When Jill and I were brainstorming series titles for MODEste, she suggested “Clean Closet” for our wardrobe posts, and I loved it instantly. It fits so perfectly. Not only do I want to share my thoughts and experiences with my honed, minimal wardrobe efforts, but buying and owning ethically–made pieces has become increasingly important to me. So, I’m working towards a clean closet in terms of less, absolutely, but I’m also chasing after a closet that’s clean because the people who crafted each piece were well treated and fairly paid. I talked about that decision and my process up to this point in this post.
If you’re just beginning to make conscious decisions about your wardrobe, let me save you a few steps by sharing a few things that I’ve learned, some of the guiding decisions I’ve made, and my list of go-to, ethically made brands:
Criteria: AKA, What Does Your Heart Tell You?
Personally, I prioritize ethically-made pieces over sustainably made pieces. Honestly, the two ideals often go hand-in-hand, but I have found in my research, that some companies will tout their earth-friendly practices without a mention of whether or not they use sweatshops. So, for me, my main focus is to seek pieces made with concern for the welfare of the maker. When possible, I support companies that are doing both! Fast fashion is bad for the people AND the planet.
I’ve discovered that figuring out whether a company has ethical practices is a little murky. I suppose I thought there would be a line: good companies on this side, bad companies on that side. But as it turns out, it’s actually more of a spectrum. There are companies that are causing substantial harm to the planet and endangering the life of those working in their substandard factories. There are companies who have language in their business plan about keeping clean supply chains, but they conveniently turn a blind eye to the corruption in the factories while taking advantage of lax regulations. There are companies who make a mess in one area, but try to offset the damage by doing good somewhere else. There are companies who are meticulous about their supply chains and have good relationships with the factories, but the people who make their products still sometimes live in near poverty. There are companies who ensure that everyone who has a hand in crafting their product is treated well and paid fairly (and in some cases, companies will work to make sure that the people who manufacture are lifted up and have resources, benefits, and opportunities to learn more and do more and support themselves and their families). There are some companies who are small artisans who want to share their craft with the world and have a small, passionate team trying to make it happen. And there are some companies who exist to uplift and support those who make their products.
If I had my way, I’d only support the last few types on that list. The ones who are doing the most and who care the most. It can be a trick to figure out who those companies are, sometimes. And often, it can be very expensive to buy only those products. So for me, I’ve decided to buy my staple, investment pieces from the higher, better end of the spectrum, and fill in gaps that need to be filled, from the high-middle part of the scale. The funny thing is, when I allow myself to buy from the middle, those companies that are doing better than some, but really, still not wonderful, I end up being swept up in the low prices and bargains. I end up with pieces that don’t fit quite right or last quite as long, or that I don’t actually need. And I’m disappointed in myself (remember, I’m an INFJ).
But here’s the thing, I don’t know anything about your financial situation. I don’t know how many bodies you must clothe or what type of lifestyle you need to outfit for. So, only you know where on that scale it makes sense for you to spend your money. I am young, married, without children, and I have a pretty good job. I am far, far from wealthy, but I can afford to buy slowly and buy well. But not everyone can. But everyone can find a spot where they can do the least amount of harm.
Initially, I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I wanted to buy ethically made pieces, but I wasn’t in love with the typical ‘fair trade’ aesthetic. I want a wardrobe that reflects my minimal, edgy/classic desires, but with heart. Those brands exist, but they take a bit of digging.
Instead of starting with brands that pop up when you Google “fair trade” or “ethical fashion”, I’m working backwards. I’ve started with specific pieces from my Master Wardrobe List, and as I search those out, I’m investigating individual brands. Below I’ve listed some that I’ve either purchase from, I’m stalking, or that have caught my fancy for the future.
Supply Chains and Vague Language
As I’ve mentioned, it’s incredibly difficult to decipher who’s the real deal. From what I’ve been able to search out, there isn’t a good system in place for tracking whether a company is really following guidelines or acting on the claims they make. It seems to mostly be self-reporting. A shocking amount of brands don’t even address manufacturing. And perhaps worse than that, many who are vocal about it, aren’t really doing such a great job.
