Getting to know more and more ethical and sustainable clothing brands gives you the chance to fight for and contribute to more harmonious relations among humans themselves, as well as between humans and nature.
You have likely heard of the many problems associated with the fashion and clothing industries… the most famous being animal cruelty and the proliferation of sweatshops across the industry, and especially in the developing world.
The clothing industry also significantly contributes to global issues, such as climate change and the pollution of water bodies. Although colorful and stylish clothes bring a sense of happiness and confidence, often the chemicals used to produce these pieces harm both you and the people who made them.
Many other social and environmental issues are associated with clothes, many of which are not obvious. Luckily, an increasing amount of people are coming together to bring awareness about these issues, and many victories in the sustainable fashion realm can be celebrated across the world.
New standards, certification bodies, and research endeavors have been favoring the upscaling and improvements when it comes to sustainability in the clothing industry. Moreover, both the demand for and offer of sustainable garments has been increasing.
Keep reading to learn more about the social-ecological impacts of the clothing industry, the solutions continually emerging to fight these issues, and 10 ethical and sustainable clothing brands in which you can trust!
How is the Clothing Industry Harming Human-Nature Relationships and Human Health?
Most of the issues the clothing and fashion industries generate are caused by other industries as well. What is especially problematic with fashion is that it undergoes and encourages an extremely rapid pace – think about all the new collections you see, and how worried some people get because their pieces are “outdated.’’
Because clothes and fashion are intrinsically linked with self-esteem and confidence – at least for many people – these industries have the power to manipulate emotions and induce compulsive behaviors. In fact, a study found that roughly 5 percent of the world population presented compulsive buying behavior. 1
The amount of times people are using a piece of clothing is also diminishing drastically: between 200 and 2015, that decreased by 36 percent. 2
A comprehensive article by Business Insider3 states that:
- According to McKinsey & Company,4 the production of clothes has nearly doubled in 15 years and consumers purchased 60 percent more pieces in 2014 than in 2000.
- The European Parliament5 stated that clothing companies in Europe went from putting forward two collections each year in 2000 to five annual collections as of 2011.
- Fast fashion brands – like Zara and H&M – offer even more collections: the former offers 24 collections each year, while the latter puts out between 12 and 16 annually.5
These developments cause many environmental and social impacts, detailed below.
Environmental Impacts Caused by the Clothing Industry
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
The clothing industry has a big carbon footprint: it is responsible for generating 10 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions each year.6 This sector uses more energy than both the shipping and aviation industries.7
Making a pair of jeans and a T-shirt emits 11.5kg and 2.6 kg of the harmful greenhouse gas, respectively.7
Moreover, because the nature of the clothing industry is global, garments are estimated to travel the world multiple times during their production phase. On top of that, clothes are increasingly being transported by air cargo, instead of ships. If that trend continues, it could lead to an startling increase of carbon emissions: if only 3 percent of clothing pieces currently transported by ship were to be shipped by plane, emissions associated with transportation could rise by 100 percent.6
Overall, if the industry continues to grow as fast as in the last decade, it could be responsible for 26 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.3
The Issue of Polymers
65 percent of all pieces of clothing currently found in the world are polymer-based – think of polyester, a type of polymer, which is heavily used because it is clean, lightweight, cheap, and resistant.2
Despite these benefits, it is important to know that making polymer-based fibers like polyester requires roughly 70 million barrels of oil each year.2
In addition to the carbon emissions resulting from making polymer-based fibers, these also take a very long period to decompose in the environment and shed microplastics each time they are washed. Washing clothes made of these synthetic materials send 500,000 tons of microplastics to the ocean annually. That corresponds to 50 billion plastic bottles.3,9
Microplastics pollution and accumulation in the environment is one of the current most pressing environmental problems. These tiny particles travel through Earth’s ecosystems and the air, ending up inside the human body, fish, insects, snowflakes, and other unexpected places.1
Water Usage and Pollution
The clothing industry is the second-largest consumer of water in the world: uses 1.5 trillion liters of water per year.6 Growing one kilogram of cotton alone consumes between 7,500 and 10,000 liters of water, which corresponds to the amount a person drinks during ten years.7,2
Producing clothes additionally leads to the generation of roughly 20 percent of all wastewater the world produces.2 The dyes that make clothes so beautiful are usually made with chemicals that pollute bodies of water, heavily impacting humans and aquatic life.
