Published: January 17, 2021 Updated: March 27, 2023 16 min read
It's officially sweatah weathah! But, with chilling temperatures, curious consumers are left wondering if what they're buying is legit, or just more greenwashing. This guide will break down what to look for when buying ethical sweaters. I will call out a few sustainable and ethical fashion brands that could and should be doing better. And, I will give some recommendations for ethical sweater brands that I am loving right now and are the real deal. Full disclosure, all of my selections for brands to avoid and trust are my own opinions.
When buying anything, not only ethical sweaters, there are three main things you want to consider. What are the fibers? Who is making it? And, what is the final product you are buying?
Each type of garment from swimwear, to t-shirts, to ethical wool sweaters, has its own set of unique sustainability issues. Below is what to look out for when specifically buying ethical sweaters.
Materials come down to the fibers used and can be broken down into two main categories. Natural fibers and synthetic. Synthetic fibers are also referred to as man-made, fibers.
When we think about natural fibers in ethical sweaters we usually think about wool, cashmere, yak, and alpaca. But, sweaters can be made of plant materials too. Like certified organic cotton or, colatropis (a plant native to India that has been deemed vegan wool). Some believe that colatropis is even more sustainable than dirt (a bold claim, but interesting read).
In the world of synthetics, traditionally, the most common wool alternative has been acrylic. Which, like polyester is a petroleum-derived fiber. Many of the more luxury vegan brands I work with have taken to using an acrylic, nylon, spandex blend. The acrylic creates loft and bounce that mimics wool fibers, nylon adds strength for the longevity of the product (and, btw, costs a lot more than polyester), and the spandex allows for stretch and additional comfort.
There are also new synthetic fibers hitting the market like vegan cashmere. Vegan cashmere is a plant-based plastic fiber made from soybeans. The effect is a sweater that feels kind of like fuzzy cotton, and has great drape and flexibility.
KD New York, thanks to their slick marketing, would like to have you believe that they have an exclusive on soya-based cashmere. They are even illegally using a TM on the mention of the word vegetable cashmere. Thanks to public records, anyone can see the application on the USPTO website is still in process. And, they were actually declined for the trademarking of soy cashmere back in 2019.
IMO, unethical brands, do this all the time. They take something that is public, rename it, trademark it, and pretend as they were the inventors. Let me break it down for you. Instead of reinventing the wheel, what they. are trying to do it own the exclusive rights to the word wheel, so no one else can use it.
Where are the fibers coming from? Are they recycled? (More on recycled fibers a little later) Or, are they virgin? Many think that the solution to creating the most sustainable garment ever is that recycled fibers are always better. But, the issue is, it takes A LOT of energy and money to break down fibers from a garment and make them into a new garment. The fashion industry has gone crazy with its love for recycled polyester. Mostly because it allows us to continue consuming at breakneck rates, without having to feel guilty about it. Personally, I would like to see more studies on the energy and resource efficiency of recycled vs virgin.
Not to mention, sheep must be shorn. They will literally die from heat exhaustion if they do not get a haircut at least once a year. So, if everyone in the industry is using recycled fibers, what are we supposed to do with all the clippings from sheep every year?
For me, personally, the most important issue when it comes to animal fibers, is the treatment of the animal.
RWS - Responsible Wool Standard
This is more or less the gold standard of ethical wool. The certification ensures the humane and respectful treatment of animals throughout their entire life cycle. And, that the farming practices used do not deplete the local environment.
The Good Cashmere Standard®
While not as popular with consumers, insiders that are fighting for change in the industry recommend this certification themselves. The good Cashmere Standard is an independent standard for sustainable cashmere. It was developed by the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) Their goal is to "improve the welfare of cashmere goats, the lives of farmers and farming communities, and the environment in which they live."
If you are questioning why certification for the treatment of animals is so important then check this out. Warning - it's graphic.
How are the people in the full supply chain treated and paid? In the world of wool, many consumers get stuck on the fibers and the animals. They forget to vet the rest of the supply chain. What is life like for the employees in the yarn spinning facilities, and sweater factories? For this reason, it might be helpful to look for fair trade certifications. Fairtrade certifications take into account the entire supply chain, fair labor, and how workers experience.
If you are reading this article, I am sure you have heard a million times over, that sustainable manufacturers should be using renewable energy sources to power their factories. Now, I am going to ask you to take that one step further. What are they doing beyond that?
