A buyer's guide to buying eco-friendly fashion

If you’re interested in investing in sustainable fashion but a little unsure where to start, we hear you. With dozens of vague terms such as “green living” and “vegan,” it can get confusing as to which products are truly good for you and the environment. So, in honor of Earth Day we reached out to experts Morgan Bogle, Britt Cosgrove, Meredith Piccin, Ashley Pittman and Isadora Alvarez to help break down the buzzwords – and help us make smart choices when we’re shopping.

What does it mean for a product to be “Eco-Friendly”?

The dictionary defines an Eco-Friendly product as one that has “been designed to do the least possible damage to the environment.”

Important Elements to Eco-Friendly Products:

Organic Fabrics: These are fabrics that are grown from non-genetically modified plants without the use of harmful materials, such as fertilizers, insecticides or pesticides. “Conventional cotton is the No. 1 user of pesticides, which leads to water contamination and decreased soil fertility.” says Britt Cosgrove, designer of ready-to-wear brand Svilu.

Natural Dyes: “The chemicals used to dye fabric are a major source of water pollution. We developed a collection of organic cotton sweaters that were dyed using Quebracho Rojo (a pink natural dye made from tree bark) and natural indigo,” Cosgrove says.

Biodegradable: This means that the substance is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living things. Not all products are completely biodegradable, but the more organic materials used in a product, the more biodegradable the product and better for the environment.

Brand Example: Svilu

Credit: Courtesy Silvu

Buy It! Svilu Dress, $395 ; svilu.com

Ethical: “Ethical for us means that we know every single person who has a hand in making our clothing and that the materials we use have a lower impact on the environment,” says Isadora Alvarez, founder and designer of Back Beat Rags.

Brand Example: Back Beat Rags

Credit: Courtesy Black Beat Rags

Buy It! Back Beat Rags Dress, $55; backbeatrags.com

Locally-sourced: “My entire collection is handcrafted start to finish by artisans in Kenya using centuries-old techniques. We believe sustainable and conscientious products can also be aligned with high-quality designs. The artisans who produce our jewelry make goods of a proper standard, on time and to order in a very challenging environment utilizing indigenous materials and locally sourced horn and gemstones,” says jeweler Ashley Pittman.

Brand Example: Ashley Pittman

Credit: Courtesy Ashley Pittman

Buy It! Ashley Pittman Earrings, $375; ashleypittman.com

What does it mean for something to be upcycled?

Using pieces or products that already exist to make a new product.

What is the difference between recycling and upcycling?

Upcycling is using something in its original form or without destroying it to create something new; recycling, where waste products are broken down, means your goods will be formed into something new. “My love for eco-friendly and sustainable products lies within zero waste limits. We even go as far as taking apart vintage chain links to use as jump rings,” says Meredith Piccin, designer and founder of jewelry brand Honey Rose & K.

Brand Example: Honey Rose & K

Credit: Courtesy Honey Rose & K

Buy It! Similar: Honey Rose & K Earrings, $48; honeyrosenk.com

What does it mean for something to be sustainable?

Products that provide environmental, social and economic benefits while protecting public health and the environment, from the extraction of raw materials until the final disposal of the product. Often, companies will supplement environmental sustainability with programs that give back to communities or provide training to artisans, creating lasting sustainability qualify

What is sustainable production?

Sustainable production supports the planet by maintaining a method that doesn’t deplete any of the resources being used – whether that’s by replanting materials or using ones that don’t deplete easily.

Can a product be eco-friendly, but not sustainable?

An item can be made from organic products, but are not necessarily sustainable due to circumstances such as how much water or land they take to produce.

Can a product be sustainable, but not eco-friendly?

To reference He’s Just Not That Into You, upcycling is the exception to the rule. A product that uses an upcycled item or items qualifies as sustainable, but might not necessarily qualify as eco-friendly if the up-cycled items used in that product are not eco-friendly.

Brand Example: Akola

The Akola project functions under a “100 percent full impact” strategy, which means they use raw materials, produce sustainably, and train and employ women in at-risk communities in Uganda and Dallas.

Credit: Courtesy Akola

Buy It! Akola Necklace, $52; akolaproject.org

Is a vegan product automatically environmentally friendly?

Products made from vegan materials are frequently not be eco-friendly because of the use of materials like non-sustainable plastic. However it does mean that there are zero animal-based ingredients used to produce the product.

Brand Example: Freedom of Animals

“We only use post consumer plastics that are sustainable and are far less harmful for the environment because we do not add chemicals, we use vegetable based dyes, we produce in factories that use 90 percent less energy on a daily basis and our plastic is repurposed.” says Morgan Bogle, Freedom of Animals founder.

Credit: Courtesy Freedom of Animals

Buy It! Freedom of Animals Bag, $180; freedomofanimals.com

What does it mean when something is “ethically made”?

This does not mean that the product is necessarily eco-friendly; however, it’s pretty safe to assume that if something is eco-friendly or sustainable, that it has been ethically made. Two important words to look for when purchasing an ethically made product are fair trade and fair labor practices.