Your complete guide to sustainable fashion—the movement disrupting the industry

What it is, why it matters, and the best clothing brands to buy

The pink dress had been hanging in my closet, taunting me, for over two years. Its tags were still on. Its shoulders were a little droopy from being hung poorly and for too long. It was time to come clean: I was never going to wear this dress. Not to work, not on vacation, not to a boho-vibed rooftop party that doesn’t exist. Never. 

Despondent, I toted the listless garment to the New York City Fair Trade Coalition, a member at WeWork 1460 Broadway in Times Square, where my mood quickly brightened: The organization was hosting one of its recurring Swap Shop events, where guests are encouraged to exchange previously (or in the case of my dress, aspirationally) worn clothing for something from a stranger’s closet to promote sustainable fashion. Two colorful racks of clothes greeted me hopefully in the space, and between the funky cowboy boots and vintage Coach bag, it was apparent that I’d just discovered my new favorite store. Parting with the pink dress wasn’t going to hurt so bad after all. 

What is sustainable fashion, exactly?

Consumers often think of sustainability as something that impacts the planet, says Reyes. But it goes beyond environmentalism. Reyes says sustainability encompasses “the triple bottom line”: people, planet, and profit.

So, sustainable fashion engages a circular system that produces apparel with environmental, social and economic integrity. Materials are made by laborers who are treated humanely, through means that consider the earth’s resources, and by brands that thrive successfully without having to cut corners around their values.

“Sustainable fashion is slow, not fast,” says Ash Welwood, senior sustainability lead at WeWork. “It produces products that are designed to be timeless, versatile, durable, and infinitely cycled into the system.” When done right, sustainability can be seamlessly woven into the joy of shopping—a good thing, since the fashion industry has got to change.

An Everybody World bucket hat available at WeWork Now. 

Why is sustainable fashion important?

Fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet, second only to Big Oil. The 150 billion-plus pieces of new clothing that are produced annually require massive amounts of energy, water, labor, and other resources to churn out, all of which adds up to 10 percent of the world’s global emissions. 

A report by the Global Fashion Agenda and Sustainable Apparel Coalition indicates that the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts are slowing, while consumer interest is increasing: 75 percent of consumers indicated they view sustainability as either extremely or very important.

“I think we’re all increasingly stressed out and upset by these bigger environmental implications,” says Andrea Reyes, the chair of the New York City Fair Trade Coalition. “I don’t think there’s a day when you can not see the word sustainability or climate change. It’s [the fashion industry’s] responsibility to connect those dots to customers as clearly as possible.”

Reyes and her team at the Fair Trade Coalition advise both new and established fashion brands about sustainability. Her members include a lot of ex-fashion industry people who can no longer stomach turning a blind eye to fashion’s detrimental impact on the world—”whether it’s poor labor practices, environmental conditions, or even businesses suffering from a financial standpoint,” she explains. 

Consumers have rallied around sustainability through other avenues—consider the 2018 war waged and won against plastic straws, for example—“but the fashion conversation is a lot more complex,” Reyes says. Some conscious consumers may be interested in sustainable or organic textiles, while others may prioritize humane, ethical labor practices. All of this interest is important, Reyes says, and there are so many ways to enjoy fashion while being gentler on the world. 

Three categories of sustainable fashion—and the best clothing brands in each

Here are several ways fashion is catching up to the needs of the new world. 

1. Renting instead of buying

Launched in 2009, Rent the Runway, a member at WeWork 609 Greenwich St in New York, maintains that addictive, feel-good aspect of fast fashion while producing much less waste. Users can experience the thrill associated with shopping—really, a surge of dopamine is activated in the brain when you’re about to buy a new dress—without facing the wasteful consequences of the desire to regularly buy new. With the model that incorporates fashion into a sharing economy, users can lease high-end clothing items, then return them for something else when they’re sick of the clothes and experience those pleasurable neurotransmitter feels all over again. RTR drop-off boxes, which are installed in several WeWork locations around the country, make the process nearly effortless. 

Since its conception, the company has iterated many times over to make its business as sustainable as possible. In 2017, RTR phased out real fur and feathers; it now carries only faux versions. And instead of shipping in boxes, RTR delivers its goods in reusable garment bags that can withstand the wear and tear of transportation.

“Rent the Runway has revolutionized the fashion industry,” says Reyes. “Now we see a lot of copycats participating in the rental game, and I think it’s a wonderful model for businesses to copy.” West Elm has partnered with RTR to make luxury home decor rental viable; in May, Urban Outfitters launched Nuuly, a subscription rental box that runs on a model very similar to RTR’s. Express, Ann Taylor, New York & Company have started rental subscriptions of their own. 