There is a ton of pre-consumer plastic waste in the industry. Fibers are packed in plastic when sent to be washed and carded, the cleaned fibers are packed in new plastic to send to yarn spinners, the yarns are then packed in plastic to be sent to be dyed, and again packed in plastic to go to knitting factories, and the final product is packed once more in plastic to be sent to the warehouse, and evneturally to be sold to you. None of this plastic is reused. And, aside from the one small poly that your garment is mailed to you in, none of it is ever seen by the consumer. That is a lot of hidden plastic.
But here is the thing. That plastic, for now, is totally necessary. If brands tried to ship things unprotected they would be damaged with water and dirt and totally unusable. Plastic is needed to keep things clean, especially in places like India. But, like in the case of Patagonia, brands are starting to create systems to reduce the amount of plastic used. A lot of times these new systems include packing the goods in different ways that allow for less plastic use, not necessarily none.
The other thing to look out for from an energy perspective is where is everything coming and going. What if fibers are available in Peru, but being spun in China, and then knit in Portugal? Well, that really isn't very sustainable, now is it? Try to find out if brands are keeping their full supply chains relatively local if you care about their impact on the planet.
Did you know there are three main categories of ethical sweaters? And, the type they are, actually impacts how sustainable they are, and the final retail price.
The first type of sweater is hand knit.
Hand-knit ethical sweaters are generally the most expensive. Your sweater is made by one person, using old school knitting needles and knitting techniques. And, it would make sense that this type of sweater would be the most expensive (if the workers are paid fairly), because it is super labor-intensive. This is also probably the most sustainable sweater as well. It is made using human power (no electricity), and it is virtually zero waste.
Full fashion and circular knitting machines are the next type of sweater and are the second most expensive.
Full fashion ethical sweaters are made on special knitting machines. Workers program the machines to either produce pieces of sweaters or the entire sweater. The machines are expensive, and they do take a while to program, but once they get going, it is kind of set it and forget it. The labor for these types of sweaters is minimal. In sweater factories, there are very few workers, when compared to a cut and sew factory, and most of the positions are office jobs.
For the record, any sweater that is made on a circular machine, or full fashion machine is technically zero waste. Don't listen to the hype that brands like Son Of A Tailor's marketing team put out - claiming they are doing something special by making zero waste ethical sweaters. It's not special, it's like saying water is vegan. It is a classic example of marketing greenwashing.
And, if we are really going to get real, on a knitting machine, there is always a little bit of yarn left on the bobbin, so these sweaters are never fully zero waste.
The last type of sweater is cut and sew.
Cut and sew ethical sweaters use with hacci fabric. Hacci fabric is basically a roll of sweater knit fabric. The fabric is rolled out, cut into pieces, and then sewn together. While this is definitely more labor-intensive than full fashion knitwear, it is actually the cheapest form of sweater production, and even more, ironically creates the most waste.
The thing where you waste the most costs the least - welcome to fashion.
Again, when. it comes to labor, fair trade is a certification you want to look out for.
The last thing you need to think about when buying a sweater is if you actually like it. I have said it before, and I'll say it again. Even, after all I have been through, and all I have personally seen, I still buy fast fashion. If I see something I really like, and I know I will wear the crap out of it - I'll buy it.
What is the point of having this perfectly sustainable, ethical, eco friendly garment if you aren't really going to wear it? And, don't just think about the design. Think about the fit. The best advice I can give here is that if you don't love it, then skip it.
OK, now that you know what to look for, here are some red flags, and what to avoid.
It's no secret that I am anti certification in the fashion industry. Fundamentally I see a huge issue with companies creating certifications that both brands and suppliers must pay to be part of, and the company dolling out the certification profits off of it (cough, cough, GOTS, please don't get me started on the ethics of the GOTS team). It creates a pay to play system where less than ethical brands can secure certification by lining the pockets of the right people. Don't believe me? I have been talking about this for years, but major industry publications are just starting to catch up with my news tip.
But, the RWS and Cashmere Standards are something I would buy into. With wool, it's a little different. The fibers are coming from an animal and not the ground or a chemical plant. And, for me, protecting those animals is important. Is the certification perfect - probably not. But, for me, I feel like it's better than nothing. Especially with the recent news about Peru's alpacas.
Let's look at Everlane. I find it strange that Everlane will tell you the factory that the garment was made in - but they won't tell you where the fibers came from.
