brand’s website. Outerknown, which was founded seven years ago, plans to be 100% circular by 2030 (meaning they're recycling, reselling, and repairing instead of pumping out brand-new garments). Ninety-five percent of the materials used to make their flannels, shackets, jumpsuits, and joggers are “preferred” fibers like recycled cotton, hemp, and responsible wool. The Good on You sustainability directory notes that the brand minimizes textile waste by recycling most of its offcuts (think fabric scraps or pieces of wasted material) as well.
Outerknown is also taking steps to make sure their workers are protected at all stages of their supply chain with a detailed plan to ensure living wages and fair compensation, which we love to see. You can check out their other sustainability stats on their detailed About page.
Denim is a well-known source of water waste in fashion. A Tree Hugger report notes that it takes about *2900 gallons* of water to grow the cotton needed for a single pair of jeans. Oof. But on the other hand, d'Auriol notes that cotton is a biodegradable fabric that is inherently more sustainable than a synthetic or polyester fabric — and a good pair of jeans can last you years.
d'Auriol listed off a few key things to keep an eye out for in a sustainable denim brand: “Is the brand using newly-grown cotton, or recycled cotton? Is the cotton grown with pesticides that pollute soil? Is the cotton grown near manufacturing facilities to limit CO2 emissions? Do they use dyes like indigo, which has to be reduced with chemicals before dying clothing?"
Based on these guidelines, Ética is our pick for the best sustainable denim brand of 2023. The company uses E-Flow technology which reduces the amount of water used to “wash” denim (the process that gives it that dark, medium, or light color) by thousands of gallons per load. Ética also uses 70% fewer chemicals than industry standards, and the other 30% consists of low-impact chemicals derived from plants and minerals. And bonus: they stock every trendy style from patchwork slit jeans to flare jumpsuits and perfectly baggy denim shorts.
Have you ever thought about whether your undies were sustainable or not? Make sure the intimates you wear closest to your skin are non-toxic for both the Earth and you. Knickey has you covered with non-GMO, certified organic cotton free of insecticides and processed without harmful chemicals or bleach. The carbon-neutral brand is being completely transparent about its efforts to combat the climate crisis and released a 2021 Impact Report listing what it successfully did (like becoming Climate Neutral Certified) and what they’re still working on (like replacing virgin elastane in its products).
Knickey will also help you recycle your old bras and underwear by giving you 15% off in exchange for the intimates you’re ready to get rid of (maybe they’re stretched out, too old, or too small) and turn them into insulation or carpet padding.
Let’s talk about it — many smaller sustainable brands still fall under the umbrella of companies that have yet to offer sizes beyond XS to XL, or even S to L. Plus-size folks can have trouble finding accessible clothing options, and find themselves turning to fast fashion to find clothing in their size even if the companies’ practices don’t align with their values and where they want to spend their money.
So who’s doing it all, from sustainable manufacturing and fabrics to size inclusivity and ethical labor practices? Our Best Inclusive Brand winner is Girlfriend Collective, an activewear brand known for their colorful leggings and cute-as-heck workout dresses in XXS - 6XL. The brand is working towards being 100% recyclable or biodegradable (!!) and every item on its website displays exactly what it was made from. For example, these high-rise leggings were made from 25 recycled water bottles. 💁♀️ On top of that, the ReGirlfriend program allows you to send back your old Girlfriend clothes to be turned into new Girlfriend products.
What’s the most sustainable way to handle plastic bags? The real answer: eliminating the use of them in favor of a reusable alternative.
Baggu makes some of the cutest, most aesthetically pleasing reusable bags ever, and they pack right up into a tiny square. Stick one in your backpack or tote so that when you’re buying lipstick from CVS or movie night snacks from Target, you’ll have a sustainable alternative on hand.
Their famous light-as-air bags are made from one continuous piece of recycled nylon, and the unused bits of that piece of fabric is turned into the foldable carrying pouch of the bag to eliminate waste. You can check out all of their other eco-friendly practices (and there are a LOT!) on their sustainability page.
When it comes to sustainability, leather is a ~controversial~ topic. Animal leather production can pollute water sources, but vegan leathers can be coated in chemicals and aren't really biodegradable. What's the solution?
Well, if you're an ethical vegan and prefer to avoid animal products entirely, there are non-plastic vegan leather options like plant-based leathers. But if you love the idea of buying a high-quality leather piece that you can use for years, look for a brand that sources and produces their leather sustainably.
Meet Able, an ethical clothing brand known for its amazing leather bags. Every bit of leather they use is upcycled from discarded animal hides (those hides are often a byproduct of the meat industry that would've otherwise been thrown away) into card wallets, backpacks, crossbody bags, and totes. They have everything from teeny wristlets to huge shoulder bags for your laptop — and that's because those varied sizes allow the brand to utilize leather pieces of different sizes.
Plus, their ethically-handmade products are guaranteed for life (yes, for LIFE!) so they'll repair or replace your bag if it doesn't live up to the standards they promise.
Certain parts of sneakers can be difficult to sustainably replace, like plastic eyelets and rubber soles. But it’s possible — and Cariuma is leading the charge in the sustainable shoe game. Their natural rubber comes from the milky sap of the hevea brasiliensis trees (or the Pará rubber tree), which can be ethically extracted without hurting the tree. Their cotton is free of toxic chemicals, which keeps both the cotton field soil and the cotton workers safe. And their cork is sustainably sourced by carefully scraping the cork tree, which remains unharmed and will grow more bark back.
They’re not just stopping there, either — the brand has made it their mission to plant a tree in the Brazilian rainforest for every pair of sneakers sold. Cariuma purposefully plants native trees that support, rather than harm, pre-existing local biodiversity.
Whether you like a retro one-piece, an athletic bikini, or a skimpy halter swimsuit, we can all agree that the best swimsuits are comfortable. Splashing around in the water is no fun when all you can think about is how your suit is digging into your skin, right? Thunderpants was founded by two sisters, Josie and Sophie Bidwill, who created their signature high-waisted swim bottoms and undies when they couldn't find comfortable-enough styles to wear.
Their swim sets are available in red, blue, and black for sizes S to 2XL. You won't find a constantly-changing array of styles on Thunderpants' website — instead, you'll find a smaller number of high-quality, comfy styles made of cotton free of heavy metals, synthetic chemicals, and pesticides, designed by two female business owners, and produced by companies with ethical labor practices.
Hannah is the Assistant Fashion & eCommerce Editor at Seventeen and covers all things style, shopping, and money. Seventeen taught her how to get dressed when she was younger, and she now spends her working hours passing down her expertise.