Though online thrift stores remain one of the best options when it comes to sustainable and ethical fashion, recycled and upcycled clothing is also worth considering.
Reaching for clothing that has been recycled is a great way of improving our ecological footprint and there are many brands making it super easy!
Before we get into those, we’ll start by exploring the basics of recycled and upcycled clothing, and then dive into some of the best recycled and upcycled clothing brands you need to know about.
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Why choose recycled and upcycled clothing?
To the dismay of many a clothing and fashion lover, the fashion industry is notoriously wasteful. According to the BBC, we produce as much as 92 million tonnes of textile waste every year. Fast fashion brands are largely to blame, fueling responses like the slow fashion movement which strives in part to address the exorbitant amount of textile waste we generate as a result.
Other major sources of textile waste include off-cuts from the clothing manufacturing process, as well as deadstock (or unsold products) which have notoriously been incinerated rather than being recycled or donated.
What happens to textile waste
In the US, 85% of all the clothing that is discarded is either buried in a landfill or burned. Generally, a large portion of this waste comes from fast fashion which is largely made using cheap synthetic fabrics like polyester. These synthetic fabrics can take up to a thousand years to degrade and release harmful chemicals when incinerated.
Textile waste also winds up in developing countries like Ghana through the used clothes trade. Though it does create economic opportunities for many, a lot of unwearable clothing is also shipped over from countries like Australia and the UK; resulting in more than 160 tonnes of textile waste every day. That’s a little bit over 350,000 pounds of textile waste; most of which has to be incinerated or winds up in the environment.
Why does this matter?
The environmental impact of fast fashion comes at a hefty cost on several fronts. From the chemical and non-renewable intensive processes they require to be produced, to the unethical and wasteful production practices adopted as a business model, it is plainly irresponsible to continue to support these operations unless absolutely necessary.
With a measly 15% of used clothing being recycled, choosing recycled or upcycled clothing will help to reduce waste and to divert it from landfills and ecosystems. It also helps to reduce the need for virgin materials, particularly in the production of synthetic materials like nylon and polyester.
So by reaching for recycled or upcycled clothing brands, we help to reduce our ecological footprint, reduce waste, and give a second life to materials that would otherwise end up going to waste in a landfill, incinerated, or polluting our ecosystems. We also help to support brands that are making the effort to provide more ethical options using recycled and upcycled material waste.
What are recycled and upcycled clothing materials?
Recycled clothing materials are made from used textiles or other materials that have been processed and turned into something new. Upcycled clothing uses garments, fabrics, and other materials in their present form to create new garments.
You will find products made using recycled and upcycled clothing materials like nylon, polyester, old plastic bottles, and more. But the most sustainable options remain those made of natural fibers like organic cotton, organic wool, bamboo, and some vegan leather.
What are the best-recycled fabrics and materials?
The best-recycled fabrics and materials are those that are ethically sourced from natural inputs like organic cotton, hemp, or jute. Though recycled synthetic fabrics are ok, they are not ideal because they release microplastics in the wash which wind up in the ocean and other waterways. Made of toxic non-renewables like fossil fuels, synthetic fabrics are also difficult to dispose of once they are used. Avoiding elastane or spandex and rayon is best too.
Often used for things like activewear and other gear, nylon is a durable, lightweight, and relatively cheap synthetic fiber. Made out of polymers derived from crude oil, with a production process akin to polyester, it can be considered a plastic. But it can also be recycled.
It can come from pre-consumer fabric waste such as garment samples, overstock, defective garments, off-cuts generated during the manufacturing process, or waste from spinning factories and weaving mills. It can also be made from post-consumer materials like industrial fishing nets.
Either way, the recycling process is similar. Nylon waste is sorted, cleaned, and spun into nylon yarn which can then be used to make recycled nylon fabric.
Recycled Polyester/PET Bottles
Also commonly used to store food items and beverages, this is where the PET bottles often used to make recycled polyester (rPET) come from. However, recycled polyester can also be made using post-industrial and post-consumer input materials.