As a matter of fact, dyeing fabric is the second-largest contributor to water pollution in the world.8
Pesticides, Overgrazing, and Deforestation
Not only polymer-based fibers harm the environment. As written above, growing cotton requires great quantities of water. Additionally, many cotton farmers still use chemical pesticides that contaminate the soil, groundwater, and pose a serious health risk to those handling these products.12
Besides these issues, the clothing industry can impact the soil and forest health in different ways. Sheep and goats that grant the world their wool can overgraze pastures, and sourcing materials for crafting wood-based fibers – like rayon – might lead to deforestation.13
Social Impacts of the Clothing Industry
Working Hours and Conditions
Besides not receiving the bare minimum to guarantee a decent life, workers producing garments are usually forced to work 7 days a week, during 14 to 16 hours each day. During the busiest times of the year, these workers may be trapped in the manufacturing facility until 2-3am, only to meet the deadlines fashion brands impose.13
These workers usually accept these working hours because they need the extra money – and many could be fired if they refused to work according to these deadlines. However, it is important to know that there are cases in which overtime is not paid.13,14
The poor working conditions are one of the most famous problems of the clothing industry. Usually, clothes are made in countries where human – and especially workers’ – rights are extremely limited, which makes labor costs very low. In some cases, workers’ rights are inexistent. As a matter of fact, garment workers are frequent victims of both physical and verbal abuse – sometimes, when they are not able to meet their daily deadlines, they are forbidden to drink water.14
Many manufacturing plants are installed in buildings that are just not safe – think of the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed 1134 workers. Even if buildings are not collapsing frequently, it’s important to remember that fires, accidents, and injuries happen often in these places.13
These buildings, moreover, often lack ventilation, forcing garment workers to inhale toxic substances and fiber dust, both of which have a great impact on their health. What is worse, as human rights movements gain more force in a given country, the clothing industry transfers their sweatshops to countries where that is not the case.13,14
Forced Labor and Child Labor
In terms of forced labor, a famous case is that of Uzbekistan, where the government forced more than one million people to abandon their jobs – and children to leave their classrooms – and join cotton harvesting efforts.15
Not only in Uzbekistan, but in the cotton industry across the world child labor is a common fact. Many of the child laborers do not receive any pay, even if they have to work for 12 hours under the excruciating sun. When they do, they can receive as little as one dollar per day.15
Children working in cotton farms commonly face unbearable conditions and suffer from heat strokes and exhaustion.
Exposure to Noxious Substances
The majority of conventionally-made clothes contain many chemicals – that are used for producing synthetic fibers, decolorizing and then colorizing them – and these remain in the pieces for a very long period.13
A study identified eleven types of chemicals to produce garments; these contain hormone disruptors and carcinogens.13,16 63 percent of all clothing pieces examined in a study contained toxic chemicals.16
Not only garment workers suffer the effects of these hazardous chemicals: like them, each garment user is exposed to these toxins. In contact with the skin – humans’ largest organ – the chemical reaches the bloodstream and circulates around the body. A proof of that is the episode in which toxins were detected, for five days in a row, in the urine of a child who wore chemical-heavy pajamas during one night.13
How is the Sustainable Fashion Industry Evolving?
The increasing role of social media in every human’s life is also contributing to the upscaling of concerns about and solutions to the problems the clothing industry is causing. Given the fast pace that dictates all interactions in the digital world, the word about sustainable fashion is easily spread.
The Business Research Company has released a report which shows the growth of awareness on the impacts of garment production.17
As a result, the ethical fashion industry is growing each year. In 2019, it reached a value of roughly 6.53 billion dollars, showing an increase of 8.7 percent when compared with 2015. The expectation is that this market grows by 6.8 percent by 2023, and between 2025 and 2030, reaches a value of 9.81 billion dollars.17
Together with private initiatives, governmental programs and global pacts are steering the growth of the ethical and sustainable clothing market.
For example, in 2019, the United Nations (UN) launched the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. This Alliance aims at:18
- Identifying barriers and ways to counteract them when it comes to making the clothing industry sustainable;
- Improving cooperation among UN agencies towards the goal of expanding the ethical fashion market;
- Conducting through analyses of the sustainable clothing market and presenting the results to governments.
Another program, the Forests for Fashion Initiative, supports the development of new technologies and strategies that use forest resources sustainably in garment manufacturing. In addition, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Better Cotton Initiative are helping buyers to make sure they acquire more ethical and sustainable pieces.17
Businesses – small and large alike – are also making an important effort to expand the offer of sustainable clothing. Even brands that are well-known for their role in aggravating the issues posed by fast-fashion now have programs that aim at diminishing their impacts – think H&M Conscious, which is not perfect, but is important as every small step counts.
