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Dressing the Part | Your Guide to Ethical Work Fashion

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

clothes hanging in a shop

In recent years, the demand for more ethical, sustainable fashion has surged. Worldwide, more than 65% of consumers under the age of 35 report choosing ethical retailers and brands. And last year, fashion search engine Lyst reported a 47% increase in ethical fashion searches

Continue reading to learn what ethical fashion is, and how to incorporate it into your on- and off-duty wardrobe. 

What is ethical fashion?

When you think of an ethical business, you are likely to think about fair labor practices. But this is just one aspect of ethical fashion, which takes into account the whole life of a product: design, sourcing, and production. This means ethical fashion brands have a more sustainable, mindful approach to: 

  • Water use in the supply chain;
  • Removing pesticides and other harmful materials from the production of natural fibers, like cotton and linen;
  • The removal of any hazardous chemicals from dyes and finishes;
  • Creating less trash in landfills by recycling materials; and
  • Slowing down the launch of new designs, which promotes buying less and using items for longer.

Some brands and pre-loved websites have readily embraced this approach and even share this data with consumers. Everlane and The RealReal are just two examples of brands sharing what and how much recycled material was used, or how much water was used or saved in production.

Making sustainable wardrobe choices 

All of this sounds great, but you may be wondering how to actually incorporate ethical fashion into your wardrobe without tossing out everything you have and breaking the bank. Ethical fashion choices are not just about buying brand new from ethical brands. In fact, it also encourages the opposite: avoid buying new and consider pre-loved options online, at thrift stores, and at clothing swaps. Ultimately, ethical fashion asks you to be more aware of your consumption patterns, buying less, and extending the use of what you already own with proper care and repair. 

To make room for ethical fashion, start by evaluating your closet strategically: look at what you already own and wear and make a list of what you think is missing, especially those items you consider style staples. When you make a list of what you need or want based on what you already have and enjoy wearing, you can be a savvy shopper.

For instance, you may have a suit you confidently wear to interviews or formal meetings, but your shirt options are lackluster—you can fill that gap in your closet by purchasing shirts from an ethical brand or buying pre-loved. 

Less quantity, more quality

This leads to another critical question: how much does all this cost? 

It is true that ethical fashion is more expensive than convenient fast fashion brands. But because ethical brands are more conscientious about design, sourcing, and production, they often offer higher quality pieces at a price point lower than traditional retail. What that means for you is though you may spend more on a shirt now, it will last you longer than one you buy from a “cheap and cheerful” retailer—an item which you will end up replacing more frequently and therefore end up spending more on over the long run. 

5 brands to watch

More and more, ethical brands are becoming easily accessible. Traditional department stores, both in-store and online, are either cordoning off sections dedicated to more ethical, sustainable brands, or they are clearly disclosing which brands honor ethical standards.

 But if you already know what holes you want to fill in your closet—for work and play—and are curious about what ethical brands have to offer, here are five to browse and buy from: 

  1. Everlane is one of the most popular ethical brands out there. They believe in “radical transparency,” which means they source and produce clothing, shoes, and accessories from audited factories around the world. This is a great place to shop for both your on- and off-duty looks.
  2. Pact wants to build “the world’s first guilt-free brand” by adhering to ethical standards, like those mentioned above. Shop here for well-made cotton staples, like shirts, sweaters, and pants, as well as underwear and pajamas. 
  3. H&M Conscious is the ethical offshoot of fast-fashion giant H&M. Everything you know H&M for, you can also buy from their “conscious” brand, where the materials are more long-lasting and the styles classic. You can even bring your unwanted clothing to H&M to get a discount on your new clothes. 
  4. Kotn works directly with farmers to produce soft Egyptian cotton clothing. Here you can find both your everyday, casual clothing as well as work-appropriate basics to pair with your suits, pants, or skirts. 
  5. Alternative Apparel is the perfect place for your weekend wardrobe. They use recycled materials, less hazardous processes, and fair-trade practices to produce their clothing. 

These are just some of the ethical brands catering to women and men. There are many more gender-focused brands out there, so it is worthwhile to do some Google exploring on your own to see what else fits. 

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.

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