the rise of eco-fashion

how fashion got its soul back

Responsible Fashion Emerges

The organic and responsible clothing industry remains a small, but rapidly growing niche throughout the world. Both the rising consumer awareness of where our clothing comes from, as well as information on what conditions under which it was made have spurred a consistent increase in the market. In 2003, sales of U.S. organic fiber exceeded $85 million, while global organic fiber product sales were more than $240 million. As consciousness increases, sales of organic fibers and interest in responsible design are expected to incrementally grow, making it a very interesting market to watch. 

Though the industry still remains small, “eco-fashion” is a relatively “new-old” concept. Eco-, ethical-, sustainable, and organic had largely been wallflower-terms hanging around the fashion scene since the early ‘90s. Just over a decade later, these concepts have re-emerged from the depths of the conscious lifestyle movement to challenge the status quo.

To date, no standard definition exists that encompasses what “eco-fashion” truly is. In general, however, eco-fashion is considered environmentally- (created in a manner that is safe to humans and the environment) and socially-friendly (created under fair wages and working conditions). 

Most frequently, the term eco-fashion is used to describe fashion produced with non-toxic dyes and organic fibers – unaltered renewables like cotton, wool, angora, cashmere, hemp, ramie, silk (peace, wild, and regular), linen, and flax.  

There are numerous other fibers on the market that are a form of rayon, which are cellulose-based materials (wood pulp, bamboo, Tencel and seaweed) that normally do not undergo any genetic modification or pesticide input, but have moderate chemical processing. 

Ingeo, a corn-based biopolymer, has also entered the scene, but cannot be considered organic, as it may derive its sources from genetically modified crop.   

Currently, eco-fashion is also used to describe reconstructed vintage, traditional vintage garments and accessories, or garments that are made from just about any found, recycled, refurbished, or repurposed materials.

These materials most often were created under polluting conditions, but the fact that they are being reused or downcycled is enough to put them in the eco-fashion realm.

This technique is a common practice among numerous accessory designers, and employed in part by clothing designers like Patagonia (recycled PET), Nike Reconsidered (recycled shoes), Deborah Lindquist (recycled clothes), Project Alabama (recycled fabrics), Harricana (recycled fur), and Gaelyn & Cianfarani (recycled tires).  

The Ugly Side of Fashion

The garment industry shares many dynamic interrelationships between agricultural resources, industrial activities, lifestyle, human rights and the environment.

For ankle-biting environmentalists who think fashion is too frivolous of a concept to incorporate into environmentalism, consider this concept: according to the Encyclopedia of Textiles, textiles and their end products constitute the world’s second largest industry, ranking only below food products.

At least 10% of the world’s productive energies are devoted to this activity, and a sizeable segment of the global population earns its living and obtains its creative satisfaction from the same source.   

Textiles are one of the largest polluting industries in many countries.  Since the 1995 passage of NAFTA and the increase in globalization, both the visibility of environmental impacts from textile production/manufacturing and jobs associated with them have moved to less developed areas.  

From 1996 to 2001, over 500,000 textile jobs have been eliminated from the U.S. and 414 textile plants have closed.  Current trends indicate that the U.S. textile industry has largely moved into the Far East, South America and Africa where lower labor costs equal lower production costs.  

Behind many of those low-cost tees and over-priced designer labels that Americans so adore lurks a weak infrastructure in which regulations, labor standards, industrial wastewater treatment infrastructure, and medical facilities are often substandard or nonexistent.  

According to recent sources, about 50% of all pesticides in third world countries are for cotton cultivation, with 20,000 people dying every year due to pesticide application. 

These numbers will only increase, if the U.S. continually increases the importation of conventionally-produced fibers. In a 2001 study, U.S. imports for textiles and garment products alone accounted for $81.8 billion, or a whopping 20.2% of the total world textile imports. 

The textile and garment market therefore has a sizeable effect on the environment, society, and economy. These figures should not only appeal to pure environmentalists and fashion industry professionals, but to any consumer who is concerned about human rights, job security, national economic vitality, education, and food and water safety.