Different research efforts are also favoring the discovery of different types of (more) sustainable clothing materials. These include:19
- Waste from fruits, wood and other natural materials.
- Hemp, which grows quickly, does not require pesticides, saves water, and promotes many other environmental and health benefits.
- Kapok, a plant-based fiber harvested from either the kapok tree itself or from its fruits. It is thermal resistant, consumes less water and is five times lighter than cotton.
- Recycled cotton, which has lower carbon and ecological footprints, since this material is reprocessed from leftovers.
- Recycled nylon, made from textile leftovers as well.
- Recycled wool, also sourced from textile waste.
- Recycled polyester, made from castoff plastic bottles.
- Cruelty-free wool.
- Seawool, made from oyster shells and recycled polyester.
- Wood and pulp fibers, like LENZING™ ECOVERO™ viscose.
- Aniline-free and chemical-free dyes.
Many companies are using these products to ethically craft and deliver beautiful clothing pieces. Get to know 10 of the best ethical and sustainable clothing companies below!
Top 10 Ethical and Sustainable Clothing Companies in 2021
These brands, all based in North America, offer stylish pieces that will keep both you and the planet happy!
Based in the United States, this brand creates everlasting pieces for males and females, guaranteeing comfort and resistance.
Kent produces – the first verified – compostable undies, which decompose in 90 days. They are made of organic cotton, which is certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard.
To maintain a low carbon footprint, the company produces its products locally.
It maintains chemical inputs minimal, and reduces both water consumption and wastewater generation. The underwear is comfortable, offering a perfect fit and making the skin happy with a soft touch of organic cotton.
MATE the Label
This brand also uses organic materials certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. It colorizes the pieces with sustainable, chemical-free dyes to offer healthy, beautiful clothes to women wearing XS to 3XL.
The founders of MATE the Label are proud females who wish to help women across the world become more self-confident in an ethical manner. All of the products are vegan and produced locally, which grants the company a low carbon footprint.
Limiting water consumption and wastewater generation are also chief concerns, as is the care with their employees – most of whom are women.
MATE the Label offers a wide range of beautiful, clean, cozy, and long-lasting clothing pieces that grant smiles for the women wearing them and those appreciating the looks. Top products include this Linen Short Sleeve Jumpsuit, the Organic Thermal Crop Top, the Organic Thermal Short, the Organic Thermal Wide Leg Pant, and the Organic Cotton Layering Tank.
Milo+Nicki offers women clothes with Zambian and Indian roots. It is based in the United States and uses certified cotton – also by the Global Organic Textile Standard.
The cruelty-free clothes –extremely colorful, comfortable, and versatile – are made locally and without the input of toxic chemicals. Water consumption and wastewater generation are kept to a minimum.
The company does not use wool, down, fur, exotic animal hair, nor angora. Some clothes are not vegan, however, because they are partially made of peace silk.
Milo+Nicki is moreover a strong voice when it comes to advocating for human rights – especially in the clothing industry.
KOTN is a Certified B Corporation® founded in 2015. Every purchase directly supports cotton farmers and their families in Egypt.
Ensuring fair labor conditions and improving human lives are at the top of the company’s priorities: it aims at building “collaborative communities, working towards a strong foundation, designed to prosper for generations, not fiscal quarters”.
KOTN has built and is operating 10 schools in rural areas of Egypt, fundamentally changing the lives of children who did not have access to education prior to the company’s arrival. Moreover, the company has founded and manages social impact projects aimed at providing resources and private subsidies to small-scale cotton farmers and to underprivileged communities, as well as advocating for environmental stewardship.
The company only works with the finest natural fibers and with family-run small businesses, ensuring safe working conditions, just salaries, and eliminating the use of middlemen. Taking into consideration the farmers’ needs is paramount in all of KOTN operations, and the company offers agricultural consultancy to farmers working with them to guarantee increased seasonal production at lower operational costs.
Tradlands produces womenswear in small patches in safe and healthy facilities, using deadstock and natural materials.
The products, from cardigans to linen t-shirts, are crafted sustainably and are sure to envelop the users in good feelings. Tradlands places emphasis on the details, fit, and quality of the pieces. Local artisans carefully manufacture each piece and ensure low waste production.
Creating long-lasting pieces is a core mission. Besides being durable, Tradlands clothes keep users cool and fit the most diverse lifestyles. They are machine-washable and is the type of clothing that “moves with you.”
