Every celebrity in the public eye knows that one's wardrobe can be a weapon — a means of conveying a message without the need for words at all. Think of Theresa May’s power suits or Princess Diana’s divorce dress and you get the idea.
But the celebrity, and former royal, that really uses her clothing to quietly send a signal is Meghan Markle, who is forever championing brands with sustainability as their main missive. From established labels like Stella McCartney and Gabriela Hearst — who has promoted low-impact production since the brand launched in 2015 — to smaller and emerging labels like British handbag label DeMellier and French sneaker brand Veja, Markle is fast-becoming an ethical tastemaker.
For a woman who has spent her life in the public eye, with the media frenzy around her at an all-time-high since her wedding to Prince Harry in 2018, such outfit choices are deliberate: Markle knows that the scrutiny around her wardrobe will promote brands that are doing good — either by the environment, by ethical production, or both.
The turquoise sheath dress that she wore to this year’s Endeavour Awards was a case in point. The event marked her much-discussed return to the spotlight and, thanks to a combination of precipitation and well-timed flashbulbs, produced one of this year’s most talked about images - and outfits. The dress in question was by Stella McCartney, one of the most long-standing champions of sustainable fashion.
Last year’s royal tour in Africa is another prime example. Markle wore several pieces from brands with a focus on sustainability, including a belted shirt dress from Room 502 – which uses ethically sourced materials, production and labour – a black and white dress from Malawi-based, fair-trade brand Mayamiko and a long Staud dress made from recycled nylon. Of course, each item sold out in record timing.
‘It appears to be quite intentional,’ says James Bartle, founder of the Australian-based jeans label Outland Denim. Markle wore a pair of Outland’s Harriet jeans — a high-rise skinny cut from organic cotton and made by a team of women rescued from trafficking in Outland’s ethical factory in Cambodia — during the couple’s Australian tour in 2018. ‘The Duchess’ advocacy for human rights and the environment is evident in the brands that she chooses to wear — it’s clear she holds a preference for brands with substance, whose foundations are built upon respect for people and the planet.’
Markle’s outing in the Harriet immediately prompted a 3000 per cent spike in web traffic to Outland’s Australian website (and 948 per cent globally), and the jeans sold out within 24 hours. ‘Our sales also increased 640 per cent for the week following the sighting of Meghan in our jeans.” Bartle says. In fact, sales continued to increase so much that Bartle was able to employ 46 additional staff in the subsequent six months. ‘Meghan has enabled us to grow our business in a very tangible, immediate way.’
Other sustainable brands have reported similar sell-out successes. The handbag label DeMellier, which operates a zero-waste policy and also funds a full set of vaccinations for children in developing countries like Somalia and Zambia with each purchase, saw a 2000 per cent spike in traffic after Markle carried the mini Venice saddlebag in forest green. ‘Phones wouldn’t stop ringing with requests from all over the world after that,’ says the brand’s founder Mireia Llusia-Lindh — she chose to start her ‘A Bag, A Life’ initiative after discovering that one in six children in such countries don’t live past the age of six because of lack of vaccinations against preventable diseases. Meghan’s choice of DeMellier is understandable: in 2016, she visited Rwanda as a global ambassador for World Vision, where she met with young children in schools and taught them how to paint.
Markle’s commitment to sustainability goes beyond showcasing the latest wares. Not only has she always been a keen advocate of vintage — sporting a vintage Dior plum-coloured coat for Zara Phillips’ baby Lena’s christening, and a 1965 Courreges couture trapeze coat in New York recently, both reportedly sourced from William Vintage in Marylebone — but she also wears her pieces more than once. It maximises the brand’s profile, but also shows Markle is more in-line with the sustainable consumption model oft-touted today — one of buying once and buying well. It’s for that reason her Veja sneakers, which arguably brought the cult brand that was founded in 2004 to the world’s attention, have rarely been off her feet. (The super comfortable trainers are crafted from organic cotton which uses no pesticides and less water during the growing of the fibre, with soles made from rubber sourced from a cooperative in the Amazonian rainforest).
Clothes are also a way for Markle to promote her philanthropic interests. Last year she partnered with Smart Works, a charity that provides job training and interview clothes to unemployed women, as well as John Lewis, Jigsaw, Marks & Spencer and her friend fashion designer Misha Nonoo, to launch a capsule collection called ‘The Smart Set’. One item was donated to Smart Works for every item purchased.