Also, if you look at the sweater content they use only 27% alpaca. At a percentage that low, IMO, it doesn't even make sense to use the fiber, it is just going to feel like the 40% merino wool. To me it feels like they used the low percentage of alpaca as a marketing gimic to say they were using "sustainable" materials.
I remember I was invited to go on an interview at Everlane when the company was just getting started. Some reps from San Fran flew out to NYC, and I was told to meet them at a specific place for what I thought was an interview. I get there and there are literally hundreds of other people like me, all thinking they were coming for an interview but it was really some sort of mixer/brand awareness event. I felt stupid for being there, they tricked us to help them fill a room.
That day I talked to exactly 0 people from Everlane. The reps literally only talked to each other, and I left after about 15 minutes of pure awkwardness when I realized what was going on. Most recently, Everlane is famous for the poor treatment of their employees and union busting ways.
Let's start with the basics. Direct to consumer brands don't pass the savings onto consumers. Maybe 5 years ago, you could launch a brand online, pay nothing for ads, and make a nice profit. Today most DTC brands are considering it a win if the cost of acquisition of a new customer allows them to break even. Meaning if their profit on a sweater is $50, they are happy if it only takes $50 worth of ads and marketing to make a sale!
The hope is that customers will like the product, and getting them to order a second, and third, and fourth-order, etc, will be more cost-effective and profitable.
Traditional brick and mortar retail can actually be more profitable (allowing for lower prices to consumers) than direct to consumer thanks to an overly saturated online advertising market.
Now that we got that out of the way, let's jump into the product.
Simply put, Naadam is an example of a brand that is too good to be true.
I have spoken to a few cashmere specialists. And, all of them agree that at the price range Naadam is offering, something isn't adding up. It's very possible they are using the lowest quality cashmere fibers, which, at that point, you would be better off just buying chlorinated wool. Or they are possibly secretly blending their yarns with cheaper fibers to decrease costs (a trend that is surprisingly and alarming common in the world of wool yarn suppliers).
According to my insiders, while Naadam claims "Mongolian" cashmere, they aren't really using cashmere from the country Mongolia. They are actually using cashmere from Inner Mongolia, which is actually part of China. Tricky.
Taken from a Fashionista article "Naadam co-founder and CEO Matt Scanlan explains that they travel to Mongolia once a year, typically in May if the weather permits, to purchase material directly from roughly 1,000 herder families. (They initially did so with "literal bags" of cash. "We don't take as much cash anymore," he laughs. "We'll work with local banks at this point.") During these trips, the Naadam team will buy anywhere between 75 and 120 tons of cashmere."
Let's start with the very obvious. Scanlan has claimed on his first trip he took 3 million over in cash. Impossible. Legally, you can only take up to $10,000. So, what is it? Is he shamelessly bragging about breaking international money laws? Or, is he lying about what he did at the start of his business? Either way, his company origin stories are based on lies and are possibly illegal.
It's also impossible for someone that visits a country once a year to fully understand the intricacies and nuances of the market. Taking a quick look at Matt Scanlan's LinkedIn you can see that before Naandam all of his professional experience was in investment firms… I'll let you draw your own conclusions with that one. Maybe he isn't the most qualified person to "revolutionize" and industry.
In my opinion, it's pretty insane and egotistical to claim they are revolutionizing the industry when the founder has no prior experience and takes a once a year trip (weather permitting - literally loling here - all I am going to say is, the monsoon season has never slowed me down).
Here is the bottom line, an ethical, quality, cashmere company should not be able to retail for $75. Which is something that Uniqlo has been accused of quite a few times as well.
Remember, don't fall for good marketing. Look at the facts and the numbers and, if they make sense.
Brands like Pangaia have made a lot of noise for their vegan jacket options in the sustainable fashion space, mostly because they have deep pockets and spend a ton of money marketing and advertising about the good they do. All while their founders and board are some pretty rotten people.
Again, my advice is to follow the money. Good marketing (read greenwashing) campaigns and excessive advertising dollars to gain rapid visibility are not necessarily ethical and sustainable.
Also, can we just talk about their flower down for a second? Why won't they disclose what it actually is? Obviously, it's not really crunchy dried up flowers. In reality, it is some sort of chemical derived material that uses flowers as one of many ingredients. So, what are the other ingredients Panagia? And, just how toxic are they?
