What are the signs of higher-quality clothing? We’re sharing our best tips on choosing great garments you’ll be able to wear until they’re worn out, and that are more gentle on people, the planet and animals.
Good On You believes the most sustainable clothes are the ones that are already in your wardrobe, and if you have to replace items or fill in gaps, then you should aim to choose high quality, long-lasting garments. But what does “high quality” mean exactly? How can you tell that a garment lives up to those standards? And how does it relate to sustainability?
Sustainability researcher Sandra Roos says that, above all, wearing the clothes you already own is one the most eco-friendly things you can do, and in 2019, Fashion Revolution founder Orsola de Castro noted that lengthening the life of our clothing from 1 to 2 years decreases their carbon footprint by 24%. Making our clothes last longer is easier when they are high quality to start with.
Consider the longevity of a t-shirt that is unevenly stitched together from a thin, low-grade cotton versus a well-constructed t-shirt with a higher stitches-per-inch count, and a softer fabric woven from strong yarns. Which is more likely to break down after a few wears? And which one are you more likely to keep wearing and feeling good in?
So, if like us, you’re tired of investing in clothes that barely make it through one season, and want to reduce the impact of your wardrobe by learning how to pick out high-quality items, then keep reading.
Why you should prioritise quality
One of the most pressing reasons to prioritise quality clothes is the environmental impact of lower-quality fast fashion items. Cheaply made garments that are designed to be worn only a few times before falling apart contribute significantly to the fashion industry’s footprint. These items are often made from synthetic materials derived from fossil fuels and do not biodegrade, meaning they will sit in landfills for hundreds of years. In addition, the production of these items often involves exploitative labour practices and the use of harmful chemicals. While you might assume that higher-quality clothes are more respectful of people, the planet and animals, this is not always the case, which is why there are several factors shoppers should take into account when shopping for higher-quality garments. More on that later on.
“Given the speed needed to keep up with trends, it’s not physically possible to quickly mass produce something that is of a decent quality, ethically made, and affordable,” explained Izzie Ramirez, deputy editor at Vox, in a recent article. Indeed, choosing well-made garments that are designed for longevity counters the problematic throwaway culture that has become fashion’s norm, in which wearing an item once or twice before discarding it for something new is acceptable. Speedy lead times and ease of production are given the highest priority over the rights and needs of those involved in the supply chain, which often leads to increased waste, poor labour practices, harmful material sourcing, and much more. Ultimately, this system is harmful to consumers, garment workers, the planet and animals.
How to determine if clothing is high-quality
When it comes to determining the quality of clothing, fabrics play a crucial role. Look for clothing made from sturdy and comfortable materials. “When trying to determine the quality of a garment, I look at whether brands provide details about the manufacturing techniques used and whether they demonstrate the durability of the fabrics, and if so, how,” says Good On You’s fashion ratings manager and materials expert, Kate Hobson-Lloyd. “I also look at whether brands test the durability of their products, for example, with abrasion or pilling tests. Ideally, brands provide a minimum warranty of two years, as well as a repair service or clear guidance on how best to look after a product.”
In contrast, materials of lower quality—ones that are overly or unintentionally light and sheer, and look poorly stitched—tend to be less durable and may easily fall apart after just a few uses. “Be mindful of the fabric used—is the garment quickly losing its shape with wear? Is lightly worn knitwear showing signs of pilling too quickly? Are there noticeable changes in garment shape after washing?” asks Hobson-Lloyd. Lower-quality materials are often used in fast fashion items and contribute significantly to the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.
One of the most pressing reasons to prioritise quality clothes is the environmental impact of lower-quality fast fashion items.
Ideally, high-quality materials should also have a lower impact. Some common lower-impact fabrics include recycled cotton, recycled wool, and organic linen. These materials are often more sustainable than traditional cotton or wool because they require less water and energy to produce. And while we generally recommend staying away from more harmful synthetic materials, it is important to note that some of them can be very durable, like woven ripstop fabrics, which are often made from nylon to make them more resistant to rips and tears. For products such as swimwear and rainproof outerwear, synthetic material is more practical and currently the best option available, so keep that in mind when researching items.
The impact of fabric blends on durability and comfort should also be considered. While blends can sometimes be beneficial, they can also affect the overall feel and quality of the garment. For instance, a sweater made from a blend of wool and polyester may not be as comfortable and durable as a sweater made from 100% wool. Always read the tags and, if possible, feel the fabric before making a purchase.
Dyes and chemicals used in production can also affect the quality, durability, and comfort of clothing. Some waterproof coatings, for example, can make clothing less breathable. It’s important to look for garments that have been dyed with natural, non-toxic dyes and to avoid clothing that has been treated with harmful chemicals.
Construction and details
The construction and details of a garment are essential to consider when determining its quality. Well-made clothing should have strong stitching, durable seams, and hems that are finished neatly. “Look at garment stitching—are there any loose threads, and are the hems tidy and straight? Loose threads or uneven stitching can be a sign of poor quality,” adds Hobson-Lloyd.
In addition to these factors, specific construction techniques can significantly enhance a garment’s durability. For instance: garment linings; facings (the area of a garment that turns to the inside, giving a finished appearance, like on the collar); bindings (the strip of fabric attached to the edge of an item); and French seams, double seams and flat-felled seams (especially on denim and heavy garments) can all increase longevity. Areas like the shoulders, elbows, and pockets are particularly prone to wear and tear, so reinforcing stitches—like the bar tack you find on the pockets of your jeans—can help items withstand more stress. Paying attention to these construction details will help you identify garments that not only meet your style needs but also stand the test of time.
I look at whether brands provide details about their manufacturing techniques and whether they demonstrate the durability of the fabricsKate Hobson-Lloyd – fashion ratings manager and materials expert, Good On You
The quality of zippers, buttons, and other hardware is also an important consideration. High-quality zippers and buttons should be sturdy and easy to use—they should move freely and not catch on the fabric next to them, for example–and should not break or come loose easily. In addition, any hardware used in the garment should be securely attached and should not be prone to falling off or breaking.
What’s more, clothes made for mass production are cut and fitted based on an “average” set of body measurements to have the best chance of fitting as many people as possible. The result is a garment that has a passable fit on most people but rarely a perfect one, meaning the chances of you falling out of love with the item and wearing it infrequently are much higher than for something that fits and feels brilliant every time you put it on.
After identifying key signifiers of quality on the garment itself, shoppers can also look out for certifications, approvals and standards that are awarded when a company has been assessed for specific practices. Good On You’s recent research found that a majority of the luxury brands we usually associate with higher quality clothes don’t do enough for the people involved in the manufacturing process, so these certifications can be important indicators.
For example, fair trade organisations certify companies that meet rigorous social and environmental standards. Other certifications, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), ensure that textiles are made from organic materials and that all workers involved in the production process are treated fairly. However, be aware that not all certifications hold the same weight, and some brands might over-promote a few certifications while disclosing little else. That’s why it’s important to dig deeper and look at a brand’s overall transparency and commitment to sustainability beyond its certifications.
Longevity in design
Design plays a crucial role in the longevity of our clothing. Choosing versatile pieces you can wear season after season over trendy items that quickly go out of style is one of the best ways to ensure that your wardrobe stands the test of time.
Capsule wardrobes and minimalist styles are great examples of classic designs that can be timeless. These approaches prioritise quality over quantity and often include clothes that can be mixed and matched. By investing in a few key pieces that can be styled in a variety of ways, we can reduce the need for new clothing and ultimately reduce the impact of our wardrobe on people, the planet, and animals.
Taking care of our clothing is also a key factor in making them last. Proper washing and storage can extend the life of our garments and minimise how frequently they need replacing. Some tips for making your clothing last longer include understanding fabrics so that you can wash them appropriately; folding knitwear instead of hanging it; storing delicate items in cotton garment bags; washing items in cooler water; air-drying whenever possible, and avoiding harsh detergents or fabric softeners.
Brands’ overall impacts
High quality isn’t just about the garment itself, but also about ensuring the item (and the brand that produced it) had a positive impact on people, the planet and animals. After all, if a seemingly well-made item is created using materials that are not sourced responsibly, or produced by garment workers who are not paid a living wage, then is it really of high quality?
Good On You doesn’t think so. That’s why we recommend researching a brand and checking its Good On You rating on our directory or app before you buy from them. We are the world’s leading source for fashion brand ratings—we’ve done the research and spoken to the experts, the campaigners, and the brands, to come up with robust but easy to use ratings for how each label impacts people, the planet, and animals.
We score brands on hundreds of issues and then give an overall rating from “We Avoid” and “Not Good Enough” through “It’s a Start” to “Good” and “Great”. Brands with higher Good On You ratings (“Good” or “Great”) are more likely to align with your values and support more sustainable fashion choices.