The days of tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing environmentalists have officially seen their end, but the niche movement is witnessing a gradual revival. The newest wave of eco-friendly living is as much a label of style as it is global awareness, and sustainable fashion is finally entering the conversation.
These days, the green lifestyle embodies more than just activism — everything from organic food to hybrid cars have mesmerized mainstream culture to create a whole new slew of trendy consumer choices. And what better object of our desire to focus on than fashion?
But first, what exactly does “sustainable” mean in terms of what we wear? Without a strict system of guidelines to regulate the environmental impact of clothing production, the concept of sustainability includes a broad spectrum of factors, ranging from the use of pesticides and fossil fuels to human rights issues and cheap labor. Every designer and manufacturer consequently operates under a unique set of regulations, so it essentially becomes a matter of personal opinion in regards to how much is enough to be considered sustainable.
Though commonly overlooked when addressing environmental concerns, the fashion industry can hardly claim innocence in its production practices. Aysia Wright, owner and founder of Greenloop.com, says it’s “an example of a very resource intensive facet of business” and one that “in itself is extremely polluting.” Consider the full lifecycle of a garment, and it’s almost impossible to dodge the bullet:
The farming of fibers requires enormous quantities of pesticides — up to a third of a pound of chemicals are used to grow enough cotton for a single T-shirt — many of which are known or likely carcinogens*
Textile mills consume huge amounts of non-renewable energy sources
The practice of outsourcing garment production increases long-distance transportation
Unwanted materials contribute to the world’s rising number of landfills — the average American throws away about 68 pounds of textiles and clothing per year*
But it’s going to take more than fancy statistics to hold the public’s attention. Awareness alone isn’t enough to encourage change; we don’t just want to know we’re making the intelligent decision in buying sustainable fashion, we want to look good doing it.
“Most designers are driven by their conscience and their personal motivation to do the right thing,” Wright said, but they also know that a burlap sack isn’t going to boost sales. Where environmentally conscious clothing once included little more than hemp-heavy prints and comfy yoga wear, talented designers are finally converting their ways without sacrificing style.
A small handful of clothing labels have been on the eco-fashion scene for a while, like Stewart & Brown “Organic Pioneers,” but most are just beginning to break ground and the Internet provides the perfect opportunity for exposure.
For Fall 2007, Nicole Bridger is at the top of my list. Chic, modern and wholly original, her collection is a reminder that going green doesn’t have to mean settling for second best. Her choice pieces are undoubtedly the striped, poncho-like jackets that fit snugly at the waist with oversized buttons; and sheer, low-cut, pocketed blouses, perfect over a camisole for a night out.
Linda Loudermilk’s sleek neutrals are another favorite, with sexy silhouettes that won’t reveal too much during the cooler seasons. The collection’s cream and grey tones are punctuated by exotic patterns to add a bit of flair, and emphasized waistlines create flattering, elegant shapes. Linda Loudermilk also boasts a couture collection, and while it’s far less impressive than her ready-to-wear, it proves that sustainability can translate into high fashion.
If you’re looking for casual wear, Del Forte Denim has a variety of styles, from the skinny jean to high-waisted skirts, occasionally accented with vintage or recycled fabrics through their Project Rejeaneration. Howies is another label worth checking out, mostly for cute casual knits and comfortable jackets, all with an ever-so-slight hipster edge. And farther down on the price bracket, Urban Outfitters’s Urban Renewal — a clothing line made from recycled fabrics — is finally available online, and even American Apparel
is introducing a handful of organic basics.
Style savvy or not, fashion is an unavoidable aspect of global culture and one that’s often taken for granted in our daily lives. Maybe you’ve given up the gas-guzzling SUV or have become a farmers’ market regular, but each of us still contributes — albeit in the smallest of ways — to the fashion industry’s large-scale damage every morning as we get dressed. We can make all the excuses we want, “but everyone’s starting to realize that it’s not just an issue for the hippies anymore,” Wright said.
“At the very base level, it affects our ability to remain economically prosperous and healthy as a people. It’s going to impact (us) directly, and if not (us), then most certainly (our) children.”
The sustainable fashion industry is one of “urgency, need and camaraderie,” Wright said. There’s not only a shared passion for style, but also for hope, that through quality design and ethical practices, fashion can become a powerful vehicle for a greener world. The switch may require extra effort — and almost always a little extra cash— but know that when investing in sustainable clothes and accessories, you’re making the right choice.
Interested in more information? Excellent resources include TheGreenloop.com, Treehugger.com, Notjustpretty.com and Fashioninganethicalindustry.org.