Sustainability in the fashion industry has come a long way over the last few years, especially as more and more people are becoming aware of their environmental footprint.
Nowadays, we have ethical clothing manufacturers and organizations working to rid the fashion industry of unethical practices such as poor working conditions, toxic waste, and replace it with systems and initiatives that support both people and planet.
After this guide, you’ll be able to identify the most ethical clothing manufacturers and companies so you can begin your journey toward a more eco-friendly and fashionable lifestyle. You may also want to look at our post Ethical Swimwear.
What is Ethical/Sustainable Clothing Manufacturing?
What makes a clothing manufacturer ethical? Note that we are not talking about the brand, or the supplier, but the very source of the clothing-making process – the manufacturer.
An ethical or sustainable clothing manufacturer will ideally encompass three values and principles into their business:
- Paying a fair, livable wage to adult workers and not profiting from cheap or child labor
- Ensuring ethical working conditions (i.e. clean, safe, supportive)
- Using zero toxic materials or producing fashion waste that harms the environment
More than this, sustainable manufacturing ensures a streamlined and ethical production from start to finish.
Not all well-intended clothing manufacturers are 100% ethical or sustainable in their practices. Fashion, even if sustainable, creates waste somewhere down the chain.
But in general, the ethical clothing manufacturers out there, who identify as ethical or sustainable, are usually working hard toward improving their labour and ecological methods as much as possible.
People, Planet, Profit
When you remove the technicalities, ethical manufacturing in the fashion industry is rather simple – or at least it should be.
It’s prioritizing people and the planet over profit.
To define what an ethical clothing manufacturer is further, it helps to break down those 3 P’s – People, Planet, and Profit – into further questions.
How are the working conditions? Are they treated well and feel supported in their working environment? Do they receive fair wages and work an ethical amount of hours to reach a liveable wage? Are all the workers adults and have they entered into this contract of free will?
Does the manufacturer generally disregard its impact on the environment or do they value, and more importantly concretely implement, actions to reduce, reuse, recycle, and up-cycle? Does the sourcing of materials harm the natural environment and negatively impact communities?
Is the manufacturer able to profit enough to ensure fair wages down the supply chain? How can the company relate this added value of sustainability to the final sale price? Is there a balance between profit and costs (including environmental and/or social well-being)?
What are the Goals for a Sustainable Manufacturer?
Ideally, in a perfect world, a sustainable manufacturer will always be looking at areas of their business where they can improve work and social conditions, while reducing environmental costs.
This means always seeking to better the supply chain to make it more socially and environmentally-friendly. No thread shall go untouched!
To help clothing manufacturers achieve those ideal conditions, the United Nations has developed in total 17 sustainable development goals that include more than just working conditions, fair wages, and environmental awareness.
In sum, they are:
- Eradicating hunger and poverty
- Health and wellbeing of all
- Gender equality
- Access to quality education
- Clean water & sanitation
- Affordable, clean energy
- Quality work opportunities & economic growth
- Quality infrastructure, innovation, & industry
- Reducing the inequality gap
- Green cities and communities
- Responsible consumer & production practices
- Climate action
- Preservation of oceans & aquatic life
- Conservation of natural land
- Peace & justice
- Beneficial partnerships between institutions & governments
It is the job of all sustainable manufacturers – whether in the fashion industry or not – to work toward these goals to help ensure a better, greener future for generations to come.
Why is Ethical/Sustainable Manufacturing Important?
Without ethical and sustainable manufacturing, both people and the planet suffer. The costs on communities, economies, and the environment are simply disastrous.
Ethical and sustainable manufacturing is more important now than ever before. With climate change accelerating at an unprecedented rate, it’s crucial that we take action. Yes, even if that means taking action in the smallest of ways such as finding responsibly-sourced thread.
Not only is ethical manufacturing important for reducing but for supporting local communities and the environment. As numerous studies have shown, investing in ethical companies gives back more than it takes.
What’s more, ethical/sustainable manufacturing actually helps produce cleaner and safer working conditions for people. This, in turn, helps boost the local economy, provides more social and labour opportunities, and preserves and conserves the natural environment.
Let’s just say that if more companies were to adopt ethical/sustainable practices and values into their business model, the world – and its people – would greatly benefit from it.
