Nowadays in fashion, the words "eco-friendly," "organic" and "sustainable" get bandied around a lot. Which is a good thing. Except that sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a brand that's actually helping to make the planet a better place--and one that's just riding the eco bandwagon with a less-than-well intentioned "organic" label.
"Yes [companies are cashing in on consumers' growing environmental awareness by labeling their clothes "green," without actually changing their production process too much]," Timo Rissanen, Parsons' Assistant Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability, told me. "The industry on the whole and marketing in particular have little integrity."
"'Green', 'eco', 'sustainable' and the rest are nice but meaningless, feel-good marketing terms," he added.
Part of the reason why it's so hard to put your finger on what a brand is actually doing to help the planet is because for many of the "eco" terms, there's no one definition. "'Sustainable design' could mean any number of things," Rachel Miller, who teaches sustainable design in the Department of Fashion Design at Pratt Institute, said. "It could be about preserving the environment, it could be about ethics and fair wages, it could be a designer that has an interest in designing with organic materials, or it may be recycling what's already there, using recycled materials to create something new."
And one "feel-good" marketing term does not necessarily imply the whole gamut. For instance, Miller explained to me, a company that uses organic cotton could be manipulating labor laws in less than savory ways and likewise, items labeled fair trade are not necessarily environmentally friendly.
It's also important to remember that even the best environmentally-friendly products will have a less-than-great impact on the planet. For instance, trucks and in many cases, planes, are still used to transport "eco" goods, and even garments labeled "100% organic" will use a polyester thread. In other words, it's not smart to use Earth Day as a reason to go shopping--even if it is all "eco-friendly."
"Not buying [clothing] is best [for the environment]," Rissanen says. "Buying second-hand is second best." But buying sustainably-designed clothes is certainly third best. Which is nothing to poo-poo: The earth needs all the help it can get.
But just because there is some clever (and not necessarily altruistic) marketing going on, doesn't mean you can't feel good about eco-fashion. And it doesn't mean there aren't brands out there who are legitimately doing their part to help the planet, taking a holistic approach to sustainable design.
Read on for the 10 best environmentally-friendly brands who are helping to save the world one sale at a time.
Who They Are: Brooklyn-based designer Tara St James, previously of mainstream eco-friendly sportswear label Covet, creates city-friendly pieces often with trompe l'oeil details and quirky-cool prints.
What They're Doing: Uses organic cotton, linen, hand-dyed fabrics and recycled materials. Strives for no-waste pattern-making and production, and makes everything locally in New York. St James is also involved in several mentorship programs for eco-minded emerging designers, and is Fashion Director for The Uniform Project, a fundraising platform using sustainable design to raise money for underprivileged children.
Favorite Pieces: Sophia shirt dress (pictured), Julie high-wasited print short
Price Point: $75-$398
Who They Are: Designed and produced in Florence, Alabama, Alabama Chanin produces an array of products, from wedding dresses to lifestyle items like quilts and placemats, with an earthy, homespun vibe.
What They're Doing: Each item is made by hand by talented artisans who live and work near Florence, Alabama. They use a combination of new, organic and recycled materials and stress the importance of sustainability and "slow design," the countermovement to "fast fashion" which takes into account a wide range of material and social factors as well as the short and long term impacts of the design.
Favorite Pieces: Billie hand-stitched wedding gown (pictured), beaded criss-cross top, American flag quilt.
Price Point: $90-$4000
Who They Are: Titania Inglis, now based in Brooklyn, cut her teeth at cult New York designers Camilla Stærk, Jean Yu, and Threeasfour before recently launching her eponymous solo line. Inglis was recognized for her minimalistic, inventive designs as well as her environmental efforts with the 2012 Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award in Sustainable Design.
What They're Doing: Every garment is sewn in a small factory in New York from sustainably sourced fabrics including Japanese organic cotton, French vegetable-tanned leather, and dead stock wool from New York’s garment industry. Inglis' innovative designs mean that many garments can be worn a multitude of ways, reducing the consumer's need to purchase more (and therefore reducing production).
Favorite Pieces: Diagonal hemline skirt, which can be worn three ways, mulett-hemline white/black blouse (pictured).
