• Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Sustainable FashionThe PR-heavy fashion industry rarely defines the term “sustainable”.

What does sustainability mean in the ultra-disposable world of fashion where it is often the last consideration in a person’s purchase decision process?

Ultimately, sustainability is not something that can be seen easily from the outside. How do you know if that garment she’s wearing was made from local, organic cotton, rather than from imported, conventionally grown fibres made in a sweatshop?

You don’t and there’s the rub.

Sustainable fashion is nearly impossible to market unless a brand image is attached to it. Brands need to cultivate an image of sustainable production processes that a person can trust when going to a store. Patagonia may be the best that I know of that does this, although it is mostly a very expensive type of hippie brand that the article below laments.

Patagonia makes a big deal about their environmental programs and corporate social responsibility programs, so I naturally assume that they are on the leading edge of doing good for the planet and me. They are sustainable without having to actually define what that is.

For the sustainable fashion movement to stick, brands need to carry the torch forward. Whether that means individual designers or whole lines of clothing, the key is the ability for people to quickly and easily recognize a sustainable article of clothing much like they can with organic produce.

Source: Montreal Gazette

Indeed, most sustainable fashionistas are proud of their earthiness, but are keen to see more high-style clothing grace the industry. It’s part of an effort to ditch that hippie stigma.

“We want to enjoy dressing up; we don’t want to wear hemp all the time,” said Alexandra Schwartz of Studio Breathe, a sleek-looking Montreal yoga and karate studio. On Nov. 19, Schwartz held a charity auction for the David Suzuki Foundation to promote ethical consumerism.

Schwartz agrees that, aside from a few cute frilly tops, Montreal’s sustainable-fashion movement tends to produce lots of casual T-shirts and cozy sweaters. Because many of these looks can be granola-heavy, “terms like ‘organic’ can get a negative reaction,” she said.

Schwartz also believes customers are wary of eco-clothing because of “greenwashing” – whereby companies advertise items as eco-friendly when they have only a small percentage of organic cotton mixed with a bulk load of petroleum-based ingredients. They may also make other eco-claims they can’t back up.

In the hopes of giving sustainable consumerism a fresh start, Schwartz has adopted the “blue” philosophy of Adam Werbach, the former head of the Sierra Club and now CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, the ethical division of the ad agency. Werbach’s “blue” ideology stresses the ethical features of consumerism — such as buying a pair of those charitable Toms Shoes — rather than just focusing on the “green” items, such as organic cotton.

Fashion first

Eva Anastasiu is an ex-Montrealer living in Paris who runs with three other partners. The site, which was launched two years ago, has more than 1,000 subscribers to its newsletter, and more than 300 sustainable brands listed.

A regular at Paris’s Ethical Fashion Show, Anastasiu believes the industry’s mission should be to reach out to the global fashion community.

“The goal is to have more fashion designers to go eco-(style) — not necessarily more humanitarians,” Anastasiu said. While she’s all for former Peace Corps workers launching their indie fashion labels, she thinks designers with proven talent should be recruited into the sustainable-fashion movement. That way, they can help improve the industry’s style and image, which is key to igniting an even larger consumer trend. In turn, even more corporations will have to become responsible.

She sees looks becoming more upscale: Last year, John Patrick Organics was nominated for the Council of Fashion Designers of America award. This year, two more sustainable-fashion designers, Monique Pean and Natalie “Alabama” Chanin, were nominated.

“All this organic culture is a heritage of hippie culture; it’s just where it started,” Anastasiu said. “Now it’s taken up by people who are trained as designers and more fashionably interested brands.”

Bigger brands such as American Apparel should also be recognized for their vertically integrated business model and fair working conditions, Anastasiu said. “And they have quite a bit of organic cotton,” she added. Anastasiu lists H&M as another company with corporate-responsibility initiatives.

Still, Anastasiu acknowledges that bigger companies tend to be about “fast fashion” — fast food for your wardrobe, based on manufacturing and selling cheap, disposable clothes. This runs counter to the sustainable-fashion philosophy, which is all about good quality, longer-term buys from smaller, up-cycled vintage stores, and sustainable-fashion shops.

“A lot of eco-fashion designers are amazing people: They go to farms, to factories, and have their noses everywhere,” she said. “I admire them so much, and I really think their work should be promoted.”

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3 Responses

  1. 1
    Pixie Gas 

    Excellent! There should be more focus on sustainable, eco-friendly, and especially ETHICAL clothing.

  2. 2

    I remain dismayed with the definition parameters of “sustainability”. It gets really old that the people who claim to be the greenest can be the worst.

    For example, there is no doubt they’re using sustainable fibers in fair trade work shops but that is NOT enough! The very first thing they should be doing and are not, is cutting to order. Meaning, they take wholesale orders and cut only what is ordered. But they don’t do that. No they don’t. They order up a bunch of stuff in advance of orders and then try to sell it. They overproduce and end up with excess inventory (a huge waste of organic fabrics and fossil fuels) and then when it doesn’t sell, have to sell those tees in the off-price market. Or the off off-price market.

    Those crunchy granola eco-tees and yoga pants end up being shipped and sold to poverty stricken countries in Africa and Asia which ends up putting the local clothing producers there out of business because the imports are pennies per pound. Then, the domestic clothing producers have no means to feed their families or their employees families so many of them commit suicide leaving a trail of widows and fatherless children in their wake.

    In short, nearly ALL of the “eco-producers” (all small indie brands) in the US are guilty of increasing poverty in the “third world” -to say nothing of actually increasing the use of fossil fuels schlepping their products around the globe. But nobody will talk about this. I can’t seem to make headway at introducing the issue of overproduction into the sustainability conversation. This is a travesty. You can imagine I’m quite cynical of most of them.

    I don’t care is your fabric has been blessed by God/Gaia/Buddha him/herself and your clothes are sewn by dew kissed fair trade fairies, if you over produce, you are just as guilty as the biggest brands who make no sustainability efforts. Or more so. At least they’re not hypocrites. In spite of my best efforts, no consumer knows enough to hold “eco” designers accountable for their irresponsible behaviors that are totally within their control. And those designers, they just ignore me.

  3. 3
    Mark Berger 

    Thanks for bringing the issue of over-production to our attention. I certainly wasn’t aware of this practice.

    Do manufacturers do this because they don’t know what will sell ahead of time? If that is the case, sustainable designers could take pre-orders on a web site, for example, and then order only the materials needed. Only once a threshold of orders was reached (10, 20, 50?) the manufacturing process would begin.

    Would that work?

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