three assorted-color denim bottoms

Small labels that are innovative and ethically-conscious are leading the way in ethical fashion. The wider industry is paying attention.

Globally, almost three-fifths (or more) of all clothing end up in an incinerator within one year of being made. Shopping for clothes is no longer an innocent pastime. It is yet another frontier between conscience and desire. It’s no surprise that so-called sustainable fashion is appearing on retailers sites from Boohoo and Bloomingdales. Fashion Revolution founder Orsola De Castro doesn’t like the term. Fashion Revolution is a non-profit movement that advocates for a more responsible and socially conscious fashion industry. She says, “I just call that good design looking to find solutions.” This approach, however you choose to call it, is booming. Lyst, a fashion search site, saw a 47% increase last year in searches for products using terms such as “organic cotton” or “vegan leather”, while Veja, a sustainable shoe brand, saw 1113% growth. These six labels, which range from activists to fabric inventors to upcyclers, zero wasters to activists, offer great design and might change the way that the fashion industry views fashion.

Econyl is a brand that transforms old fishing nets into swimwear which can be reused endlessly

Swimwear brands using postconsumer recycled fabric are gaining a lot attention. Auria London dressed Rihanna and Daisy Lowe. Davy J offers swimsuits for both wild and sporty swimmers. Ruby Moon has “activewear for activists”. Matches stocks Fisch. Mara Hoffman’s pieces are sold for hundreds of pounds. Follow the stories behind all of these labels, and you’ll arrive at the same place: Econyl. This recycled nylon fiber is claimed to be “infinitely recyclable” by its Italian manufacturer.

brown and blue round ornament

“At the beginning, many people were laughing at me,” says Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Econyl’s parent company, Aquafil. On average, 64,000 tonnes worth of fishing nets end up in the ocean each and every year. These were the first nylon items Bonazzi’s company collected from professional divers who saw ghost nets and then from “all over” the globe – Japan, Australia and south-east Asia.

Lejeune claims that plastic was not an issue when she founded the Ethical Fashion forum in 2006. “That has changed significantly in the last two years.” The idea of swimmers swimming in recycled ocean waste is a pleasing circularity. Econyl is loved by many small fashion brands. Gucci adopted Econyl in 2017. Stella McCartney pledged to switch to Econyl by 2020. She also makes bags with it.

Bonazzi states that the company has over 750 clients in fashion and that “demand is increasing strongly day by day”. Bonazzi is focused on the entire plastic industry – “glasses and furniture, chairs”, he rattles off. He also plans to make nets for transporting and selling supermarket fruit.

Ninety percent – The brand that gives away its profits

Shafiq hassan, cofounder of Ninety Percent says, “We are trying to a crazy idea, and seeing if it reconnects with people.” Ninety Percent sells well-cut organic cotton T shirts, tie dye hoodie dresses and asymmetric skirts, as well as leisurewear. Ninety Percent gives away 90% of its distributed profits to charity. The brand’s clothes are made in Bangladesh and Turkey. They get 5% and the people who built it get 5%. The rest goes to four charities that consumers can choose from. The care label of each piece contains a code that can be used by shoppers to vote for their favorite beneficiary.

As Tamsin Lejeune, founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum and CEO of the new enterprise Common Objective, points out, Ninety Percent is interesting because “some of the best and most innovative examples of change in the fashion industry are coming from the supply sector”. Hassan was born in Bangladesh and spent his youth listening to Pink Floyd’s Breathe and John Lennon’s Imagine.

woman in white and blue shirt sitting beside woman in teal shirt

He drove by the dump in Bangladesh near the Kamalapur railway station on a New Look sourcing trip in the early 1990s. It was a horrible smell, and worse, he saw children living in the dump. He began to consider a sustainable business model. With his partner Para Hamilton, he set up the charity Children’s Hope (One of Ninety Percent’s beneficiaries). The couple opened a factory in 2009 and provided fresh food for their employees. Additional benefits include on-site health insurance and healthcare. The factory employs 12,000 people and has produced clothing for H&M, Debenhams, and New Look.

Hassan states that younger companies must lead the way in sustainability. Although Ninety Percent may sound radical, it’s based on decades of experience in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Some of Hassan’s questions are still unanswered. “How can you be an agent for change?” How can we show empathy, compassion and value?” Power to the people!

Matthew Needham – Making shopping carts into raincoats

Matthew Needham worked as an intern for a luxury brand in Paris. He saw firsthand how waste is integrated into fashion. He says that it takes 10 weeks to order leather at the tannery so brands tend to order more than they need. They make the final decision when they get there which colour to use and which color to throw away. “The waste was thoughtless for me.” He calls himself an upcycler. This is a similar approach to Bethany Williams, a fellow designer who works with book waste and Helen Kirkum with her incredible mash-up trainers from discarded shoes.

Like De Castro, Needham believes sustainability should be a part of the design process. He finds luxury deadstock before it goes to incineration (“Like the Burberry thing” – where the company destroyed PS28m of its own products to guard against counterfeiting). He searches the streets, markets and even his own studio. He turned a shopping cart that had no owner for two weeks into a raincoat. A skirt was made from lace-like plastic that he found on a Norwegian beach. He often blends these fabrics with expensive, unused fabric that he has not used in years, like Chanel tweed. “I like the idea that creativity has value. The value is not in the materialistic object, but in the creativity. This is luxury.” He says that it is the craft, the skill and the mindset required to make something.