Now that I have gone through my thanks but no thanks list. Here are a few brands that I fully endorse. And, you know I am critical, so if they are good enough for me, they are probably good for you too!
Loro Piana is one of the most famous sweater companies in the world. They are known as some of the best sweaters - basically ever.
And if you ever get the opportunity to touch or wear one (especially their cashmere-silk blend) you will understand why people love them, and shell out big bucks for them.
The thing is, like with most luxury companies that have spent decades building up their marketing, their sweaters are insanely overpriced. We are talking $2000 range.
Now, what if I told you that you could get a sweater made with the same exact fibers and yarns for 1/4 the price, by a little lesser-known label. Hello Alexandra Golovanoff.
Golovanoff buys her yarns from the same supply chain partners that also sell to Loro Piana. She then has the yarns knit into sweaters in Mauritius. The opening price point for sweaters starts at around $400, with styles that will be fashionable for years to come.
I spend a lot of time talking on the phone with people, and tbh usually it's a lot of the same conversation on replay. It's generally brands spitting back out facts they learned on websites like Fashionista. Unfortunately, there are very few industry experts in this world. But, this is totally not the case when it comes to Sunvalley Alpaca's founder Kimberly Brooks. We spent hours on the phone talking about the industry, I mean really talking about it.
Boork's knows the Alpaca industry in and out, she is entrenched in it. So if you are looking for someone who has really made ethical sweaters their lifes work and passion - check out Sunvalley Alpaca.
There are quite a few brands out there dong the recycled cashmere thing (big players like Patagonia included). Here is what I like about Noah.
Many small brands take fiber technology and entwine it into their marketing story (remember what I said about KD New York and their "Vegetable Cashmere") making it sound like they invented it themselves (Fair Harbour for recycled water bottles, Billi for biodegradable nylon, Under the Canopy, and Chetna cotton… the list goes on and on).
Anyway, Noah straight up says in their first paragraph that what they are using is a super old technology, and basically they aren't sure why more people aren't doing it. I respect this type of honesty from a brand. If they are willing to in the very first sentence say what we are doing is not special, they are most likely going to be transparent about everything else.
Their website also does a beautiful job of describing to consumers the process of recycling cashmere.
"Using recycled materials to make clothes sounds like a new idea, something today’s eco-conscious brands came up with after brainstorming about how to operate sustainably. But you only have to ask a parent or grandparent about it, and if they lived in a city, they probably remember the rag men. Like scrap metal collectors that can still be seen walking the streets of New York, rag men (chiffoniers in France, rag-and-bone men in England, cenciaioli in Italy) collected old clothes and fabrics to sell to manufacturers, who broke them down and made them into new fabrics. It was a practice that flourished around WWII, especially in Europe, where rationing necessitated alternative means of obtaining materials."
Are you a home knitter? Or, are you thinking about becoming a home knitter? Check out ULA + LIA. I met the founder, Jon, over a decade ago when we were both studying abroad in Australia. At the time neither of us had any interest in the textile industry and spent most of our time enjoying our time abroad on the Gold Coast. Fast forward 12 years later, and Jon has successfully launched a line of Mongolian cashmere, wool, and yak knitting yarns designed for at-home knitters working on projects.
ULA + LIA also has a small range of ready-made goods if you aren't the DIY type of person.
Jon ended up in Mongolia because of the peace corps, and kind of fell into the world of fashion. He made Mongolia his new home, moved there full time, and never looked back. Again, if you are looking for a brand that has made animal fibers and the communities around them their lives work, Jon is your man.
Made Trade is a boutique collection of different brands from all over the world with a dedication to sustainable and ethical practices. While I don't know the founders personally, I do have mutual friends (who I trust) that vouch for them as people who put ethics above profits.
If you are just getting started in conscious fashion and need a little help finding brands, let Made Trade do all the research and brand vetting for you.
And, remember there is always second hand. Shopping second hand is a great way to find items that no one else is wearing. It's also a great way of getting luxury garments for a fraction of the price. While the Real Real has gotten a bad rep for having poorly qualified authenticators, I have been loving Poshmark recently.
What ethical sweaters are you buying and wearing this season? Comment below :)
I have spent over a decade living and working in fashion factories, seeing firsthand how clothing is made.
And now, I want to share with you everything I know. To help you navigate supply chains, and launch your own conscious clothing brand.
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