Conventional Cotton: Dirty Little Secrets Exposed

A fiber’s lifecycle from production to finished product can reveal much beyond a garment’s history and future. Take cotton, for instance. Made-By, a company whose motto is “meet the maker,” is a shadow label for design lines. A shadow label guarantees the traceability of the product elements through a “Track & Trace” system.

Along the tracking system, the shadow label sets its own priorities to demonstrate transparency in the production chain, and to ensure that the cotton and respective processing is ethical and environmentally-friendly.

The Eco Label (European Union), Eco Mark (Japan), and White Swan (Nordic Countries) are all premeditated models that are paving the way for national and international standards on sustainable textiles, like organic cotton. The United States needs to follow suit. 

Though only 2.5% of the world’s farming acreage is devoted to cotton,  it is the world’s principal clothing fiber, accounting for over 50% of the total world fiber production  and 25% of the world’s pesticide use. 

China, India, Russia, and the U.S. contribute almost 80% of the total production of cotton, with other important producers being East Africa, Egypt, and the Sudan.  This popular plant has many lesser-known uses aside from those blue jeans you’re sporting, including use in chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food, and feedstock. That means going organic improves safety in food and other supply chains.

Eco-Fashion: Forever Alternative or Destined for Mainstream?

Efficient eco-textile infrastructure and the cradle-to-cradle paradigm for rugs, panels, and upholstery have preceded eco-fashion, compliments of companies like the McDonough Braungart Design Corporation (MBDC), Interface, Carnegie Fabrics and Design Tex. 

Cradle-to-cradle (as opposed to cradle-to-grave) refers to the idea that all waste material (textile scraps, old clothes, etc.) are productively re-incorporated into new production and use phases.

Though this has become the crux of many interior and architecture design firms, even traditionalists have to agree that eco-fashion is far more interesting than eco-upholstery. 

The former’s je ne sais quoi has the pitching power to pique the curiosity of young adults and fledgling fashionistas – not just eco-holics. When sitting at the local coffee shop, it is a guarantee that you will more likely hear: “Did you see that latest dress by so-and-so?” or “Did you see what so-and-so was wearing on the Red Carpet?” rather than: “Did you see that new ottoman?” 

Before the turn of the century, industry professionals argued that green clothing would remain a niche phenomenon for pure green consumers as long as designers touted buyers based solely on their environmental awareness.

If benefits like function, style, appearance, self-esteem, and image were not brought to the forefront, then outside interest would never flare. That meant that designers needed to show that the grass was not only “greener” on the other side, but it was also functional, safe, and it made you feel better when you were sitting on it. 

Some designers are succeeding in getting their point across. Carasan Designs, a New York-based label founded in 2001 by a mother-daughter duo shares a great celebrity clientele and is beginning to employ more sustainable fashion with each season.

Their Spring 2006 line will be made principally of organic cotton gauze and hand-beading, but it’s not the “eco” that make the sales, it’s the fashion and the buzz that the design line creates.

Outdoor clothing giant Patagonia appeals to their customers’ love for functionality, durability and performance, especially as only 20% of customers report caring about the environmental impact of their clothing. 

Mark Messura, Vice President for strategic planning of Cotton Incorporated does not expect to see the use of organic cotton in eco-fashion grow beyond its niche market, regardless of whether designers appeal outside the eco-mindset.

In a survey entitled “Attitudes Toward Organic Cotton Clothing,” Messura reports a “limited potential at retail in the U.S.”   World-renowned trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, however, reports that the consumer is “ready to embrace the rare, the unraveled and the irregular in the quest for soul in a product.”

She feels that “consumers will want to embrace their inner-selves and choose merchandise to appease their need.”  Eco-fashion undoubtedly is able to fulfill that necessity.

Who’s Running the Show?

There is no doubt that fresh, grassroots designers are spearheading the eco-fashion movement alongside more established labels like Stella McCartney, Armani, and a few others who are dipping their toes in the organic pool. “Older [mainstream] designers are just not interested in the organic fabrics,” says Maida Silver, Vice President of Jasco Fabrics in New York, an upscale fabric producer that houses an organic fabric collection. 

“It’s the younger, more conscious customers that are inquiring about and buying the fabric.” 