How to Find Ethical/Sustainable Manufacturers
Finding ethical manufacturers definitely poses as a challenge. But they’re not impossible to find.
The easiest way to find such manufacturers is to be specific with your searches on the internet. There’s practically nothing you can’t research about on Google and other search engines today.
For example, you could type in, “organic cotton manufacturers Europe” or “Tencel manufacturers India” or “ethical textile manufacturers Mexico” to find the sustainable material or fabric you are looking for in any particular geographical region.
But should the internet fail you in your search, the next best way to find ethical manufacturers is to visit places in person – yep, the traditional way of doing things. Make sure to hit up trade shows or reach out to agencies to do the groundwork for you.
Ethical & Eco Friendly Clothing and Fashion Brands
While many eco-friendly clothing brands have become popular over the years, not all eco-conscious fashion brands have a large social following or are well-known just by their name.
That said, if you are looking to include more ethical clothing and fashion brands into your closest, you should look up fashion directories in the ethical/eco niche.
Here are five fashion directories to search through when seeking sustainable clothing:
- Good On You
- The Good Shopping Guide
- The Good Trade
- Project Cece
If you flip through those digital magazine-like pages, you will then find dozens (if not hundreds) of sustainable clothing brands – and the links to directly browse their online shops.
Some of our favorites are:
Wholesome Culture – vegan-friendly clothing made with plant-based inks and bamboo/organic cotton fabric.
Patagonia – sustainable clothing brand dedicated to preserving the outdoors and sourcing from ethical manufacturers around the world. Also the co-founder of the global organization 1% for the Planet.
Allbirds Shoes – an ethical shoe company who makes casual and running shoes from sustainable merino wool, eucalyptus, and castor oil.
Indigenous – California-based company selling organic fair trade clothing for men and women. Member of B-Corp.
Hackwith Design House – sustainable clothing made for the minimalist fashionista. Made in-house in Minnesota, USA.
How Can a Manufacturer Be Ethical?
If you are wanting to partner with a manufacturer, or start up your own business as one, then here are some tell-tale signs of ethical practices.
Ensure good quality working conditions
Every clothing manufacturer should have a clean and safe environment free of verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse in which employees can thrive, not just survive. Sweatshops, or the like, and forced overtime would be out of the question.
Pay fair wages
Employing the local community and paying fair wages is crucial. This also implies ensuring every employee is of age, is employed of free will, and is able to participate in unions and social causes, if desired.
Reduce environmental footprint
Ethical manufacturers will not only ensure the wellbeing of its employees, but also of the planet and how the business impacts it. Not only are such manufacturers aware of their ecological footprint, but they are taking action to improve sustainability measures all the way down the supply chain.
Partner with organizations
The best ethical manufacturers are those that aim to be transparent, in such that they may join with eco-organizations working toward ensuring safe and ethical practices in the fashion industry. Such partnerships are represented by logos, such as 1% for the Planet or B-Corp, which aim to proudly identify ethical and sustainable clothing manufacturers from the rest.
How do Ethical Manufacturers pay their workers?
Ethical manufacturers pay their employees by taking into account the accepted livable wage for the country in which they reside.
Meaning, what some manufacturers pay their employees in Vietnam might not be equal to manufacturers based in India or the USA.
Fair wages means a livable wage on which an individual may support both him/herself and their families.
The Conditions & Environment
Part of ethical manufacturing concerns, not only the wage, but also the working conditions and the environment.
Ethical manufacturers will consider all three of these and actively seek to implement strategies to improve working conditions, making them clean, safe, and overall of high-quality, and to reduce their environmental impact by sourcing better, safer materials, and running tests to ensure no toxic materials are used in the process.
They may also reduce, reuse, and recycle/upcycle, such as using deadlock zippers and buttons and reimplementing unused fabric back into the production cycle.
Biodegradable packaging is also a sign of an ethical manufacturer, as they take into consideration reducing the plastic consumption and waste from business to business in the fashion cycle.
Ethical and Eco Friendly Groups
As briefly mentioned above, one way to identify where or not a clothing manufacturer is ethical and sustainable is to look at whether or not they are joined with any leading eco-friendly groups in the industry.
The main ones to look out for are:
Bluesign – ensures sustainability is maintained from the farm to the showroom in the manufacturing process.