‘More and more is understood now that with your dollar you can vote for the industry you want to see,’ says Bartle. Markle then, is discreetly encouraging others to ‘insist the fashion industry moves in this direction for the sake of human rights, for the prosperity of the planet and sense of community that comes with knowing the businesses you support align with your values.’ Adds Llusia-Lindh: ‘People look up to Meghan.’ Thankfully for all of us, she’s using her influence to help save the planet.'
SHOP: The Best Sustainable Brands To Add To Your Wardrobe
SHOP: The Best Sustainable Brands To Add To Your Wardrobe
OMNES is a sustainable womenswear fashion brand that builds the bridge between conscious consumption with eco-friendly fabrics and responsible design at its core. Look out for its beyond-pretty prints.
Baum und Pferdgarten's Responsible Edit are made from organic cotton and recycled fabrics to be 'considerate to the planet, and its people'. The full range starts from £49, and doesn't compromise on the Scandi cool that the brand is known for.
Monika The Label is a UK brand made in North London. They also produce the majority of the collection in organic cotton or Regenesis Light Satin (a material made out of recycled plastic bottles), and use deadstock fabric to create bandanas and scrunchies.
Mashu, a London-based handbag label, uses materials such as recycled polyester, the natural fibre pinatex and repurposed wood from old furniture to make top-handle totes and sleek belt bags in its family-run factory of five artisans in Athens.
This minimalist brand, based in LA, is all about timeless staples with 'made locally' credentials, such as effortless slip dresses and sweaters with added slouch. Tencel, made from eucalyptus trees, rayon, made from wood pulp, and MicroModal, from beechwood trees, are three of its sustainably harvested hero materials.
One of the easiest ways to lower your carbon footprint is to buy second-hand. The Level Store, an online marketplace that aims to promote a circular economy, takes the rummage hassle out of vintage shopping. The edit of classic trenches, tailoring, sweaters and handbags is impressively premium, plus it donates €1 from every order to reforestation projects in Portugal.
The clue's in the name. Sheep Inc is a carbon-negative, 100% transparent sweater brand. Each wool jumper comes with a digital tag, meaning you can track its manufacturing journey from New Zealand to your wardrobe. Test out its mantra – 'Strangers will want to pet you' – for yourself.
Mediterranean Spain, and its legacy of craftsmanship, is the inspiration behind accessories label Hereu. The shoes (flat loafers, espadrilles and lace-ups) and bags (baskets and woven leather cross-bodies) are all designed and produced in Barcelona.
If you can't get enough of prairie dresses, you need to know about O Pioneers. Founded in north London, the limited-edition and one-off designs are handmade using deadstock and vintage fabrics. Fun fact: co-founder Clara Francis made the beaded headress Emma Watson wears in Little Women.
Fashion insiders are already falling for Ssōne, the London label that specialises in socially-conscious, environmentally friendly statement pieces, each of which comes with facts about its provenance.
So there's never any leftover stock that's wasted, Hai's playful scrunchies and bags are produced in small batches (also minimising your chances of unwanted 'twinning'). Silks are coloured with eco-reactive dye (less damaging than regular versions), and its packaging uses zero plastic.
The weighty chain-link necklace is set to continue its reign as one of the year's most-desired pieces. Join the club the sustainable way with All Blues, which handcrafts its designs in Stockholm from recycled sterling silver. The definition of a forever piece.
All of Rave Review's big personality patchwork coats – a firm street-styler favourite – are made using upcycled garments, resolutely proving that second-hand doesn't mean second-best.
Flat mock-croc Chelsea boots, glove-fit ballet pumps and chunky ankle-strap sandals – all of which are big for SS20 – are all part of ESSĒN's pared-back designs. Collections are designed with a small carbon footprint in mind. Its new styles are produced through a pre-order model, so they're only made when ordered, thereby avoiding overproduction.
The Duchess of Sussex is a fan - and you will be too once you hear the roll call of Veja's sustainable and ethical credentials. Founded in 2005, it buys agro-ecological cotton and rubber directly from family producers in Brazil, signing one to three year contracts to guarantee income, its logistics workers are part of Atelier Sans Frontieres, an organisation promoting the professional integration of people who have been excluded from the labour market, and it's the first trainer brand to use B-mesh, a fabric made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. It has also purchased 195 tons of wild rubber, to preserve 120,000 hectares of the Amazon rainforest, since 2004.
Reformation is as dedicated to sustainability as it is to making Insta hit after Insta hit. Its RefScale tracks its environmental footprint - adding up the pounds of carbon dioxide emitted, gallons of water used and pounds of waste generated - so that the company can then offset those resources. International shipping is now free - and totally offset, naturally.