Since PET is fully recyclable, it can be broken down into flakes, which are then melted, turned into pellets, and then melted again, filtered, and spun into thread. That thread is then used to make textiles for more eco-friendly sportswear, swimwear, and accessories.
While it does shed microplastics like its virgin and synthetic counterparts, rPET requires fewer resources and helps to keep waste out of our landfills and ecosystems.
Though some vegan leather is basically plastic, there are lots of fun innovative, sustainable alternatives, made by upcycling waste. Take Frutmat for example, using the peels and cores from the apple juice and apple compote industry and turning it into notebooks, handbags, and running shoes. Or VEGEA which takes waste from the winemaking industry and turns it into vegan leather; saving the harmful chemicals, water waste, and animal cruelty. No need to worry about the ethics of leather here.
Recycled natural fabrics
Similar to recycled nylon, natural fabrics like cotton or wool is sorted, broken down into fibers or shredded, and turned into yarn which can then be turned into fabric and fashioned into different garments.
Some brands also use recycled materials to produce more ethical sustainable sneakers so be on the lookout for that as well.
How to choose the best upcycled and recycled fashion
1. What fabrics/materials are being used?
Here I look for items made of all-natural sustainable textiles and materials. The best natural fabrics are made using cotton, wool, linen, silk, and hemp; particularly those produced using sustainable agricultural and manufacturing practices with a lighter footprint on the planet. That means certified organic textiles, and recycled content textiles too.
I also look for products made from eco-friendly or natural dyes to avoid dyeing processes that can otherwise be extremely resource-intensive (notably of water), chemical-intensive, environmentally destructive, and even harmful to the workers handling them.
Where possible I favor natural buttons made from clever substitutes like coconuts and tag nuts, or garments made from recycled buttons, and recycled zippers. Garments that do not include small metallic/hard-to-recycle inputs (think rivets on denim or plastic buttons) are also more sustainable.
To make sure the textiles I choose are produced using sustainable processes, I look for third-party certifications like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), ECOCERT, OCS (Organic Content Standard), and Blue Sign.
Recycled clothing certifications like Recycled Claim Standard, GRS (Global Recycle Standard), and the SCS Recycled Content Certification are good references to verify the origins of the materials used.
2. Are the fabrics and materials ethically sourced?
When it comes to ethical sourcing I look for brands that source their materials and labor as ethically as possible. From organic farming methods and recycled content fabrics to water efficiency and fair labor practices, I reach for brands that make sure to protect the environment and people, at every step of their supply chain. Certifications like Fair Trade, OEKO-TEX® 100, and WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) are good indicators that a brand is following ethical sourcing practices.
I also prefer buying local, independent, BIPOC, or women-owned artisans wherever possible. It helps to support their work, reduces my carbon footprint, and keeps money circulating in my local economy.
3. What is the brand's corporate responsibility?
Corporate responsibility is a great indicator of a brand's values and basically demonstrates what more the brand is doing beyond production and sourcing practices. Do they have a social purpose that helps disadvantaged people? Are they actively working to reduce their environmental footprint through different initiatives? Do they offer plastic-free shipping? Do they support the growth and development of their employees? What more are they doing to account for their impact on the planet and to invest in creating a better future for everyone?
Recycled and upcycled clothing brands we love
With a modern and conscious take on fashion, Preloved is definitely one of the best-upcycled clothing brands out there. Founded by self-proclaimed “accidental environmentalist” Julia Grieve, they offer unique, fashionable, and eco-friendly garments using only vintage and deadstock materials.
Based in Toronto and made entirely in Canada, Preloved has successfully diverted over 1 million articles of clothing from landfills over the past 25 years and remains a leader in upcycled fashion.
Their collection of upcycled womenswear features everything from masks and dresses, to tops, bottoms, jumpsuits, outerwear, sets, and accessories. Sizes range from XS-XL.
BrokenGhostClothing is an eco-friendly shop offering upcycled, bohemian-inspired clothing and accessories for women, plus-size women, and children.
All handmade using only recycled and upcycled fabrics, you’ll find dresses, shirts, tunics, purses, and more, courtesy of Jane Horst Kautzman. A great option for handmade upcycled clothing, check them out for a really fun take on sustainable fashion and upcycled clothing.
