Earlier this month, ultra fast-fashion retailer Shein was valued at $100 billion. It might sound initially impressive, considering it only launched about a decade ago, but Shein’s business model is hurting the planet.
To turn a profit, Shein relies on producing inexpensive clothing, often with plastic-based materials, at an extremely fast rate. It then sells garments to consumers for cheap prices and heavily encourages a shopping mentality that sees consumers constantly buy, buy, buy.
While Shein might be among the most successful, it’s not alone. Brands like H&M, Zara, Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing, and Cider all rely on this approach. Around the world, 60 billion pieces of clothing and accessories are bought every year. But, according to a 2015 study, they’ll be worn an average of just seven times before they are thrown away.
Most of these items will end up either burned or in the landfill. But materials like polyester—a favorite of fast fashion brands—are made with plastic. This means they don’t biodegrade easily, and when they do, they contaminate the earth, harming both the environment and animals.
Microplastic pollution from polyester
Polyester is a nightmare for ecosystems. In 2020, one study found that microplastic pollution had decreased the population of tiny creatures, like mites and larvae, that live below the surface of the soil. Plastics have also been found seeping into surrounding waterways, posing a severe risk to the animals that rely on those resources to survive.
But polyester’s hazardous reach extends further than landfill soil. Before clothes are thrown out, they often get a few spins in the washing machine first. And last year, a study found that around 75 percent of microplastic pollution in the arctic is polyester, and much of it probably found itself there via the laundry.
Shop sustainable fashion brands
Fast fashion is hurting ecosystems and the planet in many ways. Aside from waste and plastic pollution, it also contributes to deforestation (see: the leather industry) and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, when it comes to the latter, the global fashion industry is responsible for up to 10 percent of annual emissions. And it’s getting worse.
Elisa Tonda, the head of the United Nations’ Consumption and Production Unit, said in 2019: “If we carry on with a business-as-usual approach, the greenhouse gas emissions from the industry are expected to rise by almost 50 percent by 2030.”
But as consumers, we don’t have to engage with business as usual. Firstly, we can buy fewer clothes and wear them over and over again to reduce waste. We can also thrift, borrow, and peruse sites like eBay and Depop for second-hand items. But when we do decide to buy new, we can choose sustainable options. And luckily, there are more brands than ever offering vegan, low-waste, ethical fashion choices. Here are some of our top picks.
After a stroll through Istanbul’s textile district led her to an untapped supply of deadstock (this is unused or rejected fabric from the fashion industry), Megan Mummery founded OhSevenDays to help you make your wardrobe staples sustainable.
The Turkey-based brand’s designs are chic, summery, and versatile. Take its Reese Reversible Blouse, for example. Made with leftover roll from fabric mills, it can be dressed up or down, depending on whether you choose to pair it with a fitted skirt and heels, or maybe a pair of jeans and your favorite vegan sneakers.
Based in California, Boyish is all about offering sustainably produced denim garments at an “attainable price point.” The brand focuses on longevity, ensuring that the quality and fit is of a high standard and can live on in your wardrobe for years to come.
The brand’s Monty Shorts are the perfect addition to your summer wardrobe. They’re made with a variety of low-waste, sustainable materials, including recycled cotton, Refibra (made with recycled scraps), and Tencel (derived from eucalyptus trees). For that chilled, headed-to-the-beach look, just pair with a simple tee and sandals.
3. Lucy & Yak
Known for its quirky dungarees, Lucy & Yak is just as passionate about ethics and sustainability as it is about fun, colorful prints. All of its suppliers pay fair wages. This is in stark contrast to fast fashion brands, many of which have come under fire for exploiting the factory workers who make their clothes. (Just last year, an investigation found Shein’s suppliers making staff work 75-hour weeks for very little pay.)
Lucy & Yak uses materials like organic twill and organic cotton, as well as low-impact dyes, to make its vibrant designs, like this sunflower-printed Asahi Nagata & Yak Limited Edition Dungaree.
If you love fast fashion but don’t love its impact on people and the planet, Nu-In is for you. The brand offers a range of on-trend styles (like this Organic Tie Back Ribbed Knitted Mini Dress and this Recycled Rushed Frill Mini Skirt) for a slightly lower price point than other sustainable brands.
But while it may have a fast fashion-esque aesthetic and the occasional sale, that’s where the comparison stops. Nu-In is passionately against the fast fashion business model, and instead, encourages its customers to buy less and wear more. It states on its website: “We do not condone flash sales that encourage impulse buying of items that may not be needed or wanted and therefore discarded.”
It adds that people should “take the time to consider whether they really want to buy the item rather than buying it just because it’s on sale.”
5. Christy Dawn
In the market for a vintage-style, elegant, and sustainable dress to add to your wardrobe (wedding season is nearly upon us, after all)? Christy Dawn is a good place to start. All of the Los Angeles-based brand’s designs (like this pretty daisy-printed Laura Dress, for example) are created with respect for nature in mind, using deadstock fabric or organic cotton.
Plus, with its Farm-to-Closet initiative, the brand supports a network of local craftspeople and farmers in Erode India, who help to regenerate the land and heal the soil from depletion.
For gym-goers, Tala is a comfortable, high-performance, sustainable, and ethical choice. Founded by Grace Beverley, a fitness entrepreneur and influencer, all of Tala’s activewear (from sports bras like this Ixia Seamless Zip option to flared yoga pants like these) is created in a transparent supply chain, where suppliers and factories are carefully vetted to check staff are being treated and paid fairly.
Fabrics include Q-Nova (which is made with regenerated waste materials), Lyocell (made from wood pulp), and bamboo. Plus, as a little sustainable extra, all of its tags are filled with seeds for herbs, flowers, or spices.
7. People Tree
People Tree is one of the OGs when it comes to sustainable fashion brands. Founded in 1991 by James and Safia Minney, the brand’s products are made with affordability and style in mind. But ethics or quality are never compromised.
Take these Sasha trousers, for example. The comfy, joggers look cute with a white tee and sneakers for those days when you’re just running errands. They’re also soft, functional (hello deep pockets!), and made with certified organic cotton.