2. Resale and consignment 

By finding multiple closets to call home, clothes can stay out of landfills and bring joy to the new people who wear them. Traditional thrift stores remain popular for buying secondhand and treasure-hunting, and thrifting is now possible from any place with Wi-Fi. ThredUp, a member at WeWork 33 Irving Pl in New York, the self-proclaimed “largest online thrift store,” has helped to streamline secondhand shopping and consigning. By its numbers—stocking 2 million items at any given time—the site sounds deserving of its superlative.

Ultimately, the company wants to create a “‘circular fashion future,’ in which reuse powers the rotation of our closets — instead of the constant refill of new, disposable clothes,’” says a brand spokesperson.

ThredUp users can be both buyers and sellers of secondhand goods: Buyers can choose from more than 35,000 brands, with items priced up to 90 percent off the retail price. Sellers ship their unwanted clothes to the company, which then prices, photographs, and manages the transactions. Sellers can use the money they make from their sales as ThredUp credit or they can transfer it to their bank accounts. Items that don’t make the ThredUp cut can be returned to the seller (for a fee) or responsibly recycled. 

According to calculations from the ThredUp team, if every person bought one used item instead of a new one this year, we would collectively save 25 billion gallons of water, 5.7 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, and 449 million pounds of waste. A number of companies with similar models to ThredUp’s make buying used easier than ever before: The RealReal, which functions similarly to ThredUp, is a hub for pre-worn luxury goods; Poshmark, a social commerce marketplace, allows buying and selling clothing to be as simple as opening a mobile app; eBay, certainly the earliest resale platform on this list, makes finding anything—from a vintage pair of boots to a vintage brand of cereal—possible. 

3. Using recycled materials to create something new

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. So is the philosophy of Everybody World’s trash tee (available at WeWork Now, located at 902 Broadway in Manhattan), a garment made from 100 percent recycled cotton in an ethical factory in Los Angeles. The company partnered with one of the largest yarn manufacturers in the world to develop a proprietary fabric: The tee “consists of extracted dirt from the cotton plants and waste fibers, which we collect before it’s disposed of,” says Ariel Katz, Everybody World’s head of brand and business development. “We then work with the factory to reprocess the waste to become the yarn that we knit into jersey.” So far, the company has prevented about one quarter of a million pounds of cotton waste from entering landfills. 

An Everybody World tee available at WeWork Now.

The brand believes that garments should almost never be thrown away, says Katz. “We are into passing down, secondhand selling, and swapping clothes to keep them in a useful life cycle for as long as possible. After that, they’re amazing for rags, stuffing, or quilting projects.” 

In the event that Everybody World garments do end up getting tossed, they’ll decompose safely. “Our garments are designed for a lifetime of wear—and to entirely decompose thereafter, should they ever end up in a landfill in the future.” 

Everybody World is certainly not the first to upcycle waste into something both fashionable and functionable. Barcelona-based brand Tropicfeel sources sustainable materials for its travel gear, and then leverages crowdfunding platforms to streamline its production process and avoid making too much. “Crowdfunding prevents overproduction because we manufacture products for countable backers or supporters of our crowdfunding projects,” says CEO Alberto Espinós. “[It] also enables us to design durable and functional products with our backers collaboratively, so they own long-lasting apparel that meets their everyday needs with everlasting fashion.”

The brand’s shoe, Canyon, is an all-terrain sneaker made with polyester created from recycled plastic bottles. Every pair recycles 3.5 plastic bottles. 

How to shop sustainably

For all the good happening with sustainability in fashion, there are plenty of brands that have embraced the concept as a marketing tool rather than an actual value. “There’s a difference between having a company built on the basis of sustainability and a business that just uses it for cause-related marketing,” says Reyes.

Here are four ways to ensure your dollar is making a difference.

  1. Contact brands directly. If you’re in the store, New York City Fair Trade Coalition’s Andrea Reyes suggests asking store employees about their sustainability practices—a business that really cares about its values will make sure its forward-facing staff is well-educated. Inquire about the meaning of sustainable, responsible, and other buzzwords. If you’re buying online, you can use social media to reach out.
  2. Consider the fabric. Linen, hemp, and bamboo fabrics tend to be gentler on the environment compared to cotton and synthetics.
  3. Examine packaging. Does that eco-friendly sweater come shipped in a plastic bag, on a plastic hanger, or padded with bubble wrap? You’ve got some questioning to do. 
  4. Prioritize local. The less distance a garment has to travel to make it into your closet, the less energy used.

But true disruption of the fashion industry doesn’t involve money. As Reyes puts it, “Swapping is the best way to disrupt the fashion industry.” If you don’t have a local swap program, start your own.

Kate Bratskeir is a writer for WeWork’s Ideas by We, focusing on sustainability and workplace psychology. Previously, she was a senior editor at Mic and HuffPost. Her work has appeared in New York, Health, Travel & Leisure, Women’s Health, and more.

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