100% organic clothing hanging on rack in store

Food, clothing, and shelter are considered humans’ three basic needs. But the environmental impacts of meeting those needs can be staggering. Agriculture and textile dyeing are the top two global sources of water pollution. Fibers from polyester clothing contribute to the microplastic buildup in ocean garbage gyres. But boycotting clothing is not a viable option. How can people lessen their impact without literally giving up the shirt off their backs?

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According to the World Resources Institute, the average consumer today purchased 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than they did in 2000, but kept each garment half as long.

Even though fast fashion has led to clothes that don’t last like they used to, most of us could still buy less and hang on to it longer. Sustainable fashion companies are breaking new ground in transparency and eco-friendly fashion practices. But these companies clothes can be expensive and hard to find.

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CSRHub.com — an aggregator of company environmental and social responsibility data — rated clothing brands. Each brand received a score for governance, community contributions, employee treatment, and environmental practices, as well as an overall score that combined the categories. Scores were ranked by percentiles, just like academic standardized tests.

Designer brands, with their carefully sourced materials, dominated the rankings for eco-friendly fashion. But Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent are even less accessible to the average person than sustainable brands like Everlane or Reformation.

Fashion label environmental ratings provided by CSRHub.com

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How did everyday brands perform? No data was available for Forever21, the poster child for fast fashion, and American Eagle scored dismally at the 28th percentile for environmental performance (their overall corporate social responsibility score was in the much higher 62nd percentile). Contrasting with Ralph Lauren’s classy image, they scored in the bottom half of brands for both environmental and overall social responsibility.

Tommy Hilfiger, ASOS, and Hollister (by Abercrombie & Fitch) each came in at the 57th percentile overall, with middling environmental scores (55th, 53rd, and 50th, respectively). Zara, at the 69th percentile for environmental practices and 63rd overall, was just a bit above average.

A few mainstream brands stand out for offering eco-friendly fashion. Two of them are athletic brands. Adidas (96th percentile overall) earned an impressive 81st percentile for environmental practices. Nike, often the target of activists, seems to have taken criticisms to heart. They broke into the top quartile with a 75th percentile environmental score and earned the 85th percentile overall.

But if you aren’t excited about a lifetime of athleisure, H&M has a surprisingly high 80th percentile environmental score and ranks 90th overall. Their efforts to source material more sustainably and to recycle clothing are more than simple greenwashing.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.