When I come across a brand that I’m interested in, I go straight to the bottom of the site and look for anything that references supply chains, manufacturing, values, or ethics. It might be in the ‘about’ section, or it might be it’s own section. If you can’t find this information with in about 10 seconds, move on. If a company is truly concerned with their ethical or environmental impact, they will be screaming it from the rooftops. It’s marketing gold, and unless you’re looking at a small maker, there’s no way they will be missing out on this opportunity to brag unless they would prefer people gloss over their questionable practices.
If you’re really into a brand but the language is vague, you can try reaching out with an email or a call. I used to think this would be a waste of time, but in the past week, I’ve reached out to two brands with tremendous success! In both cases, I emailed a smaller brand I had been eyeing and received a thoughtful, personal response in return that detailed the company’s ethical standards and the factories they work with! I’m starting to like this option. Not only do I gain information about a potentially awesome brand, but I’m communicating that the way my clothes are made matters to me. How awesome would it be to have people all over the world emailing the fashion industry to find out more and to show they care?
Use What’s Already Out There
I got to this point in ethical wardrobe building through a capsule wardrobe/minimalism journey. Because of that, I got rid of most of my clothes early on. This left me with a few gaps in my wardrobe that I’ve been working to fill, but it also left me with pieces I already owned that were in good shape, fit well, meshed with my personal style, and worked with my lifestyle. It’s tempting, in a way, now that I’m trying to buy only ethically made pieces, to want to replace my entire closet with brands that fit this criteria. Especially if I share an outfit on social media, I want every component to be a recommendation. But not only is that not an option for me financially, but it’s also pretty wasteful. One of the major goals of my minimalism is not just to consume better, but to consume less. If I dumped all of the pieces that still serve me well in all the ways described above, then that starts to feel a little wasteful. I’m all for clearing out and letting go, but there’s also benefit to keeping something until you use it up or wear it out, sometimes.
Thrifting or buying second hand is an excellent way to build an ethical wardrobe for less. When you buy second-hand, you’re rescuing a piece from the waste stream and you’re reducing the production demand just a little bit. There are particular temptations that can make it hard to maintain a honed, minimal wardrobe with consistent thrifting, but Jill and I both plan to give some tips and talk about that in future posts. I use my Master Wardrobe List as a guide when I shop in second hand or vintage stores. They key is to be very picky. But I’ve added some really wonderful pieces and often high-end brands to my wardrobe this way.
My Short-List of Ethically-Made Brands
Quick disclaimer: This list is based on what I’ve been able to ascertain about a brand. As previously mentioned, it’s very difficult to be certain that a brand is actually following through with what they claim. If you know of issues concerning any of the brands listed, don’t hesitate to reach out. Things are changing all the time, and I’m adding to my list of brands I trust as I go, but I’ve also removed brands from earlier my earlier drafts. I encourage you to do your own research too! We have to work together.
- Everlane – I’ve purchased several pieces from Everlane, including the Ryan Tank, Ryan Muscle Tank, Drop-Shoulder Crew Tee, the Box-Cut Tee, the Sleeveless Lightweight Denim top, and the Chunky Wool Beanie. I’ve got a wish list as long as my arm for additional pieces. I love their business model of “radical transparency” and I love their style. They are setting a trend for well-made, classic, minimal pieces, that are also ethically made, and I really dig it.
- Tradlands – I’ve been stalking this brand for a while, and I finally made my first purchase! They are a small company that makes each shirt by hand in the U.S. Tradlands boasts menswear-inspired oxford button-downs – the button-down you’ve been searching for your whole life! One thing that caught my attention early on was the claim that their design eliminates “boob-gap” in the buttons. That fact alone had me sold.
- Bridge and Burn – A Portland based company, I found Bridge and Burn when we visited the west coast last summer. I haven’t personally purchased anything yet, but I’ve been eyeing those shirt-dresses!
- Taylor Stitch – I’ve only recently found Taylor Stitch, but I’m already in love. After reading through their website, I felt like they were boasting ethical manufacturing, but it wasn’t explicit. So I emailed the company to make sure. The very next day I received a personal email detailing their manufacturing process and the factories they use. I’m sold! I’m crushing on their chambrays and structured cotton/linen dresses.
- Sézane – A French company, Sézane works with small, family-run workshops and has a focus on ethical fabrication. I’ve been an admirer of this brand for a while, but again, the language on their site was a little bit vague. I emailed them to find out a little bit more, and within a couple of hours, I had a lovely detailed response with information about their practices and the locations of the factories they work with! Très impressive! Plus, I love their aesthetic; Sézane manages to blend minimal classic with romantic in a way that only the French can!
- DSTLD – My black skinnies recently bit the dirt, so now I’m eyeing a pair of DSTLD. I haven’t decided whether I’ll stick with traditional denim or if I’ll go for the sexy, coated, leather-like jeans.
- Imogen + Willie – A Nashville company, Imogen + Willie is all kinds of cool. They are mostly known for their denim, but they have a limited amount of other pieces as well.
- American Apparel – Great go-to for basics. If I have an issue with this company, it’s in their promotional photos. I don’t love their 70’s porn star merchandising, but American Apparel is pretty renowned for how well they treat their employees and manufacturers.
- Alternative Apparel – I’ve been stalking them for a while, but I haven’ t made a purchase just yet. They have tons of well-made, natural fiber t-shirts (lots of modal!), and other nice basics, and they’re about environmentally made pieces as well as ethically-made!
- Slumlove Sweater Company – This company is mostly – you guessed it – sweaters! They are doing things right: fair wages + respect, resources + opportunities for a better life, plus they donate a portion of their sales to a non-profit that provides scholarships to high school students living in one of the world’s largest slums.
- Cuyana – This brand is a little beyond the reach of my pocketbook, but I love their aesthetic, and I love what they’re doing. Their motto is “fewer, better things.”
- Nisolo – I own the Harper Chukka Boot in Steel and the Oliver Oxford in Noir, but honestly, I want the entire women’s collection. Andrew has the Emilio Chukka Boot in Noir and the Owen Belt in Brandy and he’s got the Clark Oxford in Brandy on his wishlist. We had a Nisolo Christmas this year, where we purchased these goodies with the money gifted us. Nisolo popped up in Nashville about the time that we were leaving it, but we got to visit their stunning little shop when we went home over the holidays. I don’t know if I can say enough positive things about this company. Nisolo offers handmade, designer leather shoes and accessories at an accessible price. They believe in being a force for good and making a better life for the people who hand-craft their products. If you’ve been buying Target clearance shoes for years (like I formerly was), then the price may still feel steep, but the quality and style of their products is impeccable and will last for years!
- Swedish Hasbeens – I have the Lacy high heel in natural, and I’m keeping my eye on these. I’m in love with 70’s style clogs, and they do them so well! These are made in Sweden, a country with high manufacturing regulations.
- Bryr Clogs – Just about every pair produced by this small, American maker is on my wishlist! I love the story behind this brand, and I am currently patiently stalking their FELT clogs! 70’s inspired clogs forever!
- Salt Water Sandals – I have these in navy. If you’re in the U.S., the sizing is a little weird, but these sandals can take a punch. Plus, Alexa Chung and other stylish people make this guys look très chic!
- Avarca Pons – I’ve got my eye on the these in taupe + these in cognac. I love the classic, minimalist style of these handmade, Spanish, leather sandals.
- Everlane – I know, I know, enough about Everlane, but I’m pining for Everlane’s Chelsea Boots.
- Birkenstocks – Their black sandals have made a serious comeback in the world of minimalist fashion.
- M.Gemi – This company is newly on my radar, but I’m really into it. They produce, handmade, designer Italian leather shoes, but like Nisolo, at a reasonable price. You’re still looking at shoes in the $200, range, but I would definitely consider these beauties an investment piece.
- Converse – These are such a classic. I’m about ready to upgrade my eight-year-old lowtops for a pair of natural-colored high tops. While they aren’t has impressively made as the others on this list, they still pass.
- Tom’s Shoes – I think everyone probably knows about Tom’s business model at this point, right? They’re doing some cool things.
Accessories (Bags + Jewelry)
- FashionABLE – The Nashville companies are killing it on this list! FashionABLE works with women in developing countries to help them become stable and support themselves and their families. Their tagline is “Beautiful products by women who have overcome.” And their products are breath-takingly beautiful. I love the leather goods, particularly the Mamuye tote, but they also carry stunning scarves, jewelry, and a small selection of home goods.
- Baggu – Baggu started as fold-away, reusable grocery totes, and has expanded into some gorgeous minimal leather bags and sleek weekenders! They have a focus on both ethical AND environmental manufacturing. I’m personally really into the leather saddle bags and their clutches + pouches that can be used to organize a larger tote or on their own!
