Thinking About Sustainability and Ethics in Menswear

A few weeks ago I ended up writing a review of a pair of trousers from Basic Rights. In the review, I mentioned briefly the brand’s mission and goal toward sustainability and ethical production; I had received a large amount of information from the Marketing Director in his responses to my questions about sustainability, so I decided, for Fashion Revolution Week, to take some of his responses and bring them to you, as readers, as I believe they were insightful visions about the impacts of the brand’s policies. 

Additionally, I thought it would be useful to scour the web and find some other brands with similar missions.

Before going into a list of some menswear brands that have more sustainable or ethical minded business practices, I’d like to bring up what prompted me to think more critically about what sustainability and ethics mean in the clothing industry.

Basic Rights, which is a brand focused around essentials for men (shirts, pants, in more classic cuts, colors and fabrics), built their brand mission around this idea. Part of the name Basic Rights reflects this—the right to water or to ethical conditions in labor or production. This meant for them to take a critical stance towards their fabrics and suppliers; for instance, with fabrics, they use deadstock fabrics for some of their pieces, especially those that are outside their core collection. This means that for some of their clothes, they use tencel or cottons that would usually be associated with luxury brands, but that were extra lengths that the brands did not use in their manufacturing.

Now that the brand has expanded, they are faced with a crisis—how to source enough fabrics for their production or sources without contributing to the environmental damage that comes from textile manufacturing. Part of the solutions they explored include partnerships with environmental groups that would build into the sale of each piece of clothing a percentage that would go to the environmental group to offset any damage that they may be doing. Think carbon taxes, but rather voluntary collaborations for the company for supplies like water instead of carbon. The goal is to launch these new collaborations to further their brand mission to Basic Rights (in this case, water) with their AW19 collection. Similarly, they are in the works for a partnership to offset their carbon footprint as well.

I would like to take a quote from a response that the marketing director of Basic Rights wrote to me, one which resonates rather well in its pragmatism, but also in understanding a business’ place in the world:

For a brand like ours (and any brand actually – no one has all the answers), the whole process is about learning [… because] the fashion ecosystem is eye-wateringly complex. It’s like a net where you pull at one strand and the ripples move off into a thousand different directions. So in my example above about offsetting water consumption – it’s rarely that simple. A t-shirt doesn’t just use create water wastage. There’s also the packaging, the carbon footprint of transporting it, the energy consumption in the factories its made in, the carbon footprint of transporting the raw materials to the factories, and the human beings involved at every single step of that. That multiplied across hundreds of products and a supply chain that spans multiple continents and you get a sense of just how much complexity there is – even for a brand as small as us. Because of this we have to accept that we simply cannot have perfect knowledge. Other good brands share this philosophy.

So we start from these two premises. 1. We do not have perfect knowledge about the whole ecosystem, but that we are committed to always improving our knowledge where we can and 2. We are committed to doing something about anything when we do find out about it.

His answer resonates with me. Most brands might assert that their choices are more sustainable or ethical simply because they have some sort of certification, or because they use organic cotton, but the complexities for manufacturing goods are tremendous, especially considering how much other factors come into play. Whereas larger companies tout statistics and numbers about their effectiveness on reducing their environmental impact, these are marketing releases that few people take at more than face value as being true. His answer acknowledges the complexity of a system rather than reducing it to a press release. As such, it is this critical thinking that brings more awareness–and perhaps change–to consumer and producer behaviors. Their brand is pursuing similar changes in manufacturing by working with their suppliers, mostly small boutique factories, to create a more transparent representation of the companies business practices.

There are a bunch of other exciting practices and new methods Basic Rights is planning on unveiling as the year goes on, so I suggest–especially for those of you focused on consuming more ethically–keeping an eye out for what they release in the future.

There are a lot of brands with written and outspoken ethical or sustainable missions. Take for instance Everlane or Apolis, two of the most popular “ethical” brands: their approach is focused around transparency about who makes their products and both showcase information about their manufacturers on the site.

But some brands are not advertising overtly their ethical mission–Archibald London, a purveyor of eyeglasses, clothing and accessories, is a good example. The information and transparency that brands provide allow you to become more familiar with the product, and alleviate any concern that you might be contributing to a nameless organization. For this reason, this transparency allows the brands to “justify” their prices through showcasing the quality of work conditions or the skilled labor.

