Find Ethical + Sustainable Clothing Manufacturing
Sustainable clothing manufacturing takes into account present needs while also being conscious not to negatively affect future generations'. Basically this means that sustainable manufacturers create their products in a way that protects local communities, and minimizes their environmental impacts while conserving natural resources and energy.
These manufacturers would also operate ethically creating safe and fair paying employment in the communities they operate in.
But, before we get started
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What This Post Will Cover:
- What is sustainable clothing manufacturing?
- Why is sustainable manufacturing important?
- How to find sustainable fashion suppliers
- What to look for when choosing an ethical clothing manufacturer
- What sustainable fabrics should you source?
- Are factory standards important?
- What standards should you look out for?
- Sustainable manufacturing myths
What Is Sustainable Clothing Manufacturing?
The 3 Ps
We often look at the three P's when discussing sustainable clothing manufacturing. They are people, planet, and profit. This is also known as the triple bottom line.
How are the people that work for this organization impacted? Do they have good lives? Are they paid fairly? Are they given the opportunity for social mobility?
This asks, how is the environment affected by this business? Does the company pollute, and dump waste? Or, do they actively engaging in creating closed-loop systems, and not only minimizing their impact on the planet but reversing it through programs like regenerative farming?
At the end of the day, the company needs to be making money. If they are losing money implementing sustainable and ethical practices they will go out of business, and people will ultimately lose jobs. What is the balance between the bottom line and investment in the future?
17 Sustainability Goals
photo of water and pollution
The United Nations has listed 17 sustainability goals for businesses in the future. They go way deeper than just the 3 Ps. They are definitely worth checking out to get you thinking about what is important in sustainable manufacturing.
If you are are a brand just starting out, I recommend picking one of the goals and really focusing on that. Go deep, learn all you can, and then when you feel like you really know that one, and have incorporated all those values into your brand, only then can you move onto the next.
In general, I always recommend brands to do one thing really, really well, instead of everything just ok.
The 17 Goals Are -
- No poverty
- Zero hunger
- Good health and well-bing
- Quality education
- Gender equality
- Clean water and sanitation
- Affordable and clean energy
- Decent work and economic growth
- Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
- Reduced inequalities
- Sustainable cities and communities
- Responsible consumption and production
- Climate action
- Life below water (oceans)
- Life on land
- Peace, justice, and strong institutions
- Partnerships for the goals
What I Focus On
For the past three years, I have had two focuses. One for my company virtue + vice. And, one for me personally. My company focus has been on decent work and economic growth. While my personal goal has been responsible consumption and production.
Decent Work And Economic Growth
My goal for virtue + vice is to positively impact the communities we work in. Many brands think that just by coming into a community and making their products they are helping. Well, they kind of are, an influx of cash is always welcome. But, they need to be thinking bigger. How do we help this community become self-sufficient so they no longer need and rely on us?
Here is an example. With recent events in the world, brands are taking to social media to raise funds to help bring money to the artisans their brand gave orders to in the past.
But, stop. Before you open your wallet, think about this. Why are the brands ok? Why do we need to donate to the artisans? What inequality is going on here that the owners of these brands aren't begging for themselves but for their developing country suppliers?
My guess is these brands have been taking huge profits while "empowering" (read taking advantage of dirt-cheap labor) these groups. That is why they seem to be ok, but the artisans can not survive without them.
How do we change that system so these marginalized communities become more resilient and are not reliant on a single brand giving them business?
That is the type of work I do while in India with virtue + vice.
I touch on this idea in my article for Vox.
Working with groups in India for the past three years I have made it my goal to make communities stronger, not dependent. There is a difference.
Responsible Consumption And Production
Then my personal goal is to consume less. Listen, I am a busy person. I don't have time to make my own almond milk. And I refuse to feel guilty about buying a bottle of water in India so I don't get sick drinking local water (I have gotten sick more times than I can count). But, I think there are practical ways that I can incorporate reducing my consumption. One of those ways is not buying new clothes. For the past year, I have only bought second hand. Or, I made my own clothes in India with artisans.
What sustainability goals are important to you? What will you focus on?