Oeko-Tex – offers three levels of certification standards that, essentially, ensures textiles are sourced, made, and tested to have zero harmful substances.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) – another certification standard that requires a few stipulations such as 90% organic cotton, prohibited use of toxic dyes, materials, etc, and that no PVC is used in the packing. Both labor and ecological standards are required to be met for receiving certification.
Ethical Trading Initiative – a group that ensures labor workers’ rights by entering into contracts with manufacturers that commit to transparency and agree to work within its code of best labor practices.
UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion – an overarching governing body that sets goals and guidelines for manufacturers and businesses to follow in the fashion industry.
On top of these groups, there is also the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO).
What is the World Fair Trade Organization?
The WFTO is a member-supported organization that encourages manufacturers – and other companies and businesses down the supply chain – to be transparent in their production process from who made the product to when and where it was made.
Top Ethical & Sustainable Clothing Organizations in Europe and the UK
There are ethical and sustainable clothing organizations all over the world, with hundreds in both Europe and the UK alone.
Here are the names of the top-rated ethical and eco clothing brands in Europe and the UK:
- Elvis & Kresse (UK) – rescued raw materials
- Solid Crafts (Belgium) – hand knitwear and woven garments
- Mud Jeans (Netherlands) – sustainable jeans
- Mayamike (UK) – a meaningful wardrobe
- RubyMoon GymToSwim (UK) – world’s only non-profit eco activewear brand
- Boy Wonder (UK) – premium ethical boys wear brand
- Amandine (France) – GOTS-certified organic fabrics and trims
- Three By One (Belgium) – zero waste products
- Save The Date (Sweden) – ethical clothing company that prints the manufacturing date to remind consumers to make it last
- Laya (Germany) – ethical bridal and evening wear
What are the most ethical clothing companies?
According to The Guardian, these are some of the most ethical clothing companies across the globe: Lucy & Yak, House of Sunny, SZ Blockprints, Pangaia, We Are We Wear, Birdsong, Noctu, Girlfriend Collective, Franks London, and Project Pico.
Who are the best clothing manufacturers?
There are thousands of clothing manufacturers in the world, it would be impossible to list the best of the best here. Use this handy directory to find the best manufacturers by country and city.
Where can I buy ethical clothes?
While there are many brick-and-mortar stores, the easiest way to shop for ethical clothes is by searching online.
What are some fast fashion brands?
Popular fast fashion brands are Forever21, H&M, Zara, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, Zaful, Boohoo, SHEIN, among thousands of others (unfortunately).
What clothing brands are not made in China?
There are many clothing brands that source their products from other countries than China, such as Mexico, Bali, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Europe, Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador, and the USA.
Some of these brands not made in China are: Custom Ink, Buck Mason, All American Clothing, Flynn Skye, among others.
Is Zara ethically made?
Despite efforts by Zara to become recognized for its eco-initiatives, such as its “Closing the loop” project, it’s simply not enough to deem Zara an ethical clothing brand.
Is ASOS ethical?
ASOS is an online-based fashion company that also, despite some efforts of vague reduced-emissions targets and statements, is not an overall ethical brand. It does, however, stock some eco-conscious companies doing good for people and the planet on its website – such as People Tree. So that’s at least a start!
How do you buy clothes ethically?
Buying clothes that are made ethically requires some work on your part. Opt for local whenever you can’t buy certified sustainable. Support brands who know their workers by name. And purchase products from companies/manufacturers that are certified by eco groups such as B-Corp, Bluesign, etc.
Which companies don’t use sweatshops?
Fashion companies that have eradicated any and all sweatshops from their production and manufacturing process are: Patagonia, Boden, Sézane, Able, Fair Indigo, Cuyana, and 30+ others.
Summary … What can you do?
Ethical fashion starts with you.
Whenever you shop sustainably, you are supporting eco-conscious companies and manufacturers that are working hard to change the face of the fashion industry from fast to slow, from unsustainable to sustainable, from harmful to helpful.
Whenever possible, reduce your consumption. Reuse your existing wardrobe. And give it a second life by upcycling. Demand transparency and a commitment to do better.
When the consumer and the manufacturer join forces and work together to support the people and the planet, then everyone can profit.