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Fast fashion is bigger than ever, especially as TikTok boosts fast fashion brands like the hugely popular Shein, but it’s not that difficult to avoid fast fashion for work clothes. The main principle of non-fast-fashion brands (often called “slow fashion”) is quality vs. quantity — and if you’re looking for brands that produce less harm to the environment, treat workers more fairly, and make clothing that lasts much longer, we’ve put together this guide to avoiding fast fashion work clothes.
This guide explains the specific differences between fast fashion and more ethical, eco-friendly brands; lists what to look for when shopping when you want to avoid fast fashion; and rounds up lots (and lots) of “slow fashion brands to check out.
What Is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion brands mass produce large amounts of clothing as cheaply as possible, without showing much concern for their workers, the environment, or what happens to their products once they’re sold.
Some of the worst fast fashion brands include Shein, Zara, Forever 21, CIDER, and H&M — not to mention the countless random brands on Amazon with names like SUNTIMEDAY and WONDERPAL (not actual brands). (Note that this year, H&M seems to have ditched its Conscious Collection — most recently named “Conscious Choice” — after greenwashing accusations and a lawsuit. Oops.)
What Are the Benefits of Avoiding Fast Fashion?
The overarching reason, of course, to shop higher-quality brands is to do what you can to help the environment and protect workers. (Still, no judgment here if you indulge in a little retail therapy on the fast fashion side of things, considering the state of the world right now… plus rising prices.)
When you buy non-fast-fashion brands, you’ll keep more items from landfills, because fast fashion produces a ton of waste — not only from factories (who aren’t exactly pursuing zero-waste goals, to say the least), but the clothing that gets tossed when it wears out, falls apart, or isn’t trendy anymore. Here’s something disturbing: Wirecutter noted in 2021 that “scientists estimate that textiles produce 35% of the microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans.” Well, that’s sobering.
Another unfortunate aside: Sadly, just as plastics recycling makes MUCH less of a positive impact than most people think (as this NPR story points out), donating used clothing isn’t a perfect solution either. We love to imagine our unwanted clothes getting a second life, but, as The Washington Post (gift link) recently noted, “In reality, a large portion of donated clothes typically aren’t suitable for someone else to wear because they are in poor condition. Those unwanted clothes can … get shipped overseas or worse, incinerated or landfilled.” (Besides, a lot of developing countries really don’t want to receive our discarded clothing.)
Another big reason to buy from non-fast-fashion brands is that the items will last. I know for one, I’ve gotten really tired of those tiny holes that appear a few inches above T-shirt hems — and as The Atlantic recently pointed out, the quality of sweaters has really declined in recent years. (Anyone who’s 40-something or older not remember those little holes being a thing in the ’90s and earlier?)
Avoiding fast fashion is more expensive, but because the clothes will also last longer (not to mention being better tailored), fashion math definitely applies here.
What Do Higher-Quality Brands Differently Than Fast Fashion Brands?
You may have to do a bit of research to avoid fast fashion — but that’s why we provided our big list of brands below!). The fashion industry is full of vague, relative terms like “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “responsibly sourced,” and “ethically produced.” Fortunately, clothing and fabrics labeled, for example, as “organic” or “Made in U.S.A.” or “OEKO-TEX” mean that the company has met specific standards, as does classification as a B Corp. Also look for mentions of GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and The Responsible Wool Standard. (Fashion United has a helpful guide to fashion certifications.)
Here are common slow fashion practices that identify brands that prioritize people and the planet more than the average company (or at least do these things to be able to attract more consumers).
Produce fewer styles per year: Slow fashion brands avoid mass production and don’t keep a huge amount of stock on hand, while Shein, for example, adds 6,000 new styles to its website every day. (How?!) To reduce waste, these brands often only introduce a few collections a year. Some don’t even make your items of clothing until you place an order.
Make high-quality/higher-quality pieces, typically in timeless, classic styles, which makes it more likely that customers will keep and wear them longer.
