Can sustainable and luxury fashion really go hand in hand?
When we think of the term ‘sustainable fashion’, words like cruelty-free, ethical, organic, and recycled spring to mind. The word ‘luxury’ however isn’t an idiom we tend to associate with the phrase ‘sustainable fashion’. Thankfully, spurred on by consumer demand and in part the pandemic, this is all set to change.
In fact, a whole host of luxe sustainable fashion brands are sashaying their way down Paris Fashion Weeks (albeit virtual) runways, making themselves known as champions for our planet’s dwindling resources, opting instead to use sustainable threads and manufacturing processes that have less of an impact on the world and the people in it.
This guide features everything you need to know about sustainable luxury fashion today, as well as the low-down on the latest luxury lines to embrace ethical fashion and the new eco-luxe labels who have seized sustainability from the start.
Even though Paris Fashion Week has been a quieter, more virtual, affair this year, the sustainable message has been at its heart. Photo by Dimitri Kuliuk from Pexels
Can High-end Fashion truly be sustainable?
There are many ways in which the fashion industry impacts the environment. From fabric sourcing to manufacturing, to distributing, sales, and dealing with returns. Sustainable fashion brands must ensure their design journey is one that avoids exploiting the planet and the people in it.
Despite what many think, with the right motivation from designers, sustainability and high-end can go hand in hand. Top luxe brands, including the famed Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, are just a handful of the high-fashion houses producing ethical clothing ranges today – creating trends that not only complement our wardrobes, but our planet too - focusing on embracing quality working standards, organic materials or the latest sustainable fibre inventions.
This isn't purely down to a luxury brands’ good nature, of course. A greater percentage of high-end shoppers are beginning to ask questions about the sustainability and ethics behind their favourite labels. If they are paying a premium, they want to know brands are also paying the appropriate premium to the people and planet they profit from.
A greater number of shoppers are starting to ask questions about sustainability and ethics when shopping. Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash
Joining the dots between luxury and sustainability
If, like many, you’re failing to join the dots between a high-end brand and it's sustainability credentials, you’re not alone. Research shows that more and more of us are willing to pay a premium for sustainable clothing, but many of us don't know what the word sustainability now entails.
There is so much noise in the industry now, such as false sustainability claims and contradictory data on a brands eco-credentials that it can be overwhelming. Many consumers who try to do their research end up with analysis paralysis. Even Stella McCartney said recently in her latest Spring presentation that she 'Barely knows what sustainability means anymore'. So it's not just consumers that are getting confused!
"I barely know what sustainability means anymore" - Stella McCartney
However, whether you’re a luxury shopper embarking on a greener journey, or a seasoned sustainability pro entering the luxury market, we can all do our part to ensure this segment of the fashion industry leads the way in the fashion revolution.
Be it learning more about the latest initiatives or lobbying our favourite eco-luxe designers to embrace their ‘green game' in the most effective manner. As consumers, we hold the power.
Consumers hold the power to influence the fashion industry through their purchases. Photo by kyonntra on Getty Images Signature (Canva)
Sustainability Issues Facing Luxury Brands Today
High-end fashion brands are now, more than ever, facing a plethora of challenges. External stakeholders in the industry have expanded their attention from fast fashion to include designer brands. Challenging them to address sustainability issues through experience, innovation and collaboration.
Because of this, more and more of the big-name brand designers are getting on the sustainability train, fashioning garments that promise to outlive the fast-fashion pieces in our current wardrobes. The top improvements in luxury sustainable fashion brands is either through an amalgamation of innovative textile inventions, progressive production techniques or taking it back to the roots of traditional slow fashion production.
However, ensuring the wellbeing of customers, employees, and supply chain communities isn't an easy feat, especially amidst a pandemic. The pressures to seem like a sustainable brand can lead to claims that are not 100 percent honest.
