Clothes with a Conscience: 3 Apparel Brands that Combine Fashion and Ethics

10/05/2016 03:41 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2017

Every purchase we make affects other people. The shirt you're wearing, for example, was sold to you by a retailer, who had it delivered by a supplier, who brought it from the manufacturer, who employed several people in each stage of its creation, who worked off of a pattern drawn by a designer, who selected fabrics from textile manufacturers, who bought raw materials from farmers . . . and so on.

So when you bought your shirt, you were doing much more than a simple transfer of money. Rather, you were casting a small yet meaningful vote towards how the world works.

This is because companies don't exist in a vacuum: when you give money to a company, you're implicitly supporting the values that company stands for. If you buy clothing for a company that takes a strong stance on workers' rights, you're voting that companies should uphold high ethical standards. Conversely, if you buy from a company with a bad track record on workers' rights, you're voting that other factors, like aesthetics or cost, are more important than ethical responsibility.

Now, there's a pervasive misconception around shopping ethically. Many people seem to be under the impression that "ethical shopping" means hand-spun wool ponchos that itch and cost hundreds of dollars.

However, this isn't the case: shopping ethically doesn't have to come at the expense of style, nor is it a pastime only for those with large disposable incomes. These four brands show that it's possible to run a profitable apparel business while keeping fashion and ethics high on your priority list.

1. Studio 15

Studio 15 is a women's dress boutique that has earned loyal customers by putting ethics at the forefront of their business model. To that end, Studio 15 not only keeps their supply chain ethical and clean, but also contributes 5% of all proceeds to small or solo manufacturers and designers via microfinance loans through the nonprofit organization Kleos.

Specifically, Studio 15 funds small loans to burgeoning businesswomen. "We focus on funding women because over two thirds of global citizens who live in poverty are female," CEO Jia Wertz explains. "We love the concept of funding small loans to burgeoning businesswomen around the globe. And the repayment rate of microfinance loans is typically around 99%, so we're confident that our investments are making a difference."

Though helping finance loans to budding designers costs Studio 15 money, Wertz has found that the loyal customer base that the company has engendered more than makes up for the expense associated with the loans. "People feel good shopping with us because they know that in doing so, they're uplifting and empowering other women," Wertz says.

2. Sword & Plough

Sword & Plough is one of the pioneers of upcycling, which refers to the practice of re-purposing discarded materials into high-quality products. Unlike recycling, a process that requires energy and resources, upcycling doesn't involve any machinery or consumption of extra resources.

The name Sword & Plough originates from the ancient saying "to turn swords into plough shares" -- in other words, taking military materials and applying them for civilian use.

Sword & Plough embodies upcycling by taking old, unused military fabrics and transforming them into fashion-forward purses. In doing so, they're not only conserving resources and doing their part to reduce waste, but they also directly employ veterans, a group that historically suffers from high unemployment rates.

3. Sseko Designs

Shark Tank fans might recognize Sseko Designs from a 2015 episode in which the founder, Liz Bohannon, failed to impress the sharks and left the show without funding.

The idea behind Sseko is to use fashion as a method for providing employment and, eventually, education to impoverished women in Uganda. To do so, Sseko provides dignified employment creating high-quality footwear and accessories to Ugandan women during the gap year between high school and university. Fifty percent of their salary goes into an account that goes towards education when the gap year is over, at which point the women have saved enough money to attend college.

Clearly, her lack of success on Shark Tank didn't stop Bohannon: over a year and a half later, Sseko continues going strong, and has enabled over 70 women to pursue higher education.

These fashion-forward apparel brands are part of cohort of companies -- small and large -- that have built loyalty by upholding ethics and social responsibility as core tenets (Ben & Jerry's and Patagonia are other notable examples). And the moment couldn't be better: a recent survey conducted by Nielsen found that over half of consumers of all demographics were willing to pay more for profits that upheld their ethics.

Financial profit is the core of any business model, and there's nothing wrong with that. But financial gain should never come at the expense of others -- and as businesses like the ones on this list show, it doesn't have to.

So, the next time you go out for some retail-therapy, make sure to cast your vote to make brands measure success not just in dollars, but in the growth of those who they've helped.