The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The Big-Box Store Guide to Non-Toxic Fashion

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Big-box-store clothing shopping isn’t going anywhere. Families and individuals alike still love big box stores like Walmart, Target, Costco, and Kmart for staying on budget and easily finding a variety of different styles. In fact, 61% of people ages 13 to 39 do a lot of their clothing shopping for back-to-school, new jobs, and general wardrobe expansion at big box stores. The two authors of this article are no exception — Teri and Anabelle are both huge fans of the variety and accessibility. 

Teri’s childhood was spent mostly in hand-me-down clothes from her older sister, which were initially thrifted. It was a treat when she was able to choose her own school outfits at the local Walmart and Kmart. The older she grew, though, the more time she spent trying to find pieces in big box stores that would complement her teenage dirtbag style. She was a grown adult by the time she stopped shopping for all of her clothes at big box stores, but she always found myself coming back for the essentials or when she needed something specific.

Anabelle grew up shopping in thrift stores. Until they got their first high school job, any new clothing came from Walmart (unless they happened to be visiting their generous grandmother.) When they started making their own money, they eagerly started checking out the slightly trendier styles Target and Old Navy had to offer. But when they shifted from secondhand to wholesale, they didn’t understand why their supposedly higher-quality pieces felt claustrophobic and itchy and sometimes ripped within months of wear. 

Anabelle and Teri still love thrift stores for treasure hunting, but you can’t always find exactly what you’re looking for, especially if you need to dress in a certain way for a spontaneous occasion. Not everyone has the time and budget to search for sustainable and non-toxic brands. 

Their concern with big box store shopping goes beyond supporting multi-billion dollar corporations. While it might be more convenient and budget-friendly to shop at big box stores, it’s also more risky. 

Those higher price tags you see from sustainable, non-toxic brands are there because they really do produce clothing that’s better for your skin, your general health, and the environment. 

The fashion carried and sold at big box stores is mass-produced using cheap, synthetic materials that are sometimes doused in toxic finishes and contaminants, including ecocides, formaldehyde, stain-repellants, and sensitizing azobenzene dyes used for polyester. 

Even if a box store brand launches a “green” or “eco-friendly” line, that doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment. Big box stores often drop products made of recycled plastic, but this is just as harmful to sensitive skin and just as likely to contain hormone disruptors like BPA. 

To prepare yourself before you even go into the store, you can often use a box store’s website to search and filter for the skin-safe materials you’re looking for. You may not be able to find all of the details, but you should be able to get an idea of whether its selection is worth rooting through. You can also check to see if the store has an app, which can be used to search individual product listings as you shop.

Here are our big box store shopping recommendations for avoiding greenwashing and finding the safest and most sustainable options.

How to Shop for Non-Toxic Clothing at Big Box Stores

If you have severe skin sensitivities, Teri recommends taking proactive measures like moisturizing your hands for a lipid layer of mild protection or wearing gloves before you comb through the clothing selection—tricks she uses to reduce direct skin exposure to irritants.

When you go into the clothing section at a big box store, you might be hit with a vague chemical smell from all of the dyes and finishes used on the t-shirts, dresses, and jeans. The most important thing is to trust your nose—if a garment smells like it’s full of chemicals, it’s probably not good for you. 

What to Look For in Big Box Stores

While you won’t be able to find a lot of details on a standard garment tag, you should be able to find the fiber content. We recommend 100% natural fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, silk, and wool, but a small percentage of elastane and polyester may be okay depending on your level of skin sensitivity. You may even be able to find some bio-based, skin-safe synthetics like Tencel, modal, bamboo rayon, and lyocell. 

Certifications like GOTS, bluesign and Oeko-Tex are a good indication that a brand is mindful of best chemical practices in manufacturing (though this doesn’t necessarily mean the product doesn’t contain any final components that may be toxic,) You can also look for labels like Fair Trade to determine if it was made ethically.

Removable interior tags are best for those with skin sensitivities, as opposed to printed ones. You can cut out itchy polyester tags, but if it’s printed directly on the shirt and rubs you the wrong way, there’s nothing you can do about it. Even if you typically avoid physical interior tags because they’re scratchy and overstimulating, we recommend opting for the ones that are meant to be removed. 

Base layers and activewear that have tucked seams that aren’t visible on the inside of the garment might also help to reduce a reaction to polyester threading. Synthetic seams that come into direct contact with the skin for hours at a time can cause rashes and other severe skin irritation in those with sensitive skin. The same can be said for waistbands. 

It’s also a good idea to look for generous return policies—typically, a month of frequent wear is enough to determine if a piece makes you react, so a 30-day return policy will grant you the ability to return something that doesn’t work for you. 

What to Avoid in Big Box Stores

Steer clear of anything made with plastic-based materials, such as polyurethane-based faux leather, accessories made from PVC, and polyester and nylon. Any denim garments that stretch are likely made with elastane instead of majority cotton, so only shop “real” denim that has 90% or more cotton in its material makeup. 