Photo: Archibald London

As such, what is ethical and sustainable is a complex situation, and I would like to present some brands–both which have marketing aimed at demonstrating their mission, but also brands that use better suppliers. Taking into consideration these thoughts on the complexity of this issue and how brands might be at various steps in pursuing their mission, some brands with ethical or sustainable practices include the following:

Feit – This shoe brand manufactures its footwear employing artisans who hand-sew and hand-last each article. All of the products are made from natural materials using vegetable tanned hides, in order to reduce the environmental impact from chrome dying. Their shoes are constructed using their own “modified handsewn Goodyear construction,” featuring cork and bamboo shanks and a natural latex outsole. As such, just like a pair of nice goodyear-welted shoes, you can purchase their low-tops and other casual footwear with a sense that they are doing minimal harm to the environment while providing goods that should have a long lifespan.

Satta – This British brand features a lot of clothes that emphasize “slow fashion” and sustainable materials. Because it was originally born as a handmade, recycled wood skateboard brand, the brand features more street style clothing. However, they produce high-quality goods in natural color palettes, made in small batch production. They have organic cotton and hemp fabrics available for individuals looking for natural fabrics.

Arthur & Henry – A shirt brand for ethically produced shirts. They use Fairtrade cotton and organic cotton for their shirtings, plus they have their clothing tailored by skilled workers in Bangalore in a fairly transparent factory. Bags and packaging focus on recycling, either by using bio-degradable bags or recycled tissue and cardboard.

Cock & Bull – This brand features clothing made in the UK, and is carbon negative with organic textiles (including linings like silk and hemp). They have an offshoot to their menswear collection, the Tweed collection, which uses tweeds from the Isle of Lewis in a range of waistcoats and flat caps.

S.E.H. Kelly – You may know SEH Kelly as a Styleforum affiliate known for their unique style and UK manufactured garments. I’d like to present them as an ethical choice because they are rather transparent about their suppliers, sourcing, and local production. Plus their clothing really jives with the “slow fashion” mentality, seeing as their palettes are very limited, with cuts that are–while interesting–less trendy and more classically inspired.

Lyme Terrace – This London based brand focuses on using organic or recycled fabrics for their clothing. You can even find out how much recycled polyester was used in a sweater (their cotton-and-polyester one contains the equivalent of 18 bottles per sweater). Most of their garments are knitwear (more casual sweaters or jumpers), but they also have a few organic cotton shirts.

Basic Rights – See above for a long explanation, but to sum it up, their goal is to produce ethically and sustainable by reducing their impact on the environment through sourcing materials or corporate policies and practices to offset their environmental footprint. Plus, they make basics, so your clothes will never really go out of style while still having a sort of refined look.

Arthur & Henry produce handmade ethical shirts

In the end, the most sustainable action that you can choose to take is to keep your clothes for a long time, to purchase only things that are essential or versatile, rather than purchasing products that are very fashion forward, strange, and will never be worn again after the first couple times. Regardless of however cheap an item may be, the less you wear it, the more expensive it is in cost per wear. So choosing to have something that lasts you for a while, or to repair something that is meaningful to you, will enable you to participate in a sustainable menswear program.

Similarly, choosing to buy from brands that are more transparent or open about their factories and their working conditions enables you to participate in more ethical menswear.

Choosing to get clothing that is made in countries with more stringent labor laws helps assure you that you are not supporting slave-like labor (yes, I know–there are exceptions with the brands that have things “assembled” at the final country).

Buying bespoke from reputable tailoring houses lets you know pretty much what you are getting – albeit even in this instance we only know where the final product is being made, while we most likely still ignore where and in what conditions the cloth was obtained, spun, dyed, and shipped to the tailor.

Getting clothes from some small manufacturer rather than from some retailer gives you a clearer vision of what you are getting as well. If you are thinking that you want to buy some accessories, search out the small makers who you know are creating your products or sourcing them from small manufacturers.

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e. v. Empey

Mr. Empey is the type of guy who prefers English style in the winter and Italian style in the summer. Or at least he used to. Now he's uncertain where he stands, since he travels a lot and has to visit a fair number of places where Americana workwear would be the best option. His appreciation of menswear stems more from a love of artisanship, so naturally, he also appreciates other crafts including cocktails and quality cuisine.
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About e. v. Empey

Mr. Empey is the type of guy who prefers English style in the winter and Italian style in the summer. Or at least he used to. Now he's uncertain where he stands, since he travels a lot and has to visit a fair number of places where Americana workwear would be the best option. His appreciation of menswear stems more from a love of artisanship, so naturally, he also appreciates other crafts including cocktails and quality cuisine.

5 thoughts on “Thinking About Sustainability and Ethics in Menswear

  1. You should look into Story Mfg. and Bode and add them to the list. Small labels, but their business models are based on sustainability. Their clothes are amazing, too.

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