This Canadian brand also proves that sustainable clothing can be very colorful and fun. The designs are flowy, fresh and beautiful.
TAGMA uses 100 percent micro TENCEL® and LENZING™ ECOVERO™ viscose. Because these fabrics come from wood, the company makes sure it sources 100 percent sustainable wood materials. It moreover contributes to forest protection and restoration – since 2018, 1 percent of every purchase is donated to reforestation projects in Sumatra via 1% For the Planet.
Although the wide range of clothes is very colorful, the company only uses low-impact, chemical-free dyes, reducing wastewater generation, healthy hazards, and pollution.
The clothing options include dresses, loungewear, tops, kimonos, bottoms, jumpsuits, and basics. Here are some examples of top products:
This brand focuses on both effortless style and sustainability. The clothes are ethically made in California.
Amour Vert offers clothing pieces made of organic cotton, TENCEL, beech wood, and mulberry silk. These pieces can come in both minimalistic, or fun-patterned styles.
To compensate for the use of beech wood, the company plants one tree every time consumers buy a t-shirt. The company moreover has a robust waste management plan – which reduces solid waste generation – and uses low-impact dyes to make its clothes.
The clothes Amour Vert sells include tees, tanks, dresses, jumpsuits, skirts, sweaters, jackets, outerwear, pants, denim, and loungewear. Popular products are the Maja Paris Rib Jumpsuit, the Francoise ¾ Sleeve Tee, the Skyler Paris Rib Joggers, and the Rose Luxe Fleece Dress.
Frank and Oak
Frank and Oak is a company heavily committed to sustainability. Its goals include:
- Removing virgin plastic from its supply chain, using only recycled polyester, removing excess packing, and maximizing the use of recycled raw materials.
- Using 100% recycled polyester, and no more virgin polyester, in all of the clothing pieces.
- Implementing a wider range and bigger number of carbon offset programs: collaborate with more international and national partners working on forest restoration as a way to compensate for the company’s carbon emissions.
- Using more renewable energy across all headquarters, warehouses, and stores.
- Reinforcing its zero-waste policy, providing reusable materials and increasing the company’s internal initiatives.
- Offsetting the carbon emissions associated with shipping, donating as much money as needed to plant trees enough to neutralize these emissions.
- Giving discarded clothes a new life, encouraging consumers to drop off used garments in one of the company’s containers, so that it can recycle them and reduce clothing and textile waste pollution. Check the campaign “Let’s give a shi(r)t”, which removes tons of fabrics from landfills and transforms these into garments distributed to people who cannot afford new clothing pieces.
Frank and Oak is also committed to style, comfort, and durability. Some top products, for men and women, include the Cordova Jogger Pant, the Clark Denim Shirt, the Oversized Printed Leaf T-Shirt, and the Cropped Polo Top.
Vetta’s aim is to make it possible for you to create 30 different outfits combining five clothing pieces – that means you do not have to own lots of garments to have a fresh style. This capsule wardrobe concept alone is a huge contribution to efforts aiming at counteracting the impacts of the clothing industry.
But Vetta’s sustainability actions do not stop there. The company only uses sustainable fabrics, ensures solid (textile) waste generation, and works with ethical, reliable factories in Los Angeles and New York City.
The factory in New York is a family-run enterprise that is home to garment workers who are treated like family members.
The factory based in Los Angeles is as committed to ethical practices and, on top of that, is mostly powered by renewable energy – 70% of the electricity the factory uses comes from the sun.
Vetta currently offers seven capsules, each containing five clothing pieces: the edgy capsule, the wander capsule, the Tuscan capsule, the glam capsule, the casual capsule V.2, the classic capsule, and the lounge capsule.
All clothes are extremely stylish, cozy, soft, and are certain to boost any woman’s confidence. The Mock Neck Sweater, the Everyday Pant, the Reversible Satin Midi Skirt, and the Convertible Polka Dot Dress are here to prove that.
JUNGMAVEN focuses on hemp clothing and is one of the major producers of hemp apparel in North America.
When hemp’s clothing potential was not well-known, the founder of the company, Robert Jungmann, designed a t-shirt to show the world that hemp produces high-quality fabric and is one of the most sustainable clothing materials.
Hemp grows very quickly and can be collected up to three times per year. It grows in different places under wide-ranging environmental conditions and produces much more fiber per acre than cotton. The plant moreover ditches the use of chemical inputs – like toxic pesticides – as it repels pests naturally. It also helps to recover degraded soils, fertilize them, and prevent erosion.