Choose more responsible materials: These companies use eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics, such as wool, linen, cotton, Lyocell, bamboo, and forest-friendly viscose; and avoiding fabrics that release microplastics or come from fossil fuels (nylon, polyester, etc.). Raw materials may also organic, recycled, upcycled, vegan, animal welfare-certified (e.g., no mulesing), made from deadstock (unused fabric from other companies), recyclable, and/or biodegradable.
Treat workers ethically and fairly: Unfortunately, just because a particular retailer says its foreign factories are “audited” regularly doesn’t guarantee that they’re safe or that they treat their workers well, as this Fashionista article explains. Slow fashion brands sometimes use local factories to make oversight easier and cut down on their carbon footprint, or keep close supervision on overseas manufacturing to ensure ethical and eco-friendly production.
Make factory operations less harmful to the environment: While some slow fashion brands create handmade clothing, others make their factories more sustainable than the average clothing brand by recycling and otherwise creating less waste, reducing water and energy consumption, using eco-friendly dyes, and more.
Engage in fair trade: Note that fair trade certification is more complicated than you might think, as there’s more than one certifying organization. Also, some experts say that fair trade practices don’t do as much to alleviate poverty in developing nations as we think they do.
What’s the Difference Between Sustainable and Eco-Friendly?
As a customer looking to avoid fast fashion, you can’t count on every brand to use the terms “sustainable” and “eco-friendly the same way.
“Eco-friendly” means that a product does not harm the environment, while “sustainable” is a more specific term that indicates the long-term impact of its materials and production — ultimately, how it will affect the future. Sustainable practices aim to protect workers and the environment, including reducing pollution and waste.
What is Greenwashing?
Companies are guilty of “greenwashing” when they make misleading or false claims about benefits to the environment, either exaggerating or simply making up eco-friendly practices they’re supposedly performing. As we mentioned above, H&M recently ran into trouble after making claims about its Conscious Choice collection (aka Conscious Collection), which it has stopped producing.
How to Avoid Fast Fashion for Work Clothes
There are many ways to avoid fast fashion, like these:
- Buy sustainable and eco-friendly clothes and accessories to wear to work.
- Buy fair trade clothes and accessories for work.
- Help reduce waste by buying clothes from designers or stores (including Etsy shops) that make clothes in small batches (or as ordered), such as The Kit or made-to-measure clothing.
- Sew your own clothes for work.
- Buy clothes from thrift stores or resale sites like Poshmark or Thredup, or brands that do their own resale.
- Rent clothes for work (even maternity is available to rent!).
- Don’t treat your clothes like fast fashion, e.g., make purchases as if you’re going to wear the item for a long time, and consider learning to mend clothing.
- Become a minimalist with your work clothes – consider a capsule wardrobe for work where everything matches or complements the other pieces, and only buy what you need.
Where to Find Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Clothes to Wear to Work
As of 2023: If you’re hunting for eco-friendly clothes to wear to work, check out major brands like Boden, Eileen Fisher, Hobbs, LK Bennett, Karen Kane, Ministry of Supply, Reformation, Ted Baker, Theory, and Treasure & Bond (by Nordstrom). Sustainable luxury brands include Acne Studios, Chloé, Gucci, Loeffler Randall, Mara Hoffman, Stella McCartney, and Vivienne Westwood. Nordstrom has a big section devoted to sustainable style!
Also try smaller eco-friendly workwear brands like these:
- ABLE (aims to empower women)
- Aday (machine washable! pockets!)
- Altar (made in USA; shares tons of info on company practices)
- Amour Vert (recycled polyester, washable silk, regenerated wool)
- Christydawn (includes Regenerative Cotton Collection)
- Cleobella (also makes handbags & swimwear)
- Cuyana (100% from sustainable fabrics)
- Everlane (organic cotton, cashmere, 100% recycled polyester, etc.)
