A few years ago when I was first urged by readers to look into the lack of sustainable and ethical fashion in inclusive sizing, the field was bleak. I actually resorted to including links to sustainable brands that offered items in XL. Yeah, I know.
“A limited number of brands offer ethical and sustainable clothing, giving all consumers (and especially the plus consumer) only a handful of options, making an already small pool even smaller for women intending to shop ethically and eco-consciously,” says Candice Huffine, a plus-size model and founder of the size-inclusive athletic brand Day/Won.
“We recently ran a Kickstarter and had many requests for larger sizes,” Laura Moffat, co-founder and director of marketing for the androgynous Brooklyn brand Kirrin Finch, told me in 2016. At the time, they went up to size 16. “The demand is there, but it requires a whole new pattern and new fit models. So if a brand is not solely focused on the plus-size market, it is hard to justify the additional development cost.”
But things have changed (some)! Not only has the ethical and sustainable fashion scene exploded in the past three years, so has awareness of how underserved the plus-sized market is. “We are moving into a time in fashion where sustainability is becoming a driving factor for what women of all sizes choose to shop for,” says Huffine. “All women want to be their best selves, stay healthy, shop thoughtfully, and buy things that they love. This is true whether you’re a size 32 or 2.”
After all, the average American woman is a size 16/18, and this segment of the fashion industry is growing much faster than the “regular” retail market. Kirrin Finch made good on Moffat’s promise, and now offers styles in sizes up to 24, and a half-dozen brands have popped up that will manufacture your size-22 yoga leggings or 3X organic cotton tunic on demand in the U.S. under excellent working conditions.
These brands deserve your dollars, because creating plus-size fashion that is also sustainable — while not an insurmountable mountain — is no lark.
Racked detailed the challenges facing plus-sized brands (check it out — it’s a great read). And that is for brands that are conventional. Many sustainable brands are already barely carving out profit margins, because of their emphasis on high-quality textiles, craftsmanship, and paying a fair wage. Doing 2X and-up clothing (and doing it well) adds on another layer of challenges.
I wanted to detail them here for you, so that you can:
A. understand why a covetable small brand might seem to be taking their sweet time creating something for you, and…
B. be a more effective consumer activist when asking them for inclusive sizing.
1. Plus-size women can be hesitant to invest in pricier clothing.
When Beth Ditto launched her ethically produced plus-sized line in 2016, many in her target demographic reacted with dismay at the prices, saying they couldn’t see themselves spending so much. (The line has since been discontinued.) According to a 2019 report, women who are in the plus-size range of clothing on average have lower incomes, and spend less on fashion.
It’s hard enough to get any fashion consumer at all to pay more for ethically-made clothing. What we tell her is to “buy less and buy better” or “invest in fewer items that are higher quality” and “only buy things that you’ll wear at least 30 times.” In an ideal world, you would. But what if you’re still being bombarded by — and absorbing — society’s message that you should be actively trying to lose weight? Perhaps you’re not ready to “come out” as being permanently your current size. Or, more practically, your weight is actively fluctuating and you don’t know if you’ll be able to wear something 30 times before you have to redo your whole wardrobe yet again.
“I think there is some truth to it,” says Mayya Cherepova, plus-size designer, print artist, and Sustainable Fashion Systems professor at Parsons. “A lot of plus-size girls have a thought of losing weight…and you fluctuate a lot. So you’re going to be throwing [clothing] out more, you’re going to be buying more, which means you will be buying cheap clothes.” But she quickly adds, “I think it is changing.”
She points to Universal Standard, which, though they don’t talk about their manufacturing ethics or where anything is made, does use quality fabrics like merino wool and Pima cotton, and offers customers the ability to exchange their purchases for another size within a year if they size up or down during that time. That makes investing in something nice a little more palatable. Whether a small fashion brand could have such a generous return policy? Maybe not. Generous return policies are expensive.
