This article was written by Sarah Rich in January 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
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 uncommon...to 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.
Vanity + Sanity: What Would a "100-Mile Wardrobe" Look Like? is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 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.
Very intriguing but unrealistic idea the 100-mile wardrobe given that most geographical locations in the world are not suited to grow what they wear. Perhaps if we returned to wearing almost entirely animal skins up here in Canada we might get there, but what would the vegans do?
Remember you can't ship in raw materials and call it a 100-mile wardrobe. Imagine southern americans being the only ones allowed to wear cotton and everyone else in the country having to wear fleece from recycled pop bottles, hemp, linen, corn or wood based textiles. It sounds nice but where do the materials come from that break down the raw materials into a yarn, can they be produced locally? Do they have a local textile conversion facility with the commercial capacity they need?
You just might be able to keep local micro economies but what's stopping people from traveling all over the world to shop for the clothes that they really want and using incredible amounts of jet fuel.
I think there is definitely potential for local production in the right areas but I'd bet dollars to donuts the actually business would never survive without exporting the yarn they are producing.
I think that instead of challenging the fashion industry all the time and over-scrutinizing good intentions we need to say "nice work"., we-focus Where did your ipod come from and who made it? How was your soccer ball made and your child's toys? people are buying more electronic goods than ever and nobody ever asks why is this made overseas in a sweatshop!
What I'm saying is while we are micro analyzing the garment industry (which has made SOME major inroads)and talking about how we can get it within an enth degree of perfect, there are industries raping
and pilaging the planet and communities. I'm not saying let the garment industry off the hook. I'm saying if we really want to save our planet think about the big picture.
Patagonia found that 80% of damage to the environment from clