By Rosemary Feitelberg
with contributions from Natalie Huet
 on December 18, 2018
Items from H&M's fall/winter Conscious Exclusive collection.

Amid an array of online shopping options, eco-minded fashion e-tailers are slowly making inroads.

With many consumers conditioned to buy brands — thanks to multimillion-dollar advertising and social media influencers — convincing them to go green and invest in lesser-known labels is no small task, according to multi-brand e-commerce operations. Hurdles also include price sensitivity, limited marketing budgets and some consumers’ lack of information about the upsides of sustainability.

Despite those obstacles, many of these e-tailers are achieving double-digit sales growth, adding in-house labels and introducing new categories like organic beauty products and home decor.

“The current e-commerce business is very brand-driven. For me, this means that I’m shopping individual brands on their sites rather than finding one site committed to carrying an array of great sustainable brands,” lamented Alabama Chanin’s Natalie Chanin, who has long been committed to sustainable fashion. “I do hope to see a leader in e-commerce emerge in the near future.”

Misha Nonoo, another eco-minded designer, agreed there’s work to be done: “These sites need to educate their audiences on how their products are made, but shoppers also need to make an active decision to shop more consciously. Many sustainable practices are more expensive for brands than opting for traditional methods of manufacturing, sourcing and packaging. With many companies prioritizing profits over quality and reducing impact, the movement still has far to go. Consumers have an exceptional power to shift away from ‘fast-fashion’ retailers who prioritize low prices and high volume and move toward a more refined wardrobe made from high-quality, sustainable and versatile pieces.”

Here, a look at some of the up-and-coming e-commerce sites zeroing in on sustainable brands.

• Rêve En Vert went live in 2014, and sales rocketed in the past year due to “an explosion of awareness about the need for sustainable fashion and lifestyle,” according to founder Cora Hilts. Introducing an organic beauty section on the site has helped fuel traffic. The fact that those products are plastic-free represents the site’s commitment to taking a 360-degree approach to what is being sold, she said. “People are looking so much for more meaning in what they buy. They are aware that if they are going to consume, it has to be done responsibly. I aim to solve their problems through Rêve.”

A look from ELV Denim, a label sold via Rve En Vert.

A look from ELV Denim, a label sold via Rve En Vert.  Courtesy Photo

Eco-activewear — which includes Vyayama printed leggings, Manduka mesh halter camisole tops and other brands — is a solid category since there is a natural connection between wellness and yoga with environmental awareness, Hilts said. “Dresses do amazingly well for us. I don’t know if it’s a bit of the Reformation effect or what. Most people know you’re going to spend a little bit more for a dress so to buy a sustainable one isn’t that much of a shock.” she said.

Hilts said David Attenborough’s latest documentary, “Blue Planet II,” was a wake-up call about plastics polluting the ocean and made people consider the things they consume daily. Climate change discussions are also contributing to the shift by shoppers to sustainable choices, she added. The site’s top market is the U.K., followed closely by the U.S., Germany, France and Australia. The average purchase is about $222. To build on sales, three new categories — men’s, beauty and baby — will be added.

“Our demographic is a little bit older – girls in their 30s who have a slightly higher income and are becoming aware of [the benefits] of organic food. I have found that when people talk about what they spend money on, that is their children and their home,” Hilt said. ”A lot of my friends are having babies and they’re thinking about what the world will look like once they have a child. Once upon a time I thought it was OK to drive a Range Rover and to drink out of plastic water bottles. Now I’m really rethinking that,” she said. “Sustainability really is genderless so everyone is going to start going this way. We want to make sure that we’re catering to everyone’s needs.”

With six female investors on board, the site plans to reveal its largest round of financing early next year to broaden its international reach and amp up its U.S. base, Hilts said.

• Claudia Angeli an engineer-turned-digital marketer, initially created an online directory of sustainable brands solely to help people be better informed. Interest was so high that she decided to launch The Green Labels in March, with Veja sneakers, Kings of Indigo denim and Cossac sportswear being bestsellers. Embassy of Bricks and Logs, a vegan outerwear label, sold out in three weeks, she said. On her site, most shoppers spend about $110. In terms of apparel, loose-fitting pants are popular. “In the end, it’s still fashion even though it’s sustainable fashion. People won’t buy it just because it’s sustainable. It needs to be appealing and in fashion, or in style,” Angeli said.

Shoes, bags and accessories like beanies and the jewelry brand Neinties [folo] are also recent additions. About 40 or 50 percent of the site’s sales are in the Netherlands, where The Green Labels is based. Germany, a very educated country about sustainability, Belgium, and the U.S. are strong markets. The latter surprised her due to export fees and taxes. “Of course, the media is a big influence in making people realize that when you buy something there is an environmental impact. It’s not only for you, but there is also the other side,” Angeli said. “We also use influencer marketing, which is the only affordable marketing tool that you can use when you start a business. Now there are so many different layers of influencers, macro and small regional influencers.”

Whether it is good that brands like H&M have conscious lines is a recurring debate, she said. “It’s always double-edged discussion. A part of you thinks it’s greenwashing because the company could do way more than just having a conscious line. But in another way, it triggers people to think, ‘Oh, a conscious line. What is not conscious behind fast fashion production?’ It helps to reach the masses.”

• About three years ago, Jennifer Francis and Alice Wells decided to team up to work on a more environmentally focused endeavor. Their site Kindred Black is an assortment of apparel, jewelry, sexual wellness and other products. Currently, apparel accounts for about 40 percent of overall sales. Jewelry is the most popular section of the site, due to the range of one-of-a-kind items and pieces with vintage elements. Last year’s total sales increased by 78 percent and this year’s annual volume is expected to jump 100 percent, Francis said.

Linking up with social media influencers like Emily Labowe, Cat Morrison and Gia Salvaggio helped boost sales, as well as a greater emphasis on digital marketing and traditional press, Francis said. In addition, earlier this year the company launched its own clothing label Roberta, a five-piece collection, which has helped to attract repeat shoppers. Retail prices range from $52 for a tank top to $248 for carpenter pants.

“We never intended to just be a retail store because we came from a design background,” Francis noted.

This month, the founders will release an apothecary line — one-ingredient body, face and hair products as well as oils that will be packaged in handmade bottles. Kindred Black’s wide range of items vary from an $8 jade frog figure to $4,000 for a necklace. Most shoppers spend “a couple hundred dollars,” but that may include 12 items from across categories. Annual sales are more than 100 percent ahead of last year, due partially from focusing more on social media, digital marketing and influencers. “Once you have your own stuff to talk about, it becomes easier to get people to promote that. It’s yours and something you’re really invested in,” Francis said.

• As a full-time model, Britt Bergmeister has an insider’s view of the fashion world. A few years ago, the industry’s wastefulness started to bring her down a bit. Around that same time her mother, Maria Bromley, suggested they start a brand to help women achieve the off-duty model look. After hearing activist and model Cameron Russell encourage attendees at a Model Mafia event to use their platforms for something better, Bergmeister decided to make the Off Duty Model brand sustainable. The site’s name also got a tweak to be “Off Duty Model On Duty Citizen” or ODM/ODC.

Processed with VSCO with p5 preset

Processed with VSCO with p5 preset  Courtesy Photo

Through affiliate marketing, the site sells favorite picks from Reformation and Everlane as well as an assortment of sustainable clothing, beauty products and home goods that are sustainable or ethically made. “We’re basically trying to promote that sustainable is sexy and it can be fashion-forward and fun. But we’re trying to teach women that they should think before they buy. They can still buy stuff. But they should think before they buy, buy less and buy better,” said Bergmeister.

Having seen firsthand while modeling how fast fashion doesn’t always hold up quality wise, Bergmeister aims to help educate such corporate clients. “It’s important to work with them because they already have all the capital, the means and the connections,” she said, referring to the potential for improvement. 

Noting that her generation isn’t as aware as her daughter’s is about sustainable brands, Bromley said the site is curated to simplify shopping for consumers of all ages. In addition to finding sustainable T-shirts and other green-minded products, ODM/ODC founders are open to hosting events about sustainable fashion, promote environmentally minded models’ projects and creating an educational platform.

• Launched in December 2015 by former tech executive Ashley Suttle, Elborne has seen annual sales increase by more than 50 percent in the past year. The average shopper spends $230 for one purchase, and encouraging multiple sales at once will be a priority in the year ahead. Mara Hoffman, Shaina Mote, the vertical Australian label Kowtow, Cienne and Eleven Six are popular labels. Leather and fur are not offered, production with minimal impact on the environment is required, as is transparency and traceability of materials and manufacturing. The site attracts 13,000 unique visitors a month.

An ensemble from the Elborne site.

An ensemble from the Elborne site.  Courtesy Photo

The perception of sustainable fashion was initially the most challenging. “When we launched, people didn’t understand why organic fabrics were better, what makes something sustainable or ethical. Bridging that knowledge gap has been a challenge for us. We have found Millennials to be really receptive and interested in how clothes are made,” Suttle said. “Since then, we’ve noticed that more established brands that weren’t sustainable like Mara [Hoffman] have become more sustainable-minded.”

Next year the plan is to partner with established brands to create sustainable capsule collections, especially since research indicates that Millennial shoppers care about how clothes are made and by whom, Suttle said. Aside from limited ads on Google, Facebook and Instagram, the company’s growing base is due to word-of-mouth and being sold via the Garmentory site.

• A month after Hazel & Rose opened a Minneapolis store in September 2016, Emma Olson launched an e-commerce site. The company offers about 25 or 30 brands, with apparel comprising 75 percent of all sales. Shoppers find a mix of ethical and sustainable brands with a selection of vintage. Boots and versatile apparel that can be worn multiple ways, such as reversible wrap jumpers and dresses, are strong sellers, Olson said. “Our market is still exceptionally price-conscious so if an item can be worn in more than one way, it’s easier to convince them to make the investment,” she said.

A look at the Hazel & Rose site.

A look at the Hazel & Rose site.  Courtesy Photo

The average shopper spends between $150 and $200, with skin-care and plus-size items being two burgeoning categories. Minnesota is the company’s leading market, followed by New York, California, Oregon and Washington. Annual sales overall are flat since the store relocated this summer from northeast Minneapolis to the city’s North Loop neighborhood. The pair described the area as Minneapolis’ “first true shopping destination in decades.”

The Minneapolis-based Winsome Goods apparel label, About Arianne footwear from Spain and Esby Apparel are key labels for Hazel & Rose, Olson said. “Once you know how bad fast fashion is from an environmental and human perspective, you can’t un-know that. More people are becoming aware of the downsides and we like to offer an alternative to that. People are really hungry for a greater connection to the things that they are buying. With our assortment, we’re able to tell the stories about the brands that we offer because we’ve gotten to know the individuals behind them,” she said.

In the months ahead, the site’s plus-size assortment will be enhanced, as will vintage items. She and her cofounder are gearing up to launch their podcast “Of Retail and Repartee,” which is being produced by Matriarch Digital Media.