It’s officially fall, which means it’s finally time to make your house cozy and grab anything and everything pumpkin spice. And while you’re picking apples or reading your favorite book, you’ll probably be bundled up in a sweater. If you’re looking to restock your closet with cozy hoodies, cardigans and turtlenecks this season, it’s the perfect time to nab some sustainable sweaters to replace your old ones.
It’s no secret fast fashion is bad for the planet, but looking for fashion brands that are actually sustainable can be hard. That’s why we talked to sustainability experts to help you find the best low-impact sweaters that will keep you cozy this fall.
What makes a sweater sustainable?
It’s not too difficult to find a sweater made from eco-friendly or recycled materials, as most brands large and small are leaning into sustainability. Where it does get difficult is when you take a more holistic look at the sustainability of your sweater. “A sustainable sweater is one that is made with BOTH its human and planetary impact in mind,” says Katrina Caspelich, director of marketing for Remake, a nonprofit fighting to end fast fashion. “This means that the company that produces the sweater treats its workers fairly AND uses earth-friendly materials — not one or the other. To be truly sustainable, companies must support the well-being of the individual worker and the environment.”
However, figuring out if a brand embodies these values is difficult, which is why Caspelich says research is key. On top of figuring out what materials the sweater is made of, she encourages shoppers to ask the following questions: “Is their supply chain traceable? If so, do they disclose where their suppliers are located? Not just country, but addresses? Are they paying living wages and ensuring safe conditions for their garment workers? What kind of volume do they produce? How do they address waste? Do they have an active Extended Producer Responsibility policy? What is it (financial, physical or both)?”
How to find sustainable sweaters
To navigate the wide world of sustainable sweaters, we asked for some shopping tips from Caspelich and Elizabeth Cline, author of “The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good.” Cline says to start off by looking for a cashmere, wool or alpaca sweater since they’ll last longer than their cotton and synthetic counterparts.
“There’s a growing number of options in the sustainable sweater space. There’s of course the option to buy a timeless cashmere, wool or alpaca sweater that’ll last a lifetime (or find one in a secondhand shop),” says Cline. “There are also a growing number of brands making wool, cotton or cashmere sweaters more sustainably using what’s known as regenerative agricultural practices that store carbon in the soil. So look for that word, ‘regenerative.’”
If you don’t want to spend as much money on a sweater, Cline says opting for a cotton sweater with certified organic cotton is a good option, and recycled polyester sweaters are typically made from plastic bottles, which diverts waste from landfills. However, Cline says to be wary of these recycled polyester sweaters as they release microplastics.
To help narrow down the field, Cline says to keep an eye out for certifications that can help you identify sustainable brands. “In terms of certifications, you might look for Climate Beneficial Wool or certified organic cotton like GOTS-certified,” she says. “Some of the certifications that address animal welfare include the Responsible Wool Standard and Responsible Alpaca Standard. For recycled content, likewise, you might look for the Recycled [Claim] Standard.”
However, Cline warns that these certifications, while helpful, are imperfect. “Third-party certifications are not failproof, as textile supply chains are complex and complete visibility is challenging,” Cline says. “Still, in general, there’s a correlation between companies that are using third-party certified products and those that try to abide by sustainable practices throughout their business, so I still think third-party certifications are a yellow light to feel more confident when you shop.”
Caspelich has a few more tips to help you buy and wear sweaters sustainably this fall:
- Limit your shopping: The most sustainable shopping you can do is no shopping at all. Think of fun, new ways to style the sweaters you already own and consider swapping clothes with friends if you’re in need of a fall closet refresh.
- Shop pre-loved pieces: Opt for secondhand clothing first on sites like ThredUp or The RealReal and in person at local thrift stores. There’s also a cool new browser extension called Beni that makes it super easy for you to find secondhand alternatives to the items you like when shopping online.
- Remember to #WearYourValues: Support brands whose values align with yours — recognize your purchasing power!
- Learn about greenwashing: With the popularization of the word “sustainable,” some brands use marketing techniques to appear eco-friendly and trendy while not actually upholding those practices. Make informed decisions by investigating before you buy.
If you need more help finding sustainable sweaters worth your money, check out sites like Remake and Good on You, which do the research into sustainability and impact for you. You can browse approved brands on their sites or search for your favorites.
Caspelich also says that while sustainable sweaters are more expensive than fast fashion alternatives, they’re made to last for years, especially when you take good care of them. “If we’re able to limit the amount of clothing we purchase yearly, investing in long-lasting, well-made garments rather than fast fashion garments that quickly show their wear, it’s possible that more of us will be able to purchase higher-quality items from sustainable brands even if we are limited to a tighter budget,” she says. To keep your sweaters lasting as long as they can, Caspelich and Cline echo the importance of washing them correctly and sustainably. Cline says to only wash your sweater when it really needs it and consider hand-washing and laying it flat out to dry to cut back on energy and water consumption.
All of these tips can help you find a sweater that’s more sustainable than what might be in your closet, but Cline emphasizes that no sweater is completely sustainable. “Just keep in mind, there’s no such thing as a perfectly green product,” Cline says. “Everything we buy has an environmental impact and every material has trade-offs. You still have to think about what you value most and make choices from there.”