Food and cars are eco-friendly, and now clothes are, too. At least that’s the trend in fashion.  I recently graduated from the Retail and Consumer Behavior program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and sustainability was at the forefront of many of my classes and studies. It is relatively new to the curriculum. I was even required to take a “Sustainability & Consumption” course in order to earn credits to graduate. The retail program added this course as a requirement as sustainability in fashion became not only an important aspect, but a necessity for brands and retailers to survive in their niche and earn their consumers trust and loyalty.

Fast fashion leads to waste

What prompted this focus on sustainability? This is a direct reaction to the fast fashion trend, which took off in the late 20th century, as a way for average consumers to afford runway styles which were mass produced with cheaper fabrics.  The industry is now oversaturated with fast-fashion brands. Instagram propels people to share their most perfect selves and best moments of their lives. This created an industry that thrived on the mentality of overconsumption.  Instagram began to create a space where people could curate the persona they wanted others to perceive them as, and it gave way to a dangerous cycle of influencers promoting the newest, on-trend pieces in fashion. With this “keeping up with the Jones’” frame of mind, brands like Zara, H&M, Asos & Shein began to operate at extremely high turnovers. So an entire season of inventory could turn over within a matter of weeks. They did it with  cheap… I mean ultra cheap clothes at incredibly competitive prices.

Don’t throw those jeans away! Refashion them into a new style, a skirt or something else like a purse.

High turnover of trends

The downside is that these brands were bypassing any sustainable measures. They were creating the cheapest most efficient products to get in and out of their store as quickly as possible. This creates a sense of urgency for their consumers, because that shirt you just fell in love with in store or on the website probably won’t be there the next time you go shopping, and for that fact could even be gone tomorrow with how fast these stores turn over their products. Not only that, but you have no reason to not get it, it’s so cheap! Another negative side effect is the waste. Some critics say that up to 85 percent of all discarded textiles end up in landfills.

Making sustainable clothing

While this is still a factor in consumer behavior today, brands and retailers that focus on sustainable production are gaining in popularity. Every fad has a life span, and fast fashion retailers are just that. They follow a bell curve just like any trend does. Brands like Patagonia have paved the way for a new, effective business model to protect our Earth. Patagonia is one of many retailers joining the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. It mission is to protect our earth from waste, pollution and harmful environmental effects of mass-production.” As sustainability and confidence in the responsible production of products has been a driving factor in consumption patterns, consumers now not only find it important, but expect their products to be produced with a positive impact on our planet. While actually following sustainable guidelines is undoubtedly more costly to companies, the customer loyalty they receive in return is quite an effective way to ensure they still operate and make money.

Customer loyalty is key

Creating a sustainable clothing line costs more.  Labor, quality resources needed and environmentally friendly logistics, all drive up production costs. But in the end, studies show that customers are loyal to eco-brands, and it will hopefully lead to more sales. That doesn’t make sustainable shopping easy. Consumers can feel a bit overwhelmed with so many brands, and  some of these companies are significantly increasing their prices. Luckily, there are brands and retailers that have put great focus and resources into creating sustainable AND affordable products for their customers. Here are a few of my favorites.

Affordable sustainable brands

Frame Denim:

Check out the denim collections from Frame Denim.


Re/Done takes clothes headed for landfills and turns them into new fashion pieces.


Sustainable materials go into making Veja sneakers.

Known Supply:

Known Supply works with low-income vendors from around the world.


Allbirds uses natural fibers in its clothes and shoes.

A few Ideas for eco-friendly fashion

My amazing 103-year old great grandmother kept a closet chock-full of vintage clothing and footwear. I asked her why she kept all of her old clothes that were popular decades ago.  Her response always stuck with me. “Everything comes back in 20 years so I’m always ready for the next trend,” she said, “I just recycle what I already have!” Ironically, Great Grandma was way ahead of her time…as usual!

1. Consider scaling back your fast-fashion purchases and accessories to 2-3 times a year.

2. If you’re skilled with the needle, update existing threads to give them new life.

4. Take an old dress or suit to a tailor and have them restyle it like they used to in the olden days…

5. Shop Thrift stores or raid your mother’s closet to see what gems you may find and bring back in style.

Bailey Boldt

Bailey is a NYC fashion buyer, trend researcher and fitness enthusiast.

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