This New Zealand sneaker brand's mantra - 'Light on your feet, easy on the planet,' - tells you all you need to know. The trainers - made from superfine merino wool, processed using 60% less energy than materials used in synthetic shoes, tencel lyocell, which uses 95% less water than cotton and sugarcane, a renewable resource transformed into Allbirds's SweetFoam soles - really do feel like clouds for your feet. It also takes its carbon footprint seriously - good news for a shoe label - and is a 100% carbon-neutral business.
Mother of Pearl isn't just committed to making sustainable clothes, it also cares deeply about its company culture reflecting its ethos. It has a vegetarian lunch scheme for staff, with produce sourced from local producers via Farmdrop, the office itself runs on green energy and it even uses toilet paper from Who Gives A Crap, a charity who donates 50% of its profits to improving sanitation in the developing world.
This Aussie brand has prettily printed bikinis and swimsuits made largely from Econyl, nylon that has been regenerated from abandoned fishing nets and nylon waste. All its fabrications also meet the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, the highest certifiable standard for ensuring responsible use of chemicals during the fabric construction.
The Aussie brand Bassike, founded in 2006, already has some impressive stats under its (pleasingly minimal) belt. Its organic cotton jersey was developed and is made in Melbourne with 95% certified-organic fibres, which biodegrade and are produced without pesticides, it donates past season samples to a company that turns them into cleaning rags and its paper and cardboard packaging is 100% recyclable and biodegradable.
Fisch's eco-credentials are as on-point as its scoop-backed, squared-necked cossies. They're made out of Italian Econyl, a 100% regenerated nylon fibre created from fishing nets and other types of nylon waste, which is woven in Lombardy, Italy.
The denim sector of the fashion and textiles industry is one of the worst culprits in terms of sustainability because of the amount of water and chemicals involved in the dyeing and production processes. Each pair of zero-waste E.L.V jeans, however, is made from two pairs of discarded jeans that would otherwise end up in landfill and are produced in a five-mile radius between Dalston and Walthamstow.
As its name suggests, the LA-based Re/Done is all about making something new out of something old. That 'something old' is previously worn Levi's jeans that are hand-picked and hand-cut in limited quantities. The result is the perfect straight jeans, bell bottoms and ankle crops.
Everlane, the San Francisco-based start-up that proves sustainable clothes don't have to cost the earth, has a simple mission statement: 'radial transparency'. It has extensive information about each of its ethical factories online - from the loafer factory in Brescia, Italy, to the knitting factory in Fujian, China - and lists where every single garment was made, and from what materials, in the product information.
No luxury label has made bigger waves in the sustainable fashion market than Stella McCartney. Some of her most innovative experiments under the adidas by Stella McCartney umbrella involve the 'Infinite Hoodie' - 100% recyclable and created with advanced textile innovation company Evrnu from garment waste - and the biodegradable 'Biofabric Tennis Dress', made in partnership with Bolt Threads, a company specialising in bioengineered sustainable fabrics and fibres. While neither was put into production, both prototypes prove that closed loop clothing is not only possible, but desirable.
Ninety Percent does exactly what it says on the tin, donating 90% of its profits, and has a platform on its website that allows customers to vote for their chosen cause after making a purchase. Its materials are strictly sourced from reputable suppliers, and features a lot of tencel, a fabric made from renewable wood pulp in a closed loop system.
Every season, Lee find new ways to create with lower impact on the planet, whether it be reduced water, less waste, or using organic fibres. The brand's 'For a World That Works' programme employs multiple innovative techniques and initiatives to make a blue planet greener. This includes recycled fibres, Indigood foam dyeing, Crystal Clear dyeing, organic fibres, recycled hardware, biodegradable back patches and more.
Dutch sneaker brand Mercer has been a pioneer in sustainability for nearly eight years. Aiming to change the average shoppers perception of sustainable and vegan fashion as cool and contemporary and 'not all socks and sandals', they produced the first-ever sneaker made from pineapple 'leather', and more recently wine leather, cactus leather, and soles from algae and more.
WEAR DEADSTOCK is a small family run business passionate about sustainability and providing quality deadstock pieces. Deadstock is a term used to describe an item which is no longer in manufacture so all of their pieces are exclusive and limited.
SlowCo are a multi-brand slow fashion retail platform, specialising in sustainability and inclusivity. The brand believes in a "less but better" philosophy, and has created a space where everyone is represented.
Damson Madder are passionate about each of their pieces featuring as many sustainable attributes as possible, and being completely transparent it. The brand's aim is to be open about the origin of their fabrics and to the fact that they might not always get it right every time.