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Vanity + Sanity: What Would a "100-Mile Wardrobe" Look Like?
Sarah Rich, 11 Jan 07
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Quite a few years ago now, I was involved in some research for the early development of a sustainable fashion line. Hours and days I sat Googling all combinations of key words: ethical apparel, sustainable fashion, green garment industry. There wasn't much other than the stuff that had been around since the 60s -- chunky, rough hemp get-ups with about as much style as a lump of clay.

We were searching for the ingredients of something yet unseen in eco apparel. Horizon, White Wave and others had recently busted up the niche limitations of organic food, and we knew that fashion held same fate. Nevertheless, the actual emergence of anything new still appeared to be a long way off. Other than Katherine Hamnett, we couldn't find a single designer or company who was really bringing ethics to the style table. American Apparel was doing the domestic thing, but this was before they'd even created the limited organic line they now offer, and their clothes were by nature meant to be a blank slate, not a design statement.

But as I combed the scarce resources, I learned a few things about the growing array of components for constructing a truly green garment. My search terms turned to specifics like Lyocell and Modal (both cellulose fibers), bamboo, organic cotton, and of course sweatshop-free. Many of the new material innovations promised to eliminate the ethical and environmental burdens, while maintaining the look and feel of some of the more conventional finery. This was promising...

No doubt we were in good company. Our feverish entrepreneurial fashion spirit was showing up in local boutiques and collectives who'd begun to take on a green hue. Still, most collections were handmade, of limited quantity and of questionable quality in terms of long-term wearability. The question was who would break into the big leagues and how.

Point of entry #1 is, of course, capital. #2 is making something that fashionistas and trendspotters won't run from in horror. Amongst the group that has since secured both entrées we find: Bono, Ali Hewson and Rogan for Edun and Rogan, Linda Loudermilk for her namesake line, Loomstate, and Stewart + Brown (just to name a core few).

Bono aside, these labels gained cachet by hitting the "style with substance" target just right, rather than through prior name recognition. By contrast, rockstar daughter and established fashion plate, Stella McCartney (the initial inspiration for this musing) soared into the limelight of ethical haute couture -- one might even say she made such a classification possible -- having paved her own way as the Creative Director at the Paris fashion house, Chloé (during which time the commercial success of that label was characterized as "stratospheric."), and of course giving her label a timelessly, internationally famous name.

Today McCartney was featured on the front of the New York Times Style section for her very vegetarian apparel. While it was a good article, and I was quite thrilled to see the idea of "uncruel beauty" earn this welcome stamp of approval, the angle of the story made me question what people think comprises a picture of sustainability in this industry. The emphasis of the story really was on the strict veganism of Stella and her wares. She's a PETA icon and fervent denouncer of animal cruelty. I thought the vegan trend might have come and gone already, but according to the Times, young hipsters love a vegan. Deborah Wasserman, director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, attributed increased interest on "cruelty-free clothing" to high-profile celebs' professed veganism, as well as the comfort of today's youth with the whole "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" meme and other environmental concepts that once seemed fringe.

The movement has derived impetus from fashion celebrities like Ms. McCartney and from the entertainment world as well.
“Certainly Hollywood has been a big promoter,? Ms. Wasserman said, citing the powers of professed vegans like Natalie Portman, Alicia Silverstone, Woody Harrelson and Joaquin Phoenix."
Their vehemence has prompted some trend-conscious shoppers to embrace vegan wares, if not vegan values.

Here's my beef with the article (pun intended): When we discuss living lightly on the land in the interest of bettering society and the environment, we aren't saying that one ought to walk with their eyes glued on the ground to be sure that no unsuspecting bugs get trampled. I love bugs, but we've got bigger fish to fry. The piece mentions $700 "ahimsa silk" suits, made from fiber procured so cautiously as to not injure the silkworms. I don't question the virtue of producing materials without doing harm, but the only direction my mind can go from that point is to the rest of that suit's life. Did the people who actually sewed the suit sustain any injury, psychological or physical? And where was the suit made? How was it shipped to the store where it was sold? Is it a durable piece? For $700 I'd want that thing to last. I suppose it's biodegradable, so no need to ask about the "end-of-life" scenario, except is anyone going to throw their silk suit in a compost pile?