With high-end fashion comes power and money, and some brands will use their ample resources on campaigns to make them appear philanthropic and eco-friendly, while often cutting corners. This is when knowing what to look for is key to a sustainable investment.
Put simply, greenwashing is a method used by many luxe brands to convey misleading information about how their products are manufactured and distributed. In a nutshell, companies using this method are making you believe that they are doing more to safeguard our planet than they are.
With a huge amount of greenwashing going on, it can be almost impossible to know which ethical clothing brands are 100 percent ‘ethical’, and which high-quality labels are putting what they preach into practice.
From clothing that features eye-catching labels to clever wording that suggests the threads you are about to buy are ethically sourced - words like clean, earth-loving, quality, happy, and green are being used to trick consumers into thinking they're doing their bit for the planet.
Misconceptions of luxury vs sustainable fashion
When it comes to high-end clothing, many shoppers are under the misconception that the higher the price, the more ethical the attire. This is far from the truth. In most cases, you are paying for the label and not the quality or quantity of the fabric.
Other factors used by powerful labels to delude buyers into thinking they are sustainable is the introduction of small sustainable ranges to make them look like they are doing their bit for the environment.
Similarly, using recycled bags or packaging is a great sustainable incentive, but of little use, if the garments being housed in this packaging are made from a poly fibre or other non-degradable material.
Many ethically-created sustainable luxury fashion brands believe one of the biggest issues preventing their growth is this sustainable smoke-screen that large powerful labels create. This leads to a lack of understanding among consumers or an unwillingness to pay more for sustainable brands if a high-street brand is selling at a lower price and also (wrongfully) claiming sustainability credentials.
However, even though the majority of eco-labels' price margins are slightly higher, these products are likely to last a lot longer, meaning you’ll spend less in the long run on replacement garments.
Before we go into our list, it's important to remember that the most sustainable option is to not buy anything at all! If you are in need of a new purchase however, here is some advice on keeping your carbon footprint down when buying fashion.
How do I reduce my carbon footprint through buying fashion?
So, what can we do to lower our carbon footprint? Even if you’re already shopping for ethical and sustainable labels, there are several other things you can do to lower your footprint.
- Supporting ‘circular’ or zero-waste labels
- Investing in labels who support social and environmental organisations
- Opt for in-store pick-up options if locally based and opt-out of speedy shipping
- Prolong your favourite purchases by following aftercare guides, hand washing clothes and using eco-detergents
- Pick clothing created from high-quality materials like organic cotton or community silk, which cause less harm to the planet
- Try to reduce your clothing consumption in general by making your clothes last longer through repair and/or upcycling
So now to the list! One more quick point, if you find the majority of luxury brands on this list a little over your price limit, don't worry, be sure to check out our article on how to shop ethically on a budget.
Top Luxury Sustainable Fashion Brands
From low luxe to high-end, many companies are doing their bit for the environment, incorporating innovation into their manufacturing and distribution methods to embrace brand sustainability in the fashion industry.
Thanks to these sustainable luxury fashion brands, who have taken it upon themselves to tackle flaws within the industry’s manufacturing methods, it’s easier than ever to keep sustainability firmly on our radars and invest in designer, conscious attire. Change starts at the top, and these guys are definitely at the top of their games!
As well as manufacturing clothing and products that are kind to the environment and sustainably sourced, a number of these green brands also support environmental organisations and fair trade working conditions.
By investing in these eco-luxe labels, you too are doing your bit to support the environment, ensuring we’re on the right track to embracing a more sustainable fashion industry in the future.
1. Stella McCartney
Eco-Luxury Values | Ecosystem protection, social responsibility, measuring impact, cutting-edge sustainable technologies
Sustainable Materials | Re-engineered cashmere & silk, fibres from forests, recycled nylon & polyester, vegetarian leather, organic cotton.
When it comes to sustainability, this is a designer label that won’t compromise on quality, constantly pushing boundaries and embracing new technologies to create an on-trend brand that is as stylish as it is sustainable.
