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Fashion is thought to be responsible for generating more than 100 million tons of waste every year. But don’t feel guilty about not finding a way to recycle your old bikini. Much of this catastrophe starts long before you buy anything, when fashion designers and brands try to guess upcoming trends, figure out the most flattering fit and design, and estimate how many of each piece to order from manufacturing partners. When they don’t guess correctly—which happens most of the time—much of that unsold overage becomes waste: It’s incinerated or slashed and put in the dumpster.
Or, if you do buy it and it doesn’t fit or isn’t as nice as it looked on the website, you might return it to the brand. Seventy percent of apparel returns can be traced back to fit or style issues. The return rate for clothing in the U.S. alone currently stands at 12%, and according to some estimates, 10% of returns across the board end up landfilled.
Why Made-to-Order Could Be an Answer
Buying from made-to-order brands can help remedy this crisis. This model responds to actual demand, as opposed to abstract sales forecasts. The basic premise is that designs are showcased on the website. Only when you click “purchase” does the designer or brand start sewing the garment in the size you requested.
In taking a more personalized approach, labels working in this way can sometimes afford to be more accommodating when it comes to a bespoke fit. Taller, smaller, or more well-endowed than average? Often, you can simply add your measurements to the order notes to end up with a custom-fit piece.
Other brands offer more extended sizing than the average brand can afford to. When Old Navy tried offering all stock in all sizes, the resulting inventory problems led to the CEO stepping down—and that is for a cheap brand. Small ethical and sustainable brands can’t risk saddling themselves with the financial risk of ordering ready-to-wear stock in all sizes in expensive organic or artisan fabrics. With made-to-order, they can feel free to offer extended sizes to the customers who request it.
There are two caveats here. First, if something is made especially for you, attempting to return it later may not be possible, so always scope out a brand’s terms before hitting buy. Second, lead times vary. Typically, your wait will be weeks, although it all depends on what you’ve ordered, who’s making it, and where they’re shipping from. So plan ahead, and really know you love it before you pull the trigger.
Going made-to-order is a commitment, no question. But it is also more mindful, measured, and in-tune with the dignity of the handmade. Likewise, it can make you feel just a little bit fancy—and appreciate what you bought so much more.
How to Shop Made-to-Order Sustainably
Made-to-order ticks the low-waste design box, but it doesn’t guarantee an eco-friendly outcome. Here’s what to look for in your bespoke garment:
Natural fibers: Try to ensure that it’s cut and sewn using natural materials. Renewable fibers that can be traced back to nature have forever appeal for a reason. As always, look out for brands working with silk, linen, hemp, traceable cotton, cashmere, wool, or leather.
Man-made cellulosic fibers: Consider man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCFs), but consider them wisely, as not all are created equal. The best right now are Lenzing’s Tencel lyocell and super silky Tencel Luxe, plus Tencel-blended Refibra and EcoVero viscose, also known as rayon. The manufacturer matters: Lenzing ranks only after Mumbai producer Aditya Birla in sustainable forestry non-profit Canopy’s most recent Hot Button ranking. Also look for cupro, especially Asahi Kasei’s Bemberg variety, which takes pre-consumer cotton linter, a waste product left over from the ginning process, and turns it into a silky, stretchy, drapable and breathable semi-synthetic.
Upcycled or recycled fabrics: It has been suggested that around $120 billion worth of surplus textile stock is either incinerated, landfilled or left to lay dormant in stores every year, so extra props to the designers making use of vintage or deadstock fabrics.
If upcycling isn’t possible, look out for recycled fibers, preferably those produced from post-consumer waste (learn about upcycling versus recycling and the difference between pre- and post-consumer waste here). Before investing in anything fashioned out of recycled polyester or rPET, though, make sure to read about what it really means.
Bio-based or biodegradable embellishments: Don’t let those small, plastic, petroleum-derived sequins or synthetic trimmings steal your sustainability shine. The polyvinyl chloride (PVC) component to conventional sequins, for instance, can be highly toxic to both humans and the environment. So much so, Swiss luxury group Richemont (the owner of brands such as Chloé, Alaïa, and Delvaux) is on track to phase it out completely by December 2022. Instead, look out for glass beading, along with natural-fiber embroidery, and lace and trimmings that can biodegrade. Buttons made from sustainable wood, freshwater pearls, corozo, coconut shell or any other kind of responsibly sourced shell are also preferable.
Fair labor and transparency: Made-to-order production is often small-scale, so no need to look for factory audits. Instead, look for evidence that the brand pays employees and artisans a living wage. Larger enterprises may list their certifications, such as Fairtrade or Nest.
Cultural respect: Look for brands that appropriately credit the culture and traditions from which they are drawing. Even better if the lead designer or founder is drawing from their own cultural and family traditions to create a more profound fashion statement. The language should feel respectful of the craft and timelessness of the piece you’re buying. Above all, it should be accurate, and reflect a deep understanding of where the aesthetics come from and mean.
Recycled and traceable jewelry: Always try to prioritize stones and metals that are traceable, durable, and even made from recycled or well-cared-for upcycled materials. (Find our fine jewelry shopping checklist here.)
Here’s are our favorite brands taking a slower, less wasteful approach to making beautiful things:
Based in Pastores, a Guatemalan town renowned for its leatherworking tradition, Adelante offers both made-to-measure footwear and a small selection of handcrafted leather goods. Everything is crafted by local artisans who are paid more than double the typical local rate, or above what it calls the “living well line”.
Arteaga offers a timeless selection of clothing constructed from fabrics specially chosen for their quality, beauty, and provenance. Though rooted in Brooklyn, its most recent collection has been formed alongside indigenous Mayan weavers and embroiderers in the mountains of Chiapas in southern Mexico.
After working in various fashion styling and editorial roles, Autumn Adeigbo launched her debut collection of seven African-inspired dresses while working at W magazine during the day and hostessing at night. An alumna of both Parsons School of Design and the Tory Burch Foundation fellowship program, Adeigbo emphasizes “culture, color [and] conscience” and ensures that her ethically and sustainably minded designs are all sewn in NYC at female-owned facilities. Beadwork is applied by hand by fairly paid artisans in India.
Aziza jewelry is made to order by Brooklyn-based designer Aziza-Abdullah Nicole, who describes her creations as “sculptures from wax and metal”. The brand offers everything from rings, to bracelets, to necklaces, earrings and grillz, all made from nickel-free metals including sterling silver and 14-karat gold.
Each and every Bastet Noir garment is produced to shoppers’ exact measurements using discarded natural-fiber materials. Specializing in dresses, suiting, and outerwear, the female-owned brand makes its pieces to order in North Macedonia, Europe, offering employment opportunities to women single parents and micro-entrepreneurs. Deadstock cupro, cotton, cashmere, linen, wool, and silk are its preferred fibers.
A minimalist’s dream, Futaba crafts much of its jewelry to order in its Brooklyn workshop using sustainable materials like reclaimed sterling silver and recycled 14-karat gold. Pricier pieces are accentuated by thoughtfully placed stones such as diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds. Custom engraving is also an option.
This label is big on reducing waste. So much so, its jeans, dresses, jackets, and overalls are not only custom-made but also only ever assembled from repurposed worn denim. Add your custom inseam measurements to the order notes and you’ll end up with something “made with a shit load of love” in Salt Lake City.
The seeds of this mother-daughter label were first sown back in 2013, when daughter Akua Shabaka became frustrated by the lack of fashion options that resonated with her own aesthetic interests. House of Aama was thus born, stemming from an appreciation for what it calls the “ethos” of the African continent and diaspora. Besides clothing, the brand also offers swimwear and accessories from its base in LA.
Recycled 14-karat gold and ethically sourced, conflict-free diamonds and gemstones form the bedrock of Meitalove’s made-to-order jewelry collection. After receiving initial silversmith training from an Indian artisan while traveling in Asia, designer Meital Steinberg Sigler imagines her pieces as future heirlooms and describes an “intimate” creative process in which “every curve and line is [made] with intention”.
Fashion designer Roopa Pemmaraju cites India, Australia and the U.S., all of which she has previously called home, as the inspirations behind her low-waste collections. The label offers a wide range of vibrantly colored, romantic clothing, handbags, hats, scarves, hair accessories and more. Dreamed up in NYC, but realized by fairly paid artisans in India, everything is woven, stitched, printed and embroidered by hand using fabrics such as silk and, where possible, recycled cotton. She offers extended sizing upon request.
Based on the mesmerizingly beautiful island of Mauritius, SEKBI Bogolan makes all its clothing and accessories to order, inspired by bogolan, a handmade Malian cotton textile traditionally dyed with fermented mud. Keeping things ultra-low waste, the brand doesn’t even source its (recycled pulp) packaging until after an order has been placed. Its in-house SEKBI print, achieved using a pigment printing process to further minimize resource use, is also bespoke and draws from bogolan visual codes to symbolically convey its own ethical values, including integrity, responsibility, and accountability. Certifications are listed here.
Kolkata-born designer Sruti Dalmia aims to translate her memories of living in India, England, Myanmar and Singapore into a single design language, made manifest using natural materials that have been locally sourced or manufactured wherever possible. Having made her debut at London Fashion Week in 2021, Dalmia is certainly one to watch.