JUNGMAVEN offers lightweight, antifungal, antibacterial, very soft, and durable, undies, pants, outerwear, sweatshirts, and tees to males, females, and kids.
Check out the following products from this brand:
Patagonia is a very famous brand, but few people actually know that it was one the pioneers when it comes to environmental and social ethics in the clothing industry. The company was among the first those who started using recycled textiles and other materials, as well as making a shift from conventional to organic cotton.
This brand also aims at selling fewer pieces to help counteract the impacts of the fashion industry, has a secondhand collection, and uses a wide array of (more) sustainable materials, including:
- Organic cotton
- Recycled cotton
- Regenerative certified pilot cotton
- Recycled fishing nets
- Recycled spandex
- Cotton in conversion
- Recycled polyester
- Recycled nylon
- Recycled down
- Recycled wool
- Recycled cashmere
- Natural rubber
- TENCEL Lyocell
Patagonia is also committed to ensuring labor ethics and working with factories based in the United States as often as possible.
Popular products made from sustainable materials include:
A Shift to A Greener, More Ethical Wardrobe is Possible
The conventional clothing industry contributes to serious environmental issues: global warming, soil degradation, the uncontrolled use of pesticides, water scarcity and pollution, microplastics pollution, and many others.
The industry also aggravates serious social issues. From low wage to perilous and unhealthy working conditions and forced child labor, the continuous spreading of the fast fashion phenomena has been infringing human rights.
The need for the fashion industry to stop manipulating people’s emotions and inducing compulsive buying behaviors has never been so latent.
Fortunately, many local and global initiatives are steering a transformation in the fashion industry, and different companies across the world are offering an increasing number of more sustainable and ethical garments.
Following this guide, you are sure to contribute in an ethical and very positive way to the reshaping of human-nature relationships while keeping comfy, good-looking, healthy, and happy!
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2Ro, C. “Can Fashion Ever Be Sustainable?” Smart Guide to Climate Change, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200310-sustainable-fashion-how-to-buy-clothes-good-for-the-climate. Accessed 27 Aug. 2021.
3McFall-Johnsen, M. “The Fashion Industry Emits More Carbon than International Flights and Maritime Shipping Combined. Here Are the Biggest Ways It Impacts the Planet.” Business Insider, 21 Oct. 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10.
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6Davis, N. (2020, April 7). Fast fashion speeding toward environmental disaster, report warns. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/apr/07/fast-fashion-speeding-toward-environmental-disaster-report-warns
7UNFCC. (n.d.). UN Helps Fashion Industry Shift to Low Carbon. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://unfccc.int/news/un-helps-fashion-industry-shift-to-low-carbon
8 UNEP (2018, November 12). Putting Brakes on Fast Fashion. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/putting-brakes-fast-fashion
9McFall-Johnsen, M. (2020, January 31). These facts show how unsustainable the fashion industry is. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/fashion-industry-carbon-unsustainable-environment-pollution/
10de Mello, N. (2021, July 9). Plastic Pollution Is Causing “Global Disturbances” By Intensifying Climate Change. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.peacefuldumpling.com/plastic-pollution-climate-change
11 WRI. (2019, January 10). By the Numbers: The Economic, Social and Environmental Impacts of “Fast Fashion.” Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.wri.org/insights/numbers-economic-social-and-environmental-impacts-fast-fashion
12Perry, P. (2017, December 27). Read this before you go sales shopping: the environmental costs of fast fashion. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from http://theconversation.com/read-this-before-you-go-sales-shopping-the-environmental-costs-of-fast-fashion-88373
13SustainYourStyle. (2001, August 27). Fashion & Environment . Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/whats-wrong-with-the-fashion-industry
14Human Rights Watch. (2019, December 18). Labor Rights in the Garment Industry. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/topic/womens-rights/labor-rights-garment-industry
15New York Times. (2013, December 17). In Uzbekistan, the Practice of Forced Labor Lives On During the Cotton Harvest. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/18/world/asia/forced-labor-lives-on-in-uzbekistans-cotton-fields.html
16 Jankowski, E. (2018, May 23). Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up – Greenpeace International. Retrieved August 27, 2021, from https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/6889/toxic-threads-the-big-fashion-stitch-up
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20Image source: Mate the Label, https://matethelabel.com/collections/all/products/organic-terry-lounge-short-lavender
21Image source: Jungmaven, https://jungmaven.com/collections/men-hemp-clothing/products/hemp-shirt-button-up-short-sleeve-agenta