In 2014, Stella McCartney launched Clevercare, an easy-to-understand, five-step labelling method, helping to educate consumers on clothing care and how to prolong the life of their favourite pieces. The result? A lot less waste, and probably the reason many fashionistas own at least one vintage Stella McCartney item.
To ensure the brand is always ahead of the game, regular audits are conducted to measure environmental impact.
In addition, the McCartney label is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which ensures the careful selection of ethical-renowned suppliers, as well as collaborations with several environmental conservation organisations and NGOs, including Parley for the Oceans and Wildlife Works.
2. The Social Outfit
Eco-Luxury Values | Social responsibility, community engagement, waste reduction
Sustainable Materials | Repurposed and reused fabrics, donated deadstock
Australian-based brand, The Social Outfit, are a social enterprise and charity with an amazing mission. The label provides employment and training to refugees and migrant communities in all aspects of the fashion world, from clothing production to marketing. In many cases, working at The Social Outfit will be their first paid job and the first step of integrating into the Aussie way of life.
They also take their sustainability seriously. With a focus on waste reduction, they have saved tonnes of waste from landfill, through their goal to repurpose and reuse fabrics destined for the skip. So far they have partnered with over 28 Australian brands in this mission, including Alice McCall and Bec & Bridge!
3. Vivienne Westwood
Eco-Luxury Values | Environmental and human rights campaigns, cutting-edge sustainable technologies
Sustainable Materials | Silk, organic cotton, hemp, coir, tencel
Practising exactly what she preaches, Vivienne Westwood’s legendary label is setting an example to fashionistas across the globe by slowly transforming her brand into a sustainable masterpiece. How? Through adopting recycled and eco-friendly fabrics and using the label’s voice to educate people on Human Rights and Climate Change.
Her latest initiative is one that embraces modern-day sustainability, using collaborations and catwalk events as platforms to create awareness, encouraging ethical fashion fans to protect Mother Earth. The campaign focuses on three areas; Quality V Quantity, Gaia and Arts & Culture.
4. Eileen Fisher
Eco-Luxury Values | Transparent supply chain, non-hazardous dyes, workers rights, sustainable fibres
Sustainable Materials | Organic cotton, Recycled fibers, responsible wool, lyocell
Eileen Fisher has been creating elegant and ethical womenswear since 1984. She designs luxury sustainable pieces with a focus on minimalism and inclusivity, that flies in the face of constantly changing fashion trends.
Always leading from the front, her company started their first recycling programme back in 2009, taking back old purchases to repair, clean and sell at discounted prices. Now a Certified B Corp corporation, the brand has a strong focus on supporting women, the fair treatment of workers and creating a circular fashion economy that reuses and replenishes the resources involved.
5. Rare & Fair
Eco-Luxury Values | Sustainable natural fibres, social responsibility, community engagement, transparent supply chain
Sustainable Materials | Natural cotton, organic cotton, community silk, handwoven fabrics
This boutique slow fashion brand focuses on the promotion of handmade clothes and accessories, created by artisans using sustainable, raw materials. Their aim? To embrace the ethical treatment of workers, use planet-friendly materials and reduce waste.
Their hand-loomed, natural clothing and products come straight from the hands of the artisans, then directly to you. Opting for this method allows Rare & Fair to fully back artisan communities and handloom weavers.
The styles, despite embracing traditional methods, boast modern designs, allowing customers to look and feel great, knowing that they’ve done their bit towards supporting these ancient production techniques.
Eco-Luxury Values | Local production, carbon neutral, waste reduction
Sustainable Materials | Repurposed clothing, upcycled fabrics and salvaged deadstock
LA based contemporary fashion label, Reformation, was doing sustainable before sustainable was...well, fashionable! All of their production stages, from design to shipping and everything in between, takes place at their innovative eco-facility in downtown Los Angeles.