Why Is Sustainable Manufacturing Important?
This should be obvious by now. Sustainable manufacturing is important because it is securing our futures.
Aside from the bigger picture, sustainable and ethical clothing manufacturing can also help a companies bottom line.
Think about this….
By using fabrics like deadstock or making dyes out of used iron or vegetables, an eco friendly clothing line can significantly reduce their costs. A lot of times deadstock fabric is a rip-off and is actually just available inventory fabric (a fabric that was already produced, waiting in a warehouse to be sold, not actually waste). But, if you can use real deadstock, which is actual waste, it is possible to buy those fabrics for a fraction of what they would normally be sold for to a brand.
Same with natural dyes. In India we make black dye using old iron scrap metal. It's basically free to make. We also use onion peels to make yellow, and other food waste to make different pigments. All of this is free.
When you are making with waste the cost of your raw goods should go down.
The initial cost for setting up solar panels can be cost-prohibitive to some factories that are struggling just. to survive in today s competitive market. But, if. they can get over the initial hurdle of purchasing and installing solar panels, they will see long term savings on electricity. Once the panels are set up, a factory can basically run for free.
And, as an added bonus they become immune to power cuts. In some areas of India where I have traveled and stayed, government electricity only works 10% of the time. It's really hard to get work done in an environment like that. If a factory is making its own, then, problem solved.
For large scale factories, an additional struggle to overcome is having the space to set up the panels. Generally, a roof does not have space for enough panels to keep the entire factory going, so additional land must be sued to harvest sunlight.
More Efficient Systems
Miranda Watson on the back of a bike in Bagru. When there isn't a second passanger on the bike, it i used to transport fabrics
If you are making small and local you get the added benefit of less shipping and transportation. Back in my fast fashion days we used to have fabrics made in China and then ship them to the Philippines for cut + sew. We did this because the Philippines has a very limited textile industry, but better duties and tariffs. So to get what we needed we had to do it this way.
But, it created a lot of logistical problems. If the fabrics were late by just one day we would sometimes miss our vessel, and not be able to get on another one for sometimes up to two weeks later. This two-week delay would cause chaos in the factory in the Philippines who had been planning on receiving the fabric by a certain date.
When you work close to where you are making, not only to you all but eliminate your use of fossil fuels during the transportation process, but you also save time and headaches like the ones I faced in fast fashion.
How To Find Sustainable Suppliers
There is always good old fashion googling, and the rabbit hole that leads you down. Google might even be how you ended up on my website. The problem with google though is that it's based on this thing called SEO. Search Engine Optimization. This means if you don't invest a lot of time, and often money into getting your company to rank for search terms, people may never find you.
There are so many great ethical clothing manufacturers out there that no one knows about because they are hard to find online.
Tradeshows are a great way to meet suppliers. A trade show is an exhibition where suppliers buy a booth, bring some of their products, and get ready to meet potential customers like you. Tradeshows are one of the best places for people from all over the fashion industry to meet and connect. There are trade shows for basically everything.
Here are a few of the more popular sustainable and ethical fashion trade shows where you can meet suppliers that align with your brand values.
Pure - London
The Pure tradeshow is broken up into two parts. The first is dedicated to connecting sustainable brands with buyers. And the second is meant to connect those brands with manufacturers. Basically it's a one-stop-shop for everyone.
ReMode - LA
ReMode is brought to you by the same people who put on MAGIC, COTERIE, PROJECT, FN PLATFORM, and CHILDREN'S CLUB. It is a separate show dedicated to all things sustainable and ethical in the fashion world. I have never been to this show but, have heard from friends it was "underwhelming".
ExpoArtesania – Colombia
A show dedicated to artisan and craft supplies from Columbia.
NY NOW – Artisan Resource
NY Now is basically the American version of Pure London. If you are interested in meeting suppliers stop by their Artisan Resource center. This show has changed to the years.
Sign up in advance. If you sign up ahead of time to attend the show it's free. If you don't sign up until the week of the show they charge sometimes hundreds of dollars just to enter.
Perú Moda – Peru
In their words "The best of the Peruvian exportable offer in the textile, footwear and jewelry sector.
