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Clean Clothes: Ecological, Ethical, Stylish

This article was written by Alan AtKisson in August 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Here at the annual InNaTex trade fair, in the heart of Germany, you can get a quick sense of how far the world of European fashion has come in delivering bright green, socially-responsible clothing. And the sense is: not too far. But the pace of change is quickening.

The InNaTex fair brings together producers of natural-fiber clothing. You don't have to be organically certified etc. to participate, but you do have to be "natural" -- that is, working with cotton, wool, silk, hemp, and other materials produced by living organisms, instead of by humans mucking about with fossil fuels and chemicals and other "gloppity-glop," as Dr. Suess's Lorax likes to call it.

Clothes are more than half the issue here, but there are also natural buttons, combs, toys, and of course a sprinkling of New Age relaxation implements left-over from the 1980s. Actually, what's remarkable is how non-New Age, how un-hippy, the collection seems as a whole. And the most successful exhibitors are clearly those whose clothes look the most "mainstream," while still being "clean" in the way Bono might use the term.

I am here because my wife is here, researching for her new business: she is starting to make clothes that are ecological (as we say here, the word "organic" is mostly American), ethical, and mainstream-stylish in that understated Scandinavian way. Judging from her existing competition, her business is going to succeed.

You tell who's doing well by who's writing orders. At every booth there is a little table with cookies or candy on it. It seems an unwritten rule that you don't help yourself, unless you are sitting down to place a wholesale order for your retail business. Most of the tables are frankly rather quiet.

Here is "Peau-Ethique" ("Ethical Skin," but also a play on words with poetique), a small French business with a focus on floral lingerie and baby clothes, all in organic cotton grown and processed and stitched together in Turkey. (Turkey and India are the major suppliers for such cotton here.) The founder, NAME, worked fourteen years in the far-less-green-and-ethical heart of the clothing before venturing out on her own two years ago. "It's difficult," she admits freely, "but it's growing slowly."

That's pretty much what most people here say. Many of the companies exhibiting are less than five years old, even less than two. That's a good sign, of course -- indicating growth in the industry -- even if the order tables seem rather quiet.

All, that is, except the big booth in the back, the booth for Christoph Fritzsch, which not only has several busy order tables, but even its own espresso machine. We talk to Harriet, the American who owns the company with her German husband. They've been in business for twenty-five years, starting back in the early 1980s with a knitting business (knitting was all the rage in northern Europe then). Now, it's silk. And it's good stuff (as the former co-owner of a women's clothing design company, in New York in the 1980s, I actually feely qualified to know). Inventive, mainstream-current designs, good colorations, the price-points are reasonable. It's no wonder they are busy. I congratulate Harriet and then ask her my usual question: how much of their stuff is certified organic, fair trade, etc.?

Very little, it turns out: just the underwear. Harriet immediately launches into the explanation, which she's clearly had to give often. It's hard to get certified silk -- "the worms that make the silk are some of the pests that pesticides were made for, so they get exposed to whatever's on what they ate" -- and it's even harder to dye it. "We tried vegetable dyes for a while," she says, "but our customers did not respond well." Read: sales did not meet targets (she doesn't say whether they actually declined). "We make our compromises," she says, "but we're clear with our customers about what those compromises are, and why we make them." They may not be very green, but they are at least transparent about it.

It strikes me as ironic, but also instructive, that the most successful exhibitor at the green-and-fair trade fair appears to be the least concerned with being green or fair -- but the savviest at marketing. Still, it's worth mentioning that the second most successful exhibitor, judging from the visible and on-the-spot order-writing activity, is a company called Lana. They are greener and more publicly committed to both organic and fair trade sourcing, but they can't certify much of their product line yet, because there are so many steps in the process. But they are heading that way, and improving their supply chain all the time.

These are the companies that interest me, far more than the eco-toy producers or the folks making eco-wool tie-ups for rastafarian hair. Because companies like these have the potential to grow into Lands End-style brands, or Patagonia-style eco-success stories. And such companies have the potential to alert the bigger companies that further change is necessary, something beyond the symbolic addition of a few percentage points of organic cotton or a recycled shoe.

Still, I admire the artisanship of the small producers, and I come away thinking that my favorite exhibitor here was certainly one of the smallest: a French enterprise making simple, elegant jeans of cotton and indigo, and treating old Japanese kimonos by some secret process -- if I understood right, it involved packing them in mud some thirty times -- to produce a truly lovely, dark silk material. The resulting dresses looked very simple, very elegant, very French. And far more pleasant to look at than most of what parades down a Paris runway. (Most of current haute couture should be buried in mud as well, and just left there, as far as I'm concerned.)

"Clean clothes" (the new in phrase describing green-and-ethical in the rag trade) have a ways to go before they replace the unclean, ungreen, and unfair. But if the growth rates continue at their current pace, the "clean" portion of the clothing market here could soon be, well, pretty huge. My wife appears to making a good career move.

(illustration: Diane vonFurstenberg, Natural organic wool wrap dress, photo Dan Lecca)

Letter from Frankfurt: Bright Green Fashion, Fair Trade Clothing is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Posted by: rick on 9 Sep 08



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