These edge-defining, eco-sensitive labels have definitely deciphered the design code and ooze the Buy-Me-Now! factor.

Some of these labels include: Imitation of Christ, Deborah Hampton, Linda Loudermilk, Loomstate, Edun, coolnotcruel, Ecogánik, Under the Canopy, Earth Speaks, Mercado Global, Patagonia, Prana, People Tree, Eileen Fisher, Project Alabama, Katherine Hamnett, Twice Shy, Veja, Amazon Life, Natural High Lifestyle and many more.

These designers have successfully paved the road for sexy, savvy, sporty, and functional eco-wear. 

The real questions are how can designers effectively tell their story and where can the average buyer find the lines? “We will have to design new strategies of retail and new categories of merchandise, new ways of sharing profits and new ideas of showcasing and promoting these goods,”  remarks Edelkoort. That will be the only way to ensure social responsibility, reduce search cost and drive sales. 

This effective marketing is in the first stages of development. Tim Wilson, Director of the U.K.-based Historic Futures, has co-developed a pilot software package that effectively traces and conveys the path textiles take through the supply chain. “Telling the story behind the product is powerful.

Consumers are looking for authenticity and need to know what they are buying. With traceability, products will speak more effectively to the public.”  

Big companies and designers need to invest in getting larger production of sustainable textiles and natural dyes, so that garments are more accessible to the mass market. “My goal is to work with designers,” states Cheryl Kolander, master dyer and organic fiber supplier of Aurora Silks. “I have formulas for over a dozen colors that can be done industrially, but cost is a consideration. There needs to be investment [into the trade].” 

Perhaps this investment will come from companies like Nike, Timberland, Patagonia, American Apparel, H&M, and Whole Foods (via Gaiam), who all have made the initial steps to help fuel the movement.  

Or perhaps the investment will come from companies and designers who are taking the heat from irresponsible design practices. “Transparency is the next key global issue,” remarks Wilson. “What kind of environmental issues and regimes people are supporting will be important questions for the next wave of global business.” 

Kolander agrees: “It’s difficult to trust a label for true country of origin of fiber and dye content if there is no direct accountability for product origin.”

Celebrities who pledge social and ecological causes can have a huge impact by stepping up to the plate and becoming role models. Director of the Environmental Library Fund, Remy Chevalier writes, “We need models that transition from saying we won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day,” to “We won’t get out of bed unless we’re saving the planet!”

This is a statement that reggae king Tego Calderon made after turning down P. Diddy’s offer to be part of the Sean John spring collection ad campaign.

He based his decision “on principle” because of the human rights violations in Central American clothing factories. British model Lily Cole also recently refused to model for DeBeers, the diamond company, after she had learned that the company was involved in the persecution and eviction of the Bushmen of the Kalahari to enable future diamond mining.

Even eco-fashion shows have stepped up to the challenge and have begun gathering momentum.

The Catwalk on the Wild Side in San Francisco, coordinated by Wildlife Works this past June, drew in an international crowd of 600 people, including Al Gore, Rosario Dawson, MTV VJs, a host of international politicians, and others.

Other notable shows, include: Re:Fashion in London, Verdopolis Future Fashion in NYC, The Eco-Label Anniversary Fashion Show in Denmark, the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris, and numerous whisperings of more shows to come.

When looking at the big picture, shows popping up in these geographic epicenters will likely begin radiating outwards.  

Consumers, however, are the real people facilitating change. As U2’s Bono mentioned regarding the new ethical line Edun, which he started with his wife, “It’s tiny footsteps, small choices.

Where you shop, what you buy, the questions you ask.” Kolander agrees: “Everyone should learn whom they are buying from, just as much as whom they’re voting for. You vote with your money when it comes to textiles.” 

To depart

The next wave of designers, stylists, innovators, entrepreneurs and consumers will need to embrace eco-fashion to make it flourish.

They must realize that it’s not about putting another product on the market, but about setting a responsible service precedent for protecting society, economy, health, and environment.

“Only when design will be empowered with emotion will we be able to create a new generation of things that will promote and sell themselves,” comments Edelkoort.

“They will have acquired an aura able to seduce even the most hardened consumers on their own terms. Only then will design have acquired soul.”

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