“It’s this constant thinking that every curvy woman is in a “stopover” body on her way to a size 2, that keeps her fashion fast, materials synthetic and footprint for the planet highly damaging,” Huffine laments. Hopefully, as we move into a new age of self-acceptance, this will fall away. “Now more than ever, plus women are not only accepting of their born-this-way shape, but are actually quite proud,” Huffine says.
2. You gotta be good at grading up.
If a brand wants to expand their sizing, it’s more than a matter of adding inches. It involves bringing in fit models and tweaking all the designs.
“I’m sorry. If you have a beautiful size-4 Chinese model, and then you grade up for me, you’re not going to get clothes that fit me,” Cherepova says. “Every bulge you can think about on a human body with curves gets accentuated when you are larger. That variety is so much more drastic in plus-size, so yeah, making patterns is hard.”
Eileen Fisher, which has been heavily investing in becoming an entirely sustainable fashion brand over the past five or so years, has carried plus sizes in its classic styles for twenty years. It represents about 10% of their business. “We offer the same collection for all sizes, but have a different fit process for each range,” says Tracy Breslin, Director of Brand Projects. “Our team of technical designers and a dedicated merchandiser work with a plus-size fit model to refine the fit. In many cases, the revisions are about reducing volume. For example, we use set-in sleeves where the original design might have had dolman sleeves, or we add sleeves to sleeveless pieces. We take into consideration how the plus customer would want to wear the piece differently (perhaps fewer layers or a flattering v-neck). Our fit model is critical to the process. She is candid about what’s working and what needs to shift. We listen to her experience, and our technical designers work out the mechanics on how to make it happen.”
The zero-waste designer Daniel Silverstein, whose ZWD line goes up to XL and does made-to-measure pieces for clients of all sizes, agrees that there is a dearth in plus-size expertise. “Most designers are simply taught a certain way of doing things that the industry accepts as standard,” he says. “Though there are some cost differentials in producing plus sizes such as lower yield and higher material costs that keep ‘plus’ as it’s own category, I think the biggest problem is that it is not a standard part of education from schools like FIT, where I went. So it might be less a matter of people wanting to design in a larger variety of sizes, and more an issue of designers’ awareness or knowledge. It’s something we need to be thinking of at the educational level to make true industry reform.”
It also would help brands sell more if they showed their clothing on plus-size models (obviously), so you could be more confident that it will look good. But even Eileen Fisher, a large brand, doesn’t photograph most of its range on plus-size models. “We would love to have more plus images – it’s a subject that is discussed frequently within our creative center,” Breslin says. “Our sample line comes in one size – getting additional sized samples for photography can be a complicated undertaking that can involve teams in many factories, in many countries.”
3. Sustainable fabric costs more.
Fact: sustainable fabrics cost more than cheap polyester. And when you have to buy more of it, and pay tariffs to import it into the U.S. to your ethical NYC factory? Those prices add up. But inclusive sizing advocates are tired of hearing that. Cherepova calls it, “a lame excuse.” After all, XXS ladies don’t get a fabric discount, so why are we pretending like we can charge more for XXL?
Still, for an emerging brand that is bootstrapping (not a huge brand that is just disinterested) these are hard decisions to make. “The more exclusive (unfortunate, but true for now) and higher cost of eco-friendly fabrics create a tricky scenario to navigate, albeit not at all impossible,” Huffine says.
It seems that the best way to get into more inclusive sizing as a brand is not to dip a toe in and then go, “Welp, it didn’t sell!” but to make the bold decision to go all in, with sizing up to 2X at least, high-quality fit, photographs of your product on plus-size models and inclusive and enthusiastic marketing to tell the world that you have all sizes. If you have on-demand manufacturing in the U.S., which decreases both waste and the risk that you won’t sell through all the sizes, that can also help.
Where to Get Plus Size Sustainable and Ethical Clothing
If you’re ready to give your body the love and quality it deserves, I’ve rounded up some ethical designers and sustainable retailers doing 2XL/20 and up. (If you have more, please comment below!)