B2B Matchmaking, scheduled business rounds with buyers from the five continents"
Future Fabrics Expo
"Now in its 9th edition, The Sustainable Angle’s Future Fabrics Expo is the largest dedicated showcase of sustainable materials for the fashion and textile industry in Europe. The expo features more than 5000 commercially-available fabrics and materials from over 150 suppliers who are offering innovative solutions with a low environmental footprint."
Planet Textiles - Spain
Also home of the sustainable textiles summit. This event draws in serious industry players like Saitex, Nike, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and more.
Functional Fabric Fair - USA
This is where you need to be for all the newest high tech, super performing, textiles of the future.
Not totally dedicated to sustainability. But, this show I have been wanting to get a chance to go to for a while. I am always traveling to I miss it. One of these days I hope to make it and check it out. I have heard nothing but good things from friends of mine that have attended.
What To Look For When Choosing A Sustainable Clothing Manufacturer
Also knowns as MOQ's (minimum quantity orders).
The most important thing when choosing a manufacture for most small brands starting out is minimums. Whether you are making your own custom designs or are buying private label clothing company. This is one of the first questions you should ask.
"What are your minimums?"
Why? You could meet the most perfect factory. One that makes great products, aligns with your values, offers a great price, etc. But, if their minimum is 1000 pieces per style, and you are only making 20, none of that matters. Because it's not the right fit.
So, before you get too excited about a supplier, always ask what their minimums are first. This helps both you and them not waste any time.
Another term for small minimums is small-batch manufacturing.
Remember how I mentioned above the 17 sustainability goals? Which of those goals are most important to them? What do they specialize in? Does that align with your clothing brand? Some factories I work with are very dedicated to their people and helping local communities. And, some are extremely dedicated to reusing and recycling water resources. Others are dedicated to 100% organic and regenerative growing practices. Everyone has that one thing they are super passionate about. Make sure their values are in range with yours.
What Fabrics To Source With A Sustainable Clothing Manufacturer
I have tons of fiber and fabric break downs as part of my Textile 101 course. But, here is a quick run down of fabrics you might want to consider using for your line.
Sustainable And Eco-Friendly Fabrics
- organic fabrics, like organic cotton
- regenerative cotton
- certified wool
- peace silk (no silkworms are killed during harvesting)
- lotus (not the viscose kind! The real natural kind straight from the plant)
Semi-Synthetic, Also Known As Regenerated (remember, regenerative and regenerated fibers are different)
- rayon - this includes all different types of rayon like bamboo fabric, eucalyptus fiber, orange fiber, banana fibers, etc
- soy cashmere and soy silk
- food waste plastics like pinatex, appletex, milk silk, and corn rubber
- recycled polyester
- nylon made of recycled materials
Sustainable materials go beyond fabrics. As many factories are attempting to go zero waste they have started to collect their cotton scraps and turn them into paper hang tags.
I know other partners that offer recycled paper options, and even handmade options with flowers hand pressed into the cardstock.
Trims like zippers and buttons and laces should be sustainable too. Do they come from deadstock? Are they made from recycled metals? Can you trace where the metals came from?
Ask your suppliers to package your goods in biodegradable shipping materials to help cut down on business to business landfill waste.
Are Factory Standards Important?
I am going to get controversial here. In my opinion no they aren't that important when creating ethically manufactured clothing. The truth is, factory certifications are a business. If a factory has the money, they can afford to pay the high costs associated with the certification. Also, these days there are so many certifications it's impossible to keep up with all of them.
At this point is a joke in the industry that creating your own certification system is a quick way to generate cash for your company.
Spilling The Tea
Because many of these fast fashion certifications are pay to play, that means suppliers who don't necessarily meet certification standards sometimes are able to slip through the cracks by offering a little extra dough. Many of these factories also set up smaller factories that they use for passing certification and then they will actually make the goods in other non-certified factories that they own.
I know. The world of manufacturing is crazy. Even ethical manufacturing.
Look For Real Transparency
For that reason, I recommend trying to use small manufacturers that you can go to and visit and build a relationship with. All my factories are open.