Based in Wainfleet, Canada, PieceByPeaceCanadian is an upcycled clothing company offering a wide range of options including capris, jean jackets, shirts, dresses, and lots more. By making their garments entirely out of upcycled materials, PieceByPeaceCanadian works to keep waste out of landfills and to provide more ethical fashion alternatives.
Sizes will vary since all of their handmade pieces are unique and may not be available in specific sizes. However, within their collection, you will find garments in a range of sizes including plus-size options.
Run by Courtney Pedersen, 3_3_4_7 is a small design company based in Montreal. Working in the worlds of art and fashion, they’ve taken on the challenge of reimagining fashion's role in society by offering garments and accessories made of recycled materials. All are individually designed and deconstructed.
From this mindful and artistic lens, 3_3_4_7 creates recycled designer clothing featuring one-of-a-kind dresses, tops, bottoms, earrings, and more.
A modern-bohemian fashion brand created by two sisters, Spell is bringing you responsibly crafted garments inspired by childhood memories, vintage treasures, and far-off places. Their lovely flowing dresses and other essentials are made from a variety of thoughtfully selected fabrics including cotton, hemp, linen, and ECONYL® (a fabric made from recycled ocean and landfill waste, as well as fabric scraps from clothing manufacturers).
In terms of ethical sourcing, Spell is transparent about its supply chain and is working to partner only with suppliers that have conducted a social or environmental audit. Their standards of choice are SA8000, GOTS, WRAP, BSCI, and FAIRTRADE, as well as SEDEX SMETA P2 & P4 audit.
With a love of handcrafting, Spell also partners with marginalized artisans and craftspeople around the world to produce beautiful, handmade pieces of jewelry, tote bags, brass toe caps, and kaftans.
There are lots to love over at Spell so be sure to check them out for upcycled bohemian clothing. Sizes range from XXS-XXL. (Technically this is an Aussie brand, but they have an office in the USA)
Girl of the Earth offers effortless upcycled clothing for women using authentic vintage fabric remnants. As if going the extra mile to make clothing entirely out of upcycled fabrics wasn’t enough, founder Ruby hunts for vintage fabrics herself, using an unconventional supply chain of eccentric grandmas, flea market owners, vintage suppliers, and just plain hoarders as she defines it; for an extra special collection of on-trend, vintage, upcycled garments.
Made in NYC, you’ll find all of their 'few-of-a-kind™' items including tops, bottoms, and more. Sizes range from XS to XL.
Founded by pro-surfer Kelly Slater, this coastal-minded, sustainable clothing brand is one of our favorites for sustainable men’s clothing. They also offer some awesome items made from recycled or renewable fibers like recycled polyester and recycled spandex; notably their swimsuits.
The recycled polyester they use is made of 100% post-consumer waste like plastic water bottles and helps to reduce carbon emissions by keeping materials in circulation which would otherwise be wasted.
With that, 90% of the fibers used in their garments are organic, recycled, or regenerated. The brand is also committed to sustainability and circularity making them one of the best-upcycled men’s clothing brands.
With a commitment to ethical practices, cultural preservation, transparency, and environmental sustainability, Naadam is one of our favorite sustainable clothing brands here at the Eco Hub.
Best known for their sustainable Mongolian Cashmere clothing with options for both men and women; they also offer recycled cashmere options made out of their own leftover yarn and fabric scraps.
This helps them to reduce waste on their end and offers us lovely cashmere garments with a lighter environmental footprint. Sizes range from XXS-3X, with lovely pieces like the Recycled Cashmere Open Neck Polo, and the Recycled Cashmere Quarter-Zip Dress.
Their recycled cashmere is also GRS certified, making sure it meets acceptable social, environmental, and chemical standards.
Founded on the principle that humans and nature are created from the same building blocks of the universe, KINDOM wants to help us create an environment that reflects our kinship with nature and the universe through responsible stewardship of natural and all living things.