Black and blue-based dyes are more likely to cause a reaction. You won’t be able to find any information about the dyes used on the fabric, but if it contains synthetics, it’s safe to assume it was dyed with azobenzene disperse dyes, which are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors

Skip anything with performance qualities such as quick-dry or wrinkle-free, as these contain toxic chemicals. Finishes that claim to be stain or water-resistant are frequently achieved by the use of PFAS “forever” chemicals that can stay in the body (and the environment) permanently and have been linked to several types of cancer, immune suppression, and reproductive toxicity.

Elastane and polyester-based activewear and underwear are also frequent culprits when it comes to harmful chemicals lurking in fabrics. While elastane can be an irritant on its own, polyester clothing that sits against the skin for extended periods of time generally contains azobenzene disperse dyes and other finishes meant to make a material more soft or stain-resistant. 


1. Target

What we love: Target does a lot for chemical management, including adhering to a manufacturing restricted substances list. We’ve noted before that Target has a strong chemical management policy for its in-house brands. Target also carries a lot of 100% cotton options, particularly basics, but we did spot a couple of nice white button-ups as well. It has a lot of organic cotton baby and children’s clothing, as well as dresses, socks, shirts, and lounge pants. It hosts a decent selection of affordable real denim in addition to its faux (but still mostly natural) denim made with cotton, Tencel lyocell, and a small percentage of elastane. It currently only has a couple of options for clothing made with 100% lyocell, while the rest are mixed with majority synthetics. It also carries underwear made with natural and bio-based fibers like modal and organic cotton. You can also use the Target app to scan a product barcode and learn more about the manufacturing information. 

You can find one of our favorite shoe brands, Nisolo, as well as TomboyX. 

Watch out for: It currently only has a couple of options for clothing made with 100% lyocell, while the rest are mixed with majority synthetics, so check the material makeup before you buy.


2. Old Navy 

What we love: We know Old Navy is a bit different from the box stores on this list, but we think it deserves a spot for its accessible pricing and range of products — plus, it does a lot for chemical management. In addition to its restricted substances list and water treatment, it has disclosed measurable progress toward eliminating hazardous chemicals at the supply chain level. It has 100% cotton options, such as what’s seen in some of its non-stretch denim products, as well as basic staples from tees to dresses and workwear blouses. You can also use the brand’s app to pull up additional information about each product using the barcode. 

Watch out for: Most of what Old Navy offers in stores is made with a synthetic blend that includes elastane, which could be irritating to those with sensitivities.


3. Walmart 

What we love: Walmart does some things for chemical management, sharing a time-bound commitment to eliminate hazardous chemicals at the supply chain level. On Walmart’s website, one of the filters you can use for some sections is the fabric material. The 100% natural fiber options in the women’s section include cotton, linen, and silk. All other natural fibers have at least some, if not majority, synthetics blended in. You can even find shirts and dresses made with 100% Tencel Lyocell. The kid’s section has a large selection of 100% cotton, and there are at least a few options for men, women, and kid’s for affordable real denim. You can also use the Walmart app to scan a product barcode and learn more about the manufacturing and supplier information. 

Walmart also hosts brands with good chemical management policies such as Levi’s, Nike, Columbia, New Balance, Timberland, and Silver Jeans, which uses real indigo to dye its jeans. 

Watch out for: Unfortunately, the men’s department does not have an option for filtering by material.


4. Costco

What we love: Costco does some things for chemical management, including adhering to a manufacturing restricted substances list. It has 100% cotton clothing options, as well as the occasional very small selection of 100% Tencel clothing. Most of the clothing at Costco stores is some third-party brands, so be sure to read any information you can find on the garments themselves regarding fabric content. However, the Kirkland signature clothing brand listings within the app provide information about the fabric, including its fabric content, durability, and care instructions for new denim. Much of the Kirkland brand clothing we found is made from natural and recycled materials, or a blend of them.

Watch out for: Some of the store’s offerings can be greenwashy. Be sure to read labels on products that are advertised as natural fibers to be sure of the contents of the synthetics that are blended with them before you buy— it’s easy to hide elastane in a pair of pants that otherwise look and feel like natural fiber.


5. Kmart

This big-box store should be a last resort. Kmart’s website doesn’t allow you to filter by fabric, but it does let you choose the clothing type, which makes it a bit easier to avoid synthetic-filled performance garments. It carries a large selection of 100% cotton and linen clothing for men and women. 

Watch out for: Kmart does almost nothing for chemical management, aside from some water treatment. (Though Kmart Australia, which is a separate corporation, does have a really good one.) Unfortunately, the material makeup isn’t listed on a lot of the kid’s clothing, so if you can’t find the information you’re looking for, skip it.  

Logos from stores like Kmart, Walmart, Target, Costco, and people wearing clothes from these stores.


  • Anabelle Weissinger

    Anabelle Weissinger is a non-binary freelance writer and shopping editor at EcoCult. Their work focuses on sustainability, mental health, and wellness for the LGBTQIA+ community. They use their perspective to tell informative stories that are engaging and helpful to all readers. Learn more about their work and services at

  • Teri Tracy

    Teri is a shopping editor with a keen interest in sustainability, global health, and biodiversity. She currently studies human genetics and ethnobotany, and loves all things plants, nature, and design.

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