Price Point: $120-$525
Who They Are: The brainchild of fine-art-trained bi‐coastal design duo Moriah Carlson (Brooklyn, NY) and Alice Wu (Oakland, CA), Feral Childe produces quirky-cool pieces based off of their one-of-a-kind collaborative drawings.
What They're Doing: Use sustainable fibers, manufacture locally in New York and dispose of production waste responsibly by either donating remnants to schools or sending them to a textile recycling facility. They produce to order to prevent excess inventory and will provide transparent reports about their sourcing and manufacturing techniques upon request by customers.
Favorite Pieces: Pink t-shirt dress (pictured), high-waisted floral shorts.
Price Point: $80-$400
Who They Are: An offshoot of Peruvian non-profit Awamaki, an organization dedicated to helping impoverished Quechua women weavers, Awamaki Lab brings young designers to rural Peru to work side-by-side with members of their artisan cooperatives to create modern designs influenced by traditional Peruvian textiles.
What They're Doing: Each item purchased helps women weavers, seamstresses, and knitters in the Sacred Valley of Peru to develop a sustainable income for themselves, their families and their communities. In addition to helping local women by honoring their artisanal skill, the organization's commitment to hand-weaving techniques (which do not require electricity) and sustainable materials like wool means there is little impact on the environment.
Favorite Pieces: Chakra colorblock sweater (pictured), Cacao jacket, Awaykuna skirt
Price Point: $30-$400
Who They Are: A graduate of the prestigious Central Saint Martins in London, Carrie Parry was awarded with the Ethical Fashion Forum’s 2011 Innovation Award, for her feminine, timeless pieces designed with a commitment to responsible sources and practices.
What They're Doing: Produced ethically and locally in the New York Garment District using materials that are environmentally-conscious, such as organic wool, tencel and recycled polyester; as well as hand-woven wools, which help to support artisanal communities worldwide.
Favorite Pieces: Polka-dot blouses, feminine wasp-waist dresses.
Price Point: $265-$500
Who They Are: One of the few mainstream, mass-produced lines to employ eco-friendly techniques and fabrics, Loomstate's simple yet well-designed pieces are casually cool.
What They're Doing: Use sustainable materials like tencel, employ production practices that reduce water consumption, eliminate manufacturing waste, and strive towards a closed-loop product life cycle. Their 321 collection uses innovative design to ensure that each garment can be worn up to five different ways, which, besides being cool (and useful), reduces waste.
Favorite Pieces: Akan dress (pictured), Aya tank, Oki colorblock dress.
Price Point: $60-$345
Who They Are: Up-and-coming contemporary designer label, helmed by Marcia Patmos, previously of cult luxury brand Lutz & Patmos.
What They're Doing: Use eco-friendly material such as faux fur made from wool and alpaca, and vegetable tanned leather, proving that green fashion can look extremely luxe. The brand employs handwork techniques from women’s artisan collectives in Nepal and Bolivia, as well as zero-waste seamless knitting technology from Japan.
Favorite Pieces: Mixed pattern cardigan, leather sequin cigarette pant
Price Point: $210-$1500
Who They Are: Designed with today's fashion forward woman in mind, 100%NY produces easy-to-wear urbanite pieces.
What They're Doing: Dedicated to minimizing waste in their production process (their tagline is 100% chic, 0% waste), the company also uses organic, recycled, and ethical materials and produces entirely in (you guessed it) New York.
Favorite Pieces: Pink maxi dress (pictured), blush mini-dress, high-waisted cigarette trousers.
Price Point: $175-$700
Who They Are: Designed in Vancouver by creative director Leanne McElroy, and produces out of small, self-run cottage industry in Indonesia, Elroy is chockfull of flirty, easy, wearable pieces.
What They're Doing: Fosters responsible growth in Indonesia's textile industry. Remains committed to a design and business model that is as environmentally conscious and socially responsible as possible, which includes using textiles such as organic cotton, bamboo, tencel, linen, hemp, wild silk, pineapple, wool and upcycled fabrics.
Favorite Pieces: Myrabel silk dress, Isoude silk dress (pictured)
Price Point: $25-$145