To do their part, KINDOM offers sustainable clothing options using sustainable, natural, recycled, reclaimed, and indigenous materials, produced in ethical, fair trade facilities.
Rather than using virgin polyester, they opt for rPET. You will also find an entire collection of upcycled garments featuring dresses, outerwear, bottoms, and tops, making them a great option for clothing and ethical hats made from recycled materials.
To avoid adding to the tons of plastic generated by the fashion industry in the form of poly bags, your KINDOM garments will also arrive in vegetable-based bioplastic bags, as well as recycled poly mailers made from 100% recycled content.
Arielle is a sustainable apparel label offering fashion options made in NYC; using organic, recycled, and zero-waste fabric. They really make the most of recycled clothing materials and upcycled clothing materials. From innovative and seemingly outlandish textiles like Milk Fabric made out of dairy waste from German dairy farms to cactus leather, recycled cotton, recycled polyester, and recycled wool.
Since Arielle is plastic-free, they also use other sustainable materials like the corozo nut for their buttons, mother of pearl, brass, and vintage horn. For waterproofing they use beeswax. As for dyeing, they prefer undyed goods, or reclaimed dyes and color-grown fibers where possible.
Committed to local manufacturing, a fair trade supply chain and plastic-free packaging & production, their selection of stylish and sexy womenswear is all the more worth it.
Also featured as one of our favorite brands for ethical summer dresses, tonlé is also one of the best zero waste fashion brands. They embrace a business model based on the circular economy, and all of their clothing is made using reclaimed textiles.
Along with a commitment to ethical sourcing practices and fashion justice, their selection of garments features lots of wonderful pieces including tops, bottoms, jumpsuits, and more; all designed with style and comfort in mind. Sizes range from XS-XXL.
Founded by two LA natives, Sean Barron and Jamie Mazur, RE/DONE is a denim company breathing new life into iconic heritage classics like Levi’s and Hanes. Starting with just two styles of RE/DONE Levi’s, they now offer a variety of options, including an upcycled collection.
Since its launch, RE/DONE has diverted over 145,000 garments from landfills and transformed them into highly prized well-fitting luxury collectibles. So if you are looking for some thoughtfully remade sustainable denim be sure to check out RE/DONE. Sizes range from US 0-14 (23-32).
13. Organic Basics
A Danish company with sustainability and durability as founding principles, Organic Basics is another one of our favorite brands here at the Hub. You’ll love their sustainable tees, socks, undies, and winter gloves, but they also make a great option for clothing made from recycled materials.
When checking them out you can filter through their ‘Recycled material’ feature for all the garments made using recycled materials like GRS certified recycled nylon, recycled wool, and GRS certified recycled cashmere. Their collection includes leggings and swimwear made in part using recycled nylon, as well as bras, crop tops, bike shorts, and lots more.
On a mission to eliminate waste in the fashion industry, clothing designer and zero waste pioneer Daniel Silverstein offers handmade designs using pre-consumer waste and other hard-to-recycle materials.
All handmade in NYC, with zero waste Daniel's (zwd) genderless clothing and accessories, send nothing to landfill. For shipping, packaging, and office materials, zwd uses only recycled and recyclable materials as well.
With a commitment to making work that doesn’t hurt people or oppress them, definitely be sure to check out zero waste daniel for a creative and zero waste take on ethical designer fashion. Sizes range from XS-3X.
A final word on recycled and upcycled clothing
There are lots to love when it comes to recycled and upcycled clothing. From denim and patchwork pieces to more traditional takes, recycled and upcycled clothing offers style and versatility, while lightening our environmental footprint and keeping waste out of landfills and oceans.
I hope this list of brands has got you just as hyped as me to reach for more recycled and upcycled clothing brands. But I wouldn’t be any good at this if I didn’t remind you to make sure you really need any new purchases you settle on or to make space in your closet by composting or selling your used clothes online where applicable.
And if you need anything more don’t forget to check out the brand directory. These days many brands are working hard to offer eco-solutions for everything from clothing and home products to eco luggage and eco-friendly shampoo. For that and everything in between, the brand directory is a great resource you can always refer to.