- Emerson Fry (made in USA)
- Fair Indigo (organic cotton)
- Grammar (organic cotton; NYC factory)
- Grana (Supima cotton, silk, Tencel, cashmere)
- Hours (upcycled fabric; plastic-free packaging)
- Kirrin Finch (menswear-inspired; extended sizes)
- Malaika New York (regenerated nylon, organic cotton, etc.)
- Minimalist (made in USA; biodegradable, recyclable)
- Naadam (deadstock cashmere — other companies’ leftover materials)
- pact (organic cotton; zero net carbon; fair trade)
- Passion Lilie (natural fibers, nontoxic dyes; fair trade)
- Pure Collection (cashmere certified by Sustainable Fibre Alliance)
- Quince (cashmere, washable silk, organic cotton)
- The R Collective (reuses and recycles pre-consumer materials)
- Santicler (machine-washable merino wool, eco-cashmere)
- Sotela (clothing made to order, some customizations)
- tentree (99% sustainable fibers; climate neutral)
- Thought (organic cotton, bamboo, wool, etc.; collections 96% vegan)
- Wallis Evera (made in Canada; hemp, organic cotton, silk, Lyocell)
- Wildfang (menswear-inspired; extended sizes, including tall)
Wondering where to find eco-friendly suits for women? As of 2023, check out Theory, Ministry of Supply, LK Bennett, and Aday — and for more gender-neutral suiting, try Kirrin Finch and Wildfang, both of which offer extended sizes. NET-A-PORTER has some pricey options like Another Tomorrow in their NET SUSTAIN section.
Where to Find Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Plus-Size Workwear
Eco-friendly plus-size workwear can be even harder to find! As of 2023, these are the ones we know about — you might also want to check our roundup of made-to-measure clothing.
- Altar (up to 6X)
- By VinniK (up to 7X; more casual but fun tops)
- Cooper Union (up to 7X; definitely more casual)
- Eileen Fisher (up to 3X)
- Elizabeth Suzann (up to 5X; basics and more)
- Girlfriend Collective (up to 6X; loungewear, athletic wear, etc.)
- Hours (sizes 10-32)
- Kirrin Finch (up to 28)
- Loud Bodies (up to size 10X)
- MadeTrade (various brands; up to 4X)
- Mara Hoffman (up to 3X)
- NooWorks (up to 5X)
- Pinecone Row (up to 7X)
- Pomp (Power Of My People) (up to 3X)
- Poplinen (up to 3X)
- Quince (up to 3X)
- Selkie (up to 7X; more weekend)
- Smart Glamour (custom only as of Oct. 2023)
- Sotela (made to order, including for customers outside size chart)
- Treasure & Bond (Nordstrom) (up to 4X)
- Ulla Popken (up to 30/32)
- Wildfang (up to 3X and 26W)
- Wray (up to 5X)
Where to Find Fair Trade Clothes & Accessories for Work
As of 2023, we know of several brands that offer fair trade clothing and accessories and are members of the Ethical Fashion Forum, British Association of Fair Trade Shops, and Fair Trade Federation. Fair trade-focused brands typically also focus on sustainability. Check out Happy Earth, Indigenous, Nomads, Noonday Collection, pact, Passion Lilie, and Raven + Lily.
Thrifting, Resale, Recycling and More
We’ve had full discussions on other aspects of avoiding fast fashion for work clothes, including lots for thrifting, resale sites, rental sites, and more. Here are some of those…
- The Pros and Cons of Thrifting for Workwear
- 12 Workwear Brands with Resale Programs
- Where to Recycle, Donate, and Sell Your Work Clothes
- Where to Buy and Sell Used Maternity Clothes
- Where to Rent Maternity Workwear
- The Minimalist’s Guide to Dressing for Work
- The Best Reversible Workwear
And, slightly related: we had a whole post with tips on socially-responsible investing.
Don’t forget to check out other Corporette shopping guides!
Stock photo via Pexels / Song Kaiyue.