The article expounds upon the choices of the through-and-through vegan consumer, pointing toward some of their favored alternatives. These include, in McCartney's line, pumps and bags made of Lucite, one of DuPont's first-born petrochemical plastics. The VRG's Wasserman also noted that "it is not find sexy, form-fitting PVC biker jackets, plastic iPod cases and stilettos. Such styles appeal to environmentalists and dedicated vegans alike, she said, contributing to a measurable growth in the vegan fashion resources."

Hmm...PVC appeals to environmentalists? I think a few environmentalists would dispute that. But the problem is not in the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the statement, but in the idea that people who consider themselves dedicated environmental advocates and, more importantly, consumers who are willing to take the time and spend the money to be called "responsible shoppers" (which is a critical set in the growing green market) are perhaps more in favor of an item made from petroleum, which most likely ate up vast amounts of energy and further petrochemicals in its manufacture and shipment, than of an item that could potentially fit within something equivalent to the 100-mile diet. A lot of raw foodists I know live on mangos and coconuts, which may be the ticket to immortality, except that on that diet plan, the planet won't last as long as their bionic high-alkaline bodies.

I'm interested in what companies like Patagonia and Nau are doing in their pursuit of an holistic sustainable model for apparel and business. They've got a lot of right ideas, focusing on cradle-to-cradle manufacturing and instituting rather radical corporate philanthropy systems that engage customers in the act of giving, while setting up a profitable and charitable model for the company itself. Their products are still niche in terms of the focus on outdoor gear, but hey, clothes that cost over $700 are niche, too.

All of this ranting has led me to the question: What would a "100-mile wardrobe" look like? Most likely the fashion analogue wouldn't actually be confined to a 100-mile radius, but how small a circle could we draw and still get the goods that make us feel good? It might not be a circle, since an apple is wonderful due to proximity and freshness while a sweater is wonderful due to the vision and inspiration of the designer. But even if the equivalent system is a more globally-distributed one, how can it decrease impact in a more whole-systems sense?

I'm into fashion. In fact, if you asked my colleagues at Worldchanging, they'd say that's an understatement. So I'm not looking to sacrifice style by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just wondering what's possible in our pursuit of a green garment industry and a closet full of planet- and people-friendly threads. I welcome your thoughts.

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It's an interesting question, and one that gets at the heart of some of the challenges at the heart of local production. Clothing is about as close to a human universal as it gets so any area that once supported an indigenous population should be able to produce some sort of clothing, although vegetarians might not like their options in many areas. At the same time textiles were some of the earliest and most important objects of international trade. The silk road is maybe the most obvious example, but woolens were also a crucial component to the trade routes between northern and southern Europe in the middle ages and cotton of course is a whole epic in itself.

One of the interesting things about fashion is how distributed it is. Garments are still made by individuals using individual sewing machines. Sourcing local materials might be hard, but having sewn together within a 100 miles in small to mid sized batches should not be a problem for most people.

Clothing has two properties that make it different from food and complicate the whole localization issue greatly. One is the issue of treatment and dying, processes that tend to be highly toxic, water intensive and a large generator of waste. It creates a challenge somewhat akin choosing between local non organic produce and organic produce from further afar. However the scale of pollution and toxicity is different with clothing than food, and a dye plant produces concentrations of toxicity that are probably far more concentrated than say a farm using pesticides. Dyes also tend to come from much further than 100 miles. One interesting thing about a 100 mile fashion is that it would create radically different color palettes for each region, based upon what dyes could be obtained locally.

More info on dyes and the environment can be found in this report:

Clothing also differs from food in that it can be use many times, but also requires multiple washing. This significantly impacts the energy footprint of a garment. It might take a large initial outlay of fossil fuels to say bring a merino fabric from New Zealand to the US, but that outlay is at least partially offset by the reduced need to wash and dry the garment. The durability is also an issue, is a garment from 150 miles away that last twice as long equivalent to two 75 mile garments that fall apart too soon?

Textiles and farming are also areas of serious innovation, but interestingly enough the ecological ramifications of that innovation appears to be almost the opposite. High tech farming tends to mean massive amounts of chemicals and/or risky genetic engineering, and thus often seems to be placing us in greater risk. In textiles though, sustainablility, reduced emissions and design for reuse are often among the core goals, making it a far more supportable sort of innovation.

As someone in the process of starting (or at least testing the waters) a clothing line myself it's a great challenge, albeit one without simple answers. Be interesting to see how people stand as these issues begin to become more prominent.

Posted by: Abe Burmeister on 11 Jan 07

Your fatal flaw is your very concept: "fashion". Fashion is, by definition, wretched excess. Most fundamentally your notion requires machines to do the brutal, repetitive cutting and sewing functions and that means mass production for mass markets, the opposite of fashion attire. Well, at least the Hollywood airheads and Eurotrash are recycling the Levis and Wranglers and Carhartts of the poor and the workers. If only the poor and the worker could get the $300 that Eurotrash pay for used Americna Levi jeans.

Posted by: Jay Bute on 15 Jan 07

Abe makes a good point about durability. And this leads to the point that Jay brings up- fashion. I disagree with his repulsion to the "wretched excess" of fashion when fashion is seen as a wearable art-form. However, fashion can contradict durability, as my favorite jeans and shirts often do when my wife makes fun of me for looking, well, "so 90's." And she, as green as she is, must give perfect clothes to the thrift store every year to who knows what ultimate fate....

Perhaps the problem with fashion is its ADHD nature, fickle, fleeting, ever-changing boom and bust. Isn't great art timeless? Who ever builds sustainable fashion, must build it timeless, then? But what of ice sculptures, sand castles, and, lo, cuisine?... We deal with these same issues in Green Building.

Is sustainability always about footprint? My background in systems theory (H.T Odum) keeps me well in this mindset. As such, I can see petroleum based textiles as a huge plus, given that any deletarious chemical byproducts are neutralized into the production stream ala industrial ecology. For one, such textiles keep oil from becomming CO2- sealed instead in thread form rather than burned in the machines of industry- secondly, they represent a more direct transformation of fossile fuel energy into product. But what of Culture?

Abe talked about the uniqueness of clothing based on the dyes available locally. This thrilled me. Even though I look like a cross between Lou Frigno and the Hobbitt, and often dress like "a dad," I spend most of my life in insular little Gainesville, FL, and I am thrilled by the possibilities of a bioregional style here to offset the already pervasiv, tacky, orange and blue of the "Gator Nation." Just imagine, not only will we eat differently when we travel somewhere, not only will we see different architectural vernacular and material pallet, but people will have their own style based on the designers in thier area and the dyes and raw materials available. Its Artistic Anarchy! Its culture given a chance.

Perhaps, then, the problem Jay has with fashion is the fact that it is so damn globalized through our all-powerful systems of corporate media hegemony (all those wonderful Hollywood stars CERTAINLY included) Then said fashion hegemond is replicated in maquiladoras and sweatshops and disseminated through the faceless sameness of outlets in malls and strip-malls across the US, much like toilet paper and butter in the old Eastern Block.

Yes, the 100 mile wardrobe. So subversive. So exciting! While fashion products will certainly be informed by the manifold mainstream media forms and celebrities, the question remains, and it is the SAME questions we face in the design and construction of the Built Environment: Will they be built to last, to hand down, timelessly? Will they be made to allow alterations, or to be easily recyled as new uses/styles require? Will they be made of only local materials, or will they allow imports for efficiencies and technological advancemets?

Anyone looking to get into sustainable textiles should examine the literature on sustainable building. The food analogue is helpful for sure, but clothing is much more closely related to shelter than food- in design, use, and intent.


Posted by: Christopher Fillie on 16 Jan 07

How about used clothing stores, salvation army, little brother (he's bigger than me), raiding friend's closets? These clothes are one step away from the dump, and there are some real finds. If you look at the history what people really wore in their daily life, hand-me-downs were a huge part of it. Used clothing has also been huge in the history of fashion, often with designers who "have something to say" - see Malcom McLaren, anything "retro," etc.
I have been surprized to see used T-shirts from my home town for sale in "Ame-Mura" (American Town) in Osaka - for quite a price. So this is not an "uncool" idea in the slightest - the difference between wearing my brother's old jacket and buying that jacket for 20000 yen is only one of perspective.
As for Jay Bute's comment about fashion being "wretched excess" - it deserves thought. Any thoughtful person who looked at the contemporary fashion industry would make the observation that it is wasteful, a sign of class inequality, and sometimes no more than commodity fetishism and empty commercialization. But this is not essential to the definition of what fashion is. Clothing ourselves is a basic and essential human activity, but so is artistic expression. Fashion is the meeting point. Actually one of the more constructive and humane parts of human nature.

Posted by: fafa on 24 Jan 07



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