Each collection is made using salvaged deadstock, offcuts, upcycled fabrics, repurposed vintage clothing or new sustainable materials. Their gorgeous new leisurewear, Ref Active, is produced using recycled plastic bottles.
Find out more about all of Reformation innovations and materials they use here.
Eco-Luxury Values | B-corp certified, Living wage guarantee, waste reduction
Sustainable Materials | Eco-certified textiles, recycled fabrics
It's always been a problem finding sustainable office wear, especially that also ticks the comfort box as well. Dai's creator, ex investment banker Joanna Dai, was so unimpressed with her workwear that she decided to create her own. Setting out on collections that delivered performance, versatility and function but which she was as comfortable to wear as her yoga pants!
The brand is also big on the sustainability front. 88% of their textiles are eco-certified and their Eco Luxe Essentials range is made from trees certified sustainably managed forests, meaning biodegradable and compostable. On top of that, they pay all of their staff above the London Living Wage.
8. Acne Studios
Eco-Luxury Values | Sustainability targets and reporting, External monitoring of labour conditions
Sustainable Materials | Recycled and repurposed fabrics, organic silk, organic linen, lyocell
Celebrated for their contemporary, uber-cool style, Acne Studios increased their collection in 2020 with the addition of a sustainable line titled ‘Repurposed’. Using a series of discarded offcuts and recycled fabrics, which otherwise would have gone to waste, the Swedish brand has created a variety of capsule lines, which have since been launched quarterly.
Acne Studios have been a member of the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) since 2008, who supports the brand to monitor and improve labour conditions, including an external and independent ‘Brand Performance Check’. This means the brand is open to their faults and constantly trying to improve year on year, all of which can be found in their annual sustainability report.
Eco-Luxury Values | recycling and repurposing, heritage marketplace, free repairs, waste reduction
Sustainable Materials | Recycled and repurposed demin, cotton and upcycled mixed fabrics
Re/Done, another guilt-free, sustainable brand, offers on-trend pieces made from recycled materials. They first hit the scene in 2014, and have been renowned for upscaling worn Levis into bespoke, contemporary styles ever since.
The eco-conscious brand is extremely focused when it comes to adopting the latest tech to create the best sustainable fashion results. Since its launch, their offering has grown in a big way. On top of their celebrated jeans, they now design high-quality t-shirt styles, sweats and dresses, as well as a select few suits.
Often seen hanging off celebs, this cult sustainable brand is a must buy if you’re looking for a guilt-free, chilled vibe with affordable price points.
10. Maggie Marilyn
Eco-Luxury Values | Sustainability strategy, locally produced, transparent supply chain, circular production
Sustainable Materials | Organic cotton, ethical silks, FSC viscose
Maggie Marilyn is a New Zealand based designer who creates glamorous luxury designs using organic cottons and ethically produced silks. All manufacturing is done in her home country of New Zealand. She is on a mission to transform the fashion industry to one that is "transparent, circular, regenerative and inclusive".What we love about this brand is that they don't just talk the talk. They produce their own sustainability strategy in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as well as a suppliers code of conduct. This isn't a box ticking exercise for the brand, with regular updates on the performance of their strategies and new targets set annually.
Hopefully you've managed to find your next perfect ethically-made luxury item within this list. It would be great to hear from you what is your favourite eco-luxe label or the latest sustainable initiatives from your favourite brand. Comment below!
AuthorMaxime Ducker - Founder and Chief Editor, Our Good Brands
Maxime Ducker is the founder and chief editor of OurGoodBrands, an eco-entertainment hub for consumers and brands to make better decisions. The platform features social + eco enterprises that are bringing sustainability, eco-friendly and ethical practices to the forefront. In this digital magazine, you will find useful eco-guides, some of the top podcasters, curated books, documentaries, and ted talks. Maxime also runs her impact agency fourpinneapples.com supporting social enterprises with their marketing.