- Warby Parker – Warby Parker has a similar, one-for-one model like Tom’s. They are doing some pretty cool things, their quality and style is unparalleled, and they also sell sunglasses in addition to eyeglasses! Andrew owns the pair he’s pictured in above, and I picked out a frame for when my vision finally fails me. Seriously, I think my eyesight has gone downhill since I bought my first smart phone…
- Catbird – Looking for beautiful, minimal, designer jewelry that is ethically made with recycled and ethically sourced gems and precious metals? Look no further than Brooklyn-based Catbird. If I were on the hunt today and wasn’t able to find the vintage ring that currently lives on my finger, this is the place I would go for engagement rings. The small makers who craft each piece are continuously expanding their collection of stunning diamond rings. But they also have lots of pieces you could wear every day!
- Consider the Wldflwrs – Another Nashville brand, Consider the Wldflwers makes stunning, delicate, minimal pieces. I’ve been eyeing these studs for ages (in rose gold, Andrew, if you’re reading this).
- Nisolo – Again, yes, but the recently started carrying beautiful jewelry, and their belts and bags are gorgeous!
- Yellow 108 – American-made hats, made from salvaged materials.
- Zady – With a tagline touting “The New Standard”, Zady is working to reshape the way we think about the products we purchase. I’ve listed them as a retailer because, though they do have their own line of clothing, they also sell other ethically made brands. Zady is also a resource, with articles and a newsletter, to learn more about the environmental and ethical impact of manufacturing. Oh, and they also carry some beauty and home products in addition to clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories.
- Sisters of Nature – A Nashville retailer, Sisters of Nature sells fair trade and ethically made goods in their shop and online. Doing this ethically-made thing, it can be easier to find basics than to find unique or special pieces. Sisters of Nature is a good go-to to find beautiful, small-designer pieces to punch up your wardrobe while staying true to your conscience.
- The Good Trade – The Good Trade is a community for people who want to learn more and connect with people who are on this journey/part of the revolution. They put together and share collections of products that are made the right way!
- Project JUST – Ok, this is super cool. Project JUST is a new tool to help research and understand where brands fall on the ethical scale. Search or select the names of the companies you shop and get a digest of the pros and cons. This is a relatively new project, but they ladies behind this genius idea are constantly expanding what this tool has to offer.
A Note About the Middle of the Scale
So you know how I said the ethical manufacturing practices of brands are on a spectrum? I’ve tried to only include companies who fall on the higher end of that scale in the list above, but if you’re on a tight budget, are in desperate need of a couple of wardrobe pieces, or, if you have little ones to clothe, you should know a bit more about the middle of the spectrum. From what I’ve learned, there’s a class of companies who are in compliance with the California Supply Chain Act or claim to have high standards for their supply chain. Even though it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know whether these companies are truly taking action or being diligent in making sure minimum standards are met, they at least have policy in place. They are addressing and acknowledging the issue, and a few of them appear to actively be trying to do better (looking at you, H&M). A couple of the brands listed below have even been awarded recognition for ethical standards, but again, it’s difficult to tell if those awards have any real validity.
Here are a few companies that land on that middle part of the spectrum, companies that, if not actively working to improve the system, are at least doing less harm than most: JCrew/Madewell, Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic, H&M, Levis, Fossil, Sam Edelman, and American Eagle/Aerie.
Personally, I’m trying to avoid allowing myself to shop at the above stores unless there’s a specific piece I’m searching for and need that I can’t find or afford from a more ethical brand. I don’t have the self-control not to rely on cheaper brands unless I set some pretty strict guidelines for myself. When I’ve let myself shop at Old Navy, for example, especially in the fall of last year when Katie Holmes was their tastemaker and their collections were on point, I reasoned my way into buying more than I meant to. Not only are those brands not doing enough right for me to support them with a perfectly clear conscience, but those pieces also just don’t last. The quality isn’t there, in most cases. But the tighter my restrictions are about avoiding fast fashion, the more likely I am to take my time and make calculated purchases from brands I love and buy the pieces I’m actually pining for! That’s why wardrobe building is a slow game for me. I’m learning that I actually need way fewer things than I thought I did a couple of years ago, and I’m getting to a place where I’m pretty excited about the pieces I own.