That means I can show up at any time unannounced and they will let me in to see what is going on. I don't have to schedule in advance with them (ie give them time to prepare for me and make everything look nice).
For me this type of transparency is 100% necessary for doing business. And, I really get to see what the working conditions are like on day to day basis.
A Better Use Of Funds
In my opinion, there are better uses of the money spent to certify factories. Like giving it directly to the workers, instead of on a stamp of approval and pat on the back. Think about that.
If you want to learn more about how businesses can operate sustainably and ethically without certifications, check out Think Coffee. They are doing a great job of this.
What Standards Should You Look Out For?
But, I get it some brands want that certification. They need that stamp of approval. They want to be able to check all the boxes of what a sustainable product should be. If that is you, here is a list of a few of the main certification to check out.
- Better Cotton Initiative
- Cradle to Cradle (this is my favorite out of all of them)
- Fair Trade
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) - this one is infamous for falsified records and lack of supply chain transparency
- USDA Certified Organic
- World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO)
- Responsible Wool Standard
Sustainable Clothing Manufacturing Myths
Sustainable Fabrics Are Uncomfortable
Not at all! Silk, one fo the most luxurious fabrics in the world, is a sustainable fabric. Some of the modal (rayon made in a circular zero waste production system) fabric qualities I am able to supply are so high quality a few of my customers who are industry professionals can't tell the different between them and silk!
It's Too Expensive
Not at all.
I am often able to help my new clients bring down their garment manufacturing prices. Doing this is not easy. It requires an entire overhaul of their supply chain. But, in the end, it's worth it for the planet and their bottom line.
Finding Partners Is Difficult
Not at all. Email me at email@example.com, even if we don't end up working together, I can point you in the right direction of some great supply partners.
Fair Trade Is Low Quality
I get this one a lot. Tor some reason many people believe that fair trade clothing is not of high quality. I don't know where this misconception comes from. All fair trade means is that people were paid a fair wages.
Fairtrade brands are passionate about social impact and slow fashion. If you are interested in learning more about fair trade fashion and getting your clothing line fair trade certified, check out the New York City Fair Trade Coalition. I am a business member and have gotten some amazing resources over the years from them.
Plan A Visit
The best way to tell if a sustainable clothing manufacturer is right for you is to go and visit. And, then once you start working tougher, try to visit regularly.
But I get it. Many emerging fashion brands don't have the time or finances for constant travel to supply chain partners. Being able to travel the way I do is a privilege that I now have thanks to years of hard work. If you can can't work travel into your busy start-up schedule, hire an agent, like virtue + vice to be your eyes and ears on the ground. Being a watchdog for our brands is one of the many services we provide.
Morgan patterson —
Looking for a socially conscious manufacturer in the US for a woman’s outdoor line?
Hi Raj! Check out the 6-month mentorship if you are interested in me personally answering all your questions and helping you launch your brand! https://launch-my-conscious-line.mykajabi.com/launch
Raj Gopal —
Melanie – Thank you for this very informative blog on sustainable clothing. I am in the process of starting a clothing brand that bridges the brings the digital and the physical world together. I am also planning on using this as a platform to drive the message on the use and value of sustainable clothing. I am looking to start small and would be thrilled if you could provide some guidance on how to best to go about sourcing sustainable suppliers. Looking forward to your response.
Hi Jereme! The best place to get help from me is in the Launch My Conscious Line program! Good Luck! https://launch-my-conscious-line.mykajabi.com/launch
Jereme Wijesekera —
Hey there! I love your content and I learned so much about the sustainable cotton game off this site! I wanted to know whether you’d be able to point me in the right direction about working with the best sustainable manufacturing companies who can make my garment ideas come to life!
Eldarah Sierra Brown Ton —
Looking for a sustainable manufacturer to create my custom designs for my boutique
Dianne Finnigan —
Hi I am looking for supplier for regenerative cotton with a low mpq and we are a new start up, perhaps you can recommend someone to me. I would greatly appreciate it.
This has been the most helpful blog I’ve found on my journey of starting a sustainable and ethical clothing brand. It’s felt impossible not knowing any sources and manufacturers but you’ve helped me set a goal.