His work is already in i-D. He is frequently approached by large-name brands who want to associate with him. He often declines. Needham makes pieces to order. It is possible to sign a deal with a major retailer in a matter of hours. He says that being at the beginning of his career is a huge advantage. You don’t have to be tied down by business plans and marketing. It is up to you to determine what sustainable means for you. It’s all about making the most of what you have.

Kayu – The brand that turns straw into sustainable fashion gold

Jamie Lim was born in Malaysia and raised Hong Kong. The beautiful straw furniture and batik prints that her parents wore were a big hit with her. She moved to the USA at 17 to attend university. Each time she returned home from vacation, she searched for handmade gifts to give to her friends. They became more difficult to find over time. The popularity of plastic straws began to increase. Lim said that the brand was born out of a desire to preserve traditional techniques.

Kayu’s bags, California-style totes made from natural plant fibres and handwoven by Terengganu artisans, Malaysia, are now available at high-end shops like Liberty, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Net-a-Porter. They are carried by Reese Witherspoon, Meghan, Duchess, and others.

These bags are also very attractive. These bags are a great example of conscientious fashion that can compete with the mainstream fashion industry. “What they produce is absolutely beautiful, but completely different from what you might consider sustainable fashion,” said Emma Slade Edmondson, creative consultant who specializes in ethical and sustainability in fashion retail.

Lim is also working to steer Kayu towards zero waste. The excess fibre from the bags will be made into alphabet tags and pouches. All proceeds will go to charity. Although some hardware may not be biodegradable over time, straw waste and bags are biodegradable.

“People weren’t on board at the beginning. Now, our customers have lots of questions. Is the straw real or plastic? Is it vegan or plastic? Lim says that retailers also ask these questions. “Net-aPorter asks designers: What are your sustainable initiatives?” It is what the consumers want.”

Mud Jeans – creating a rental revolution in denim

Bert van Son, the founder of Mud, says that his idea was to create jeans from organic cotton and people being properly paid. There’s nothing too revolutionary. “But, we quickly discovered that cotton can be easily recycled. “Why not get the jeans back?” Mud gives you the option of either leasing or buying jeans. Renters simply exchange the worn jeans for new ones.

Van Son states that there is a “mindshift” taking place. “We used to split 50/50 between those renting and buying. The number of people leasing has increased over the last 12 months. After a year, people like to change the colour, style or wash of their jeans. People are happy to return their jeans and receive a new pair.”

The rental business is growing, as well as the amount of postconsumer recycling waste used by the label. Mud jeans initially blended 20% recycled denim and 80% virgin cotton. The recycled content now accounts for as much as 40%. Van Son plans to release the first 100% postconsumer recycled pair of jeans next year.

That sentence’s key word is “postconsumer”. While other recycling methods may reuse offcuts from factory floors, postconsumer recycling gives new life to garments that would otherwise be thrown away. Globally, more than a billion pairs of jeans are sold each year. However, less than 1% is used in clothing manufacturing to make new clothes.

The buttons at Mud are made from stainless steel that can be recycled. “The paper tags have been certified cradle to cradle. We do not use leather. The pocket linings are made from 100% cotton. What more? Van Son says, “We will attempt to get biodegradable Polyester Stitching Lining. We are purists.”

three assorted-color denim bottoms

Birdsong – The brand that puts you face to face avec its creators

Birdsong’s customers will meet the maker of each piece they purchase. London-based social enterprise label Birdsong features photographs of women who make, sew, embroider, or knit clothes.

This isn’t a gimmick. Sophie Slater and Sarah Neville are the Birdsong creators. They started their careers in women’s charities. They know between 12 and 50 of the people who make the clothes. Slater states, “We never intended to create a fashion brand.” “We loved fashion as a conduit, a means to use these women’s skills to bring about positive change.” The clothes are now sold in over 30 countries.

The Fashion Revolution movement and feminism inspired the creation of the brand. Beckett and Slater wanted to showcase the clothing that was being made in daycare centres, sold in bring-and buy sales, and put it on a fashionable website.

Slater says, “Then we had to have the idea of collaboration with all these incredible feminist photographers.” Slater enlisted models who were familiar with the clothing and adopted the slogan “No sweatshop and  no Photoshop.”

Birdsong now has its own designer. This gives shape and coherence the maker’s talents. The template was created by Katie Jones, a knitwear designer. It can be used to quickly make sweaters or cardigans depending on the orders.

According to Emma Slade Edmondson, “Traceability is a top priority.” She suggests that you also check out other brands, Know the Origin. Slater knows Birdsong maker names, has been to their weddings, and pays them a London living wages. “Our mission is to make beautiful things that women love working on and provide them with a revenue stream.”

Birdsong’s role in the fashion industry is also changing. Slater explains that when we were invited to events it was to speak at a hemp convention. Slater was among the attendees at an industry breakfast that included representatives of well-known high street brands. She says, “I stood up and said that we’ve got 50 harvests left!” referring to the fact that the UK’s soil fertility is likely to decline over the next decades. “Me and my friends who work in ethical fashion have always felt that we were the geeks and fashion people. It feels like they’re paying more attention.”