For so many, 2020 was a year of regrouping, rebooting, and rediscovering the appeal of 24/7 sweatpants. Now, as 2021 looms, the closet needs rethinking. But instead of going the Kondo route, it’s time to focus on meaningful gestures, not just minimalist ones.
If you’re hopeful about ditching the staples of your work-from-home wardrobe soon, we’ve pulled together a list of the best luxury brands today that offer clothes that aren’t just stylish, or even merely sustainable. Each purchase actively makes a difference in the world, whether supporting foundations, offering employment to marginalized groups, or donating most of its profits to charity.
Most of the judges on Shark Tank sneered when the founders of Bombas pitched their idea: reengineered socks that promised the world’s most comfortable fit, plus a guarantee that for every pair purchased, the company would donate another to a homeless shelter. “Who cares about do-gooding?” scoffed Mr. Wonderful. Only Daymond John saw the potential, ploughing $200,000 in for a 17% stake. Bombas has now donated more than 40 million clothing items to more than 3,000 partners across the country—and left the rest of the panel wrong-footed.
Elvis & Kresse
Husband-and-wife team Kresse Wesling and James Henrit (aka Elvis) were inspired to start their luxe accessories line 15 years ago after reading that the U.K. sends 150 million tons of waste to landfills every year. Their inventive sourcing includes upcycling decommissioned fire hoses into durable, stylish dopp kits; a partnership with Burberry repurposes the leather offcuts once discarded by that label into purses and bags. Even better, 50% of profits go to charity.
Think of Olivela as Net à Porter with a conscience. The luxury marketplace donates 20% of its proceeds to charitable causes at no extra cost to the consumer. It’s an idea that founder Stacey Boyd workshopped during a visit to the world’s largest refugee camp with Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai; Olivela’s partners include Yousafzai’s own fund, which works to safeguard girls’ access to education. The site began in 2017 with a dozen brands and now features hundreds of labels across fashion, beauty, home, and jewelry, including Rag & Bone, Chantecaille, and John Hardy.
Who better to design and make sneakers than Kenyans, who dominate long-distance running? Enda, named after the Swahili word for “go,” is a passion project for co-founder Navalayo Osembo, who was determined that her line would be not only designed, but also at least partially manufactured, in East Africa. (It’s at 40% at the moment, with the goal of rising to 100% as soon as logistics allow.) Its two signature designs, Lapatet and Enda, have earned the loyalty of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o; sales support the Enda Community Foundation and social good programs in Kenya.
Tiila Abbitt earned her beauty world bona fides as the head of product development for Sephora for seven years. But she jettisoned that corporate gig in favor of founding the clean beauty brand Aether, which made its debut on the summer solstice two years ago. Best-sellers include its crystal-infused eyeshadows, packaged in a zero-waste palette. One percent of all product sales are donated to nonprofits such as the Rainforest Foundation and the Water Project.
Ten percent of profits from this San Diego-based brand are donated to charities, including the Surfrider Foundation, aimed at protecting the world’s oceans. The lightweight, sand-shedding beach towel was born of the founders’ own need for a better option; like Bombas, Sand Cloud is a Shark Tank alum, having earned its investment from Robert Herjavec. The company has since expanded beyond its core product into eco-friendly beach accessories, a bedding line, and bath towels.
Don’t call it an espadrille—it’s an Afridrille. This year, Oprah Winfrey offered the ultimate accolade to this shoe and accessory company by naming its Lamu mules to her Favorite Things list. Founded by two pastors, Ubuntu Life has around 500 employees in Kenya, as well as a namesake foundation that uses profits from the company to provide pediatric health and special needs education across the region. It’s also partnered with Walt Disney for a range of licensed espadrilles, including one featuring Baby Yoda.
“Buy a pair, give a pair” is the maxim on which DIFF Eyewear operates. When you purchase a pair of its affordable sun- and prescription glasses (prices hover around $100), founder Chad Jernigan is committed to donating a pair of reading glasses to someone in need across the world, especially in Africa and Asia. DIFF has already given out 4 million such pairs and is now working with Sightsavers to conduct vision checkups as well as provide corrective treatments.
Travel writer Emily Mathieson was determined to find a more meaningful mission in life when she founded homewares maker Aerende in 2016. Named after the old English word for “care,” every product on offer, whether woven baskets, linen napkins, or stoneware plates, is produced in the U.K. by makers facing social challenges—including disabled Britons, female refugees, and those supported by Fruitful Woods, which helps people with severe mental illness find employment.
Longtime Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa pivoted from fashion after exiting the womenswear line four years ago. Returning to his native Brazil, he developed a sustainable beauty line anchored by indigenous ingredients, including the the resin of the almaciga tree, from which we get the antioxidant breu. Conservation International, a world-class NGO, helps the brand source sustainably from tribes and cooperatives, and a portion of proceeds is put back to help protect against the continuing Amazon deforestation.
Fashion is in Cameron Saul’s DNA; his father, Roger, founded luxe accessories label Mulberry. Saul Jr., though, wanted his business to do good as well as look good. He spent his gap year between school and university in Africa and now partners with craftsmen there to employ their skills in a fashion-focused way. Bottletop uses upcycled metal ring pulls made into moldable chain mail as fabric for purses and other accessories such as belts and phone cases. Sales fund a foundation to help young people across the world, focusing on everything from HIV prevention to substance abuse.
Brazilian entrepreneur Marcia Kemp’s pompom-festooned accessories at Nannacay are joyous, stylish treats that also provide life-changing opportunities to the 200 artisans who weave them across South America. A former IBM executive, Kemp workshopped her pro-social fashion startup in her off-hours, scooting down to the ateliers in Peru on weekends before returning to her regular job on Monday mornings. It’s now a full-time gig, and she’s looking to expand production to Asia.
Hundreds of ex-felons have passed through the apprenticeship program at Anew Nature since Robert Karleskint founded the St. Louis-based company seven years ago. He offers training in furniture restoring and manufacturing, with a goal that they graduate into well-paid union jobs. Anew accepts custom commissions in woodworking as well as offering ready-to-buy items such as wooden cutting boards and end tables.
When supermodel Liya Kebede was back home in her native Ethiopia, she noticed that many traditional weavers there were losing their jobs; demand for their traditional skills had slumped in the wake of cheap clothing imports. Kebede created LemLem as a way of connecting these weavers with a new market outside the country. It now offers high-end, boho-style clothing for women and children, as well as gifts that use a signature woven cotton and are all handmade in Africa.
This London-based womenswear label quite literally wears its mission on its sleeves: 90% of profits earned from its clothing designs—made from sustainable materials such as Tencel—are shared among various charitable causes. Each item’s care label features a code that, when typed into the website, allows buyers to vote for where they would like that charitable portion to be donated. It’s co-owned by Shafiq Hassan, a Bangladeshi Briton aiming to change the sweatshop culture in the South Asian manufacturing hub.
The Trujillo community in Peru forms the workforce for this social enterprise company, offering out-of-work leather shoemakers there the chance to redeploy their skills from traditional items to a contemporary shoe line. The B-Corp.-certified company, whose name means “not alone” in Spanish, promises a fair living wage to its factory workers; only 2% of the world’s factory employees receive such guarantees. Even better, it hosts an Ethical Marketplace on its website, where like-minded brands such as audio specialist LSTN can list and sell their products.
This Nashville-based jewelry startup hires women transitioning out of homelessness to hand-make each of its pieces via a partnership with the local Community Care Fellowship. Unlocked guarantees transparency in wages for them, with the lowest earning a minimum of $12 per hour. Each piece uses recycled metals, and the designs, like the Resilience ring ($40) or Determination necklace ($50), come with inspirational names.
Every belt bought from B-Corp.-certified Jelt, a startup in Bozeman, Mont., helps support combat veterans, youths, and the environment via partnerships with the likes of 1% for the Planet. Labor is done largely by women living in rural areas around the state, offering an economic uplift to marginalized workers. The elastic fabric used to make the durable, stylish belts is produced from post-consumer plastic bottles, melted into pellets and woven into yarn.
Togo-born Olowo-n’djo Tchala started this beauty brand with his wife in their garage in Olympia, Wash., 17 years ago. Now it employs thousands of people. Cooperatives in West Africa harvest indigenous ingredients such as shea butter and African black soap using traditional methods before Alaffia’s finishing site in the Pacific Northwest turns those raw materials into lotions, body wash, and other beauty products. The company also underwrites a nonprofit in West Africa that has helped with everything from school construction to delivery of bicycles to make it easier for women to commute to classes.
Ian Bentley and his wife, Brittany, adopted two children from Ethiopia but never imagined that connection would birth a business, too. After moving there and spotting the quality of the leather craftsmanship in the country, they resolved to export that expertise worldwide and founded Parker Clay to sell bags, totes, and other small leather goods. The workers who produce those pieces are largely women exiting the sex industry there, with the help of the local nonprofit Ellitla.