Since the start of the pandemic, online shopping has grown at a faster rate than ever before. While this is true across most industries, the impact on fashion is unique: According to Statista, apparel currently makes up 23% of all e-commerce on the internet — and unsurprisingly, that number is expected to grow. (The same report predicts that in 2025, $300 billion in apparel will be sold online.)
The inherent downside to this type of growth is that it leads to overproduction from brands seeking to capitalize on our increasingly online lives. That means more textile waste in landfills and secondhand markets, greater carbon emissions and continued unfair labor practices against garment workers to get product in stores faster and cheaper. For consumers, the problem is so big and confusing, it's almost impossible to know how to shop better.
That's why a different type of online retailer — one focused on curating conscious fashion — is gaining popularity.
Wolf & Badger, a B Corp-certified company, has been in this space for over a decade, and has seen the change in the last few years. "We have grown our online sales in the U.S. by almost five times over the previous two years, thanks to rapidly increasing demand for more ethical and sustainable products and brands," Co-Founder and CEO George Graham says. "We first saw this during the pandemic, and it has continued. The pandemic prompted consumers to reconsider their purchases and to a move towards supporting independent makers and businesses, which are creating more considered products. Customers are increasingly cognizant of what goes into the clothes they wear, where they are made, what they are made from and by whom."
Tania Ali founded Cadre Style — which sells ethically-made clothing and shoes — because of her own frustrations with the market.
"I remember a pair of pants sent to me on an Instagram ad that I thought were so pretty. I go onto the store and into the description to see that it's just the bamboo button on the pant that's sustainably made — the pant itself is not," she remembers. Her goal was to remove that confusing piece of the shopping equation.
"Everything is vetted, so it takes that eco-anxiety off," Ali says. "You can trust what's at the store."
One of the most significant barriers for consumers trying to shop sustainably is combing through clever and often misleading marketing (also known as greenwashing). Ali explains how she's added layers to her vetting process to combat this: She starts with a questionnaire that examines the brand's commitments to quality materials, safe factories and certifications, then she uses a third-party background check through a program called Hey Social Good, which does a deep dive to ensure the facilities are up to standards.
There are other ways retailers are attempting to tackle this overwhelming issue. Couper, for example, works with independent brands to produce unique collaborations using deadstock fabrics.
"We just didn't want to be another mainstream online retailer, but be that source for limited-edition capsules that people get excited and create some marketing urgency," co-founder Agee Leinberry says. "We're buying and producing to sell out. We're offloading brands with these materials that would otherwise go to waste, which has been really successful for us. People have been on board with being one of 10 people that own a dress. They're not showing up to these events dressed in the same contemporary or designer names that we see every day."
Still, making space for sustainability in a sea of fast fashion is not easy work. It's often expensive, and requires a lot of resources.
"One of the issues with working with slower-fashion brands is the heavy requirement and team resourcing required to vet our suppliers and provide resources to them to help them develop and grow more sustainably," Graham says, adding that it's worth it because of his company’s mission.
Cadre's Ali highlights how she's trying to work with brands that may not always meet her standards by helping them change. "[Dismissing them] will not get us where we need to be. It's not going to get consumers to change, and it's not going to get fashion to change," she says. "It's not going to get society to change."
While recognizing that perfection is not totally possible, there's a caveat to selling new clothing, whether it's sustainable or not: If the way a garment is discarded isn't considered, it may still contribute to the waste issues in fashion.
Both Couper and Cadre encourage resale and recycling, but say they're looking to implement programs directly in the near future.
"We're just starting to grow, and that's something that's at the top of our minds," Leinberry says. "The [concept] seems to be resonating with a lot of people in our network, and we're just expanding that every day."