Mara Hoffman has become a pioneer in the sustainable fashion movement, flipping her materials to sustainable versions, and then sizing many of her sophisticated styles up to 2X or 20.
Founded by plus-size model Candice Huffine, this sexy athletic apparel brand is all made on demand, to cut down on waste, in upstate New York. Many styles, which go up to 5X, are made with recycled, locally-sourced materials and waterless dyeing technology.
This brand has been producing sustainable and ethical plus sizes up to 4X for longer than most of the brands in this list. It’s all made in Minnesota of natural materials like organic cotton and lyocell, and released in limited editions — most of it is made to order as well, to limit waste.
HOURS understands that production waste is created at the mills, which is why they use eco-friendly and upcycled fabrics to minimize waste and pollution. They work with local mills in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province and select only fabrics that would otherwise end up in a landfill or be burned. They work exclusively with WRAP certified factories, which uphold strict environmental and social laws and standards when it comes to worker wellbeing. The HOURS team visits the factories several times throughout the year and have built great relationships with the owners to ensure they meet standards and produce high-quality products. Plus, all of their packaging is 100% recycled and recyclable—from tissue paper to envelopes—and they don’t use any plastic products at all.
Not only does Eileen Fisher collect and upcycle, recycle or resell the clothing that loyal customers bring back, plus use sustainable fibers like organic cotton and Tencel, recycled fibers and responsible wool and manufacture in the U.S., this brand offers over 200 classic styles in sizes up to 3X.
Made in-house in Tennessee, Elizabeth Suzann’s styles are made only of natural fibers and go up to sizes 4XL.
With sizes from XXS up to 5XL, everything from this vintage-style brand is made in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on vintage and California-made materials.
This heritage brand makes jeans that are meant to be treasured for the long term, pioneering a technology called Water<Less that uses less water in the notoriously thirsty denim manufacturing process, ensuring their products are free of toxic finishes, and supporting more sustainable cotton farming. Their sizes go up to 24.
Made in sizes up to 6XL, the athletic and yoga wear from Girlfriend Collective is made of upcycled water bottles and nylon fishing nets, is Oeko-Tex certified, and the Vietnamese cut-and-sew workers are paid above the local minimum wage.
Using sustainable materials like organic cotton, this LA-casual brand has basics like tees and zip-up hoodies in sizes up to 3X.
Reformation does many of its signature sustainably sexy dresses and tops in materials like Tencel in sizes up to 3X.
Poplinen was created for all the women searching for a better way to purchase sustainable, higher quality products that look and feel good, all while not breaking the bank. They use eco-friendly fabrics like organic linen, cotton, Tencel, and bamboo, and carry sizes up to 3XL.
This colorful brand goes from XXS to 5XL, and is made in Los Angeles from almost all natural materials like cotton.
Founded by a plus-size model, this brand caters to women who fall between straight and plus-sizes, with sizing from 6 to 20, and everything is made in New York City.
Find androgynous, quality, made-in-NYC button downs and jackets in sizes up to 24 at this direct-to-consumer brand.
In sizes up to 15X, everything for this direct-to-consumer brand is made in Queens, NY, usually of a cotton-spandex blend.
In sizes up to 4x, this brand provides a capsule wardrobe made of natural and sustainable materials, including organic cotton and Tencel.
A direct-to-consumer company, this brand makes everything in sizes up to 4X or 30 on a made-to-order basis in the United States, so that there isn’t overproduction or waste.
Handmade to order in LA in sizes up to 4x for its organic cotton tees and XL for separates and dresses, this slow fashion brand strives for zero waste. And the store also carries other ethical, female-owned brands.
One of the most sustainable ways to get affordable sustainable clothing is to go secondhand! No new resources are needed to make something, you’re keeping old clothes out of the landfill or being shipping overseas, and it’s essentially recycling your clothes. I’ve heard that it’s rather difficult to find plus-size clothing in thrift stores, but online, you just have to check a box and, boom, it’s all sorted for you.