Warmth Worn Well The Perfect Winter Coat Is Many Things—Stylish, Sturdy and Sustainable

A winter coat is a wardrobe workhorse—and its first job is keeping us warm. How warm depends on whether you are braving the streets of New York City, Chicago or Boston, or just keeping the chill out in L.A. or Atlanta. Following warmth considerations, a great coat is expected to fit over all matter of clothing from a thin layer to a bulky knit sweater, and manage to look good with jeans or work wear. Add “made sustainably” to that list and you have a winter coat that’s both a smart, and stylish, investment.

Earth-Friendly Fabrics

Typical coat fabrics are harmful to the environment, from the growing or production of the textiles, to the dyes and finishers involved in the end processes. Chicago-based eco fashion designer Lara Miller says, “Non-recycled polyester and nylons are the worst. They’re usually seen in fleece, ripstop and synthetic fabrics made to look like wool—the typical fabrics used for winter coats.” Polyester is made from nonrenewable oil and won’t biodegrade for thousands of years. While it can be recycled, it usually isn”t. Nylon and acetate are other materials that never degrade, so once the coat makes its way to the landfill (and the vast majority of clothing does eventually end up there) it will still be there when your great-great-grandchildren are contemplating their winter wardrobe essentials.

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Planet Earth

Fortunately, there are some great existing and up-and-coming fabric alternatives specifically for coats. “Recycled polyethylene terephthalate plastic (or rPET) is very promising for the outer shell in terms of performance, with a cozy inner lining like organic cotton fleece and some sort of internal, insulating batting for warmth,” says sustainable style expert Aysia Wright. Organic wool, hemp blends and recycled fills are other great eco fabrics for outerwear.

Nina Valenti, the fashion designer behind NatureVsFuture, has been using fabric combinations that are tough enough to stand up to winters in NYC, where she lives and designs—and where her coats are made. “One of my coats is made from a blend of hemp, flax, ramie [spun grass] and organic cotton and it’s lined with a soft organic cotton flannel,” she says. Valenti got creative with her fabric sourcing, saying of the above mix, “This fabric is normally used as an upholstery fabric but I love it for my structured coats.” The designer has also been using surplus or leftover wools— a camel coat is available in a hemp fabric or a wool/cashmere mix.

Style and Substance

There are plenty of options, whether you’re looking for a peacoat, a trench, barn jacket, a sweater coat or a puffer. Speaking of urban favorites, Vaute Couture (an “activist fashion label”) offers some of the funkiest coats around, and they’re eco-friendly and vegan, too. Vaute’s day-glo Urban Snow Coat is made with Primaloft Eco filler comprised of 70% post-consumer recycled material. For boarders, skiers and sportier types, Planet Earth Clothing Company has a men’s Fading Flannel Jacket that looks like a worn, brown flannel shirt, but is made from part recycled PET on the outside and 100% recyclable insulation. Planet Earth’s Pioneer Street Jacket for women is like a super-thick sweatshirt crossed with a military coat, made from a soft, gray organic cotton blend.

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The Little (Green) Things

Buttons, zippers and other hardware matter. “Function is always key for me, so I wanted to be sure that I used heavy-duty zippers that could withstand years of use,” says Miller. Other designers use deadstock or recycled metal buttons and zippers made from recycled aluminum. Eco-friendly hangtags and packaging and minimal shipping are additional ways designers keep it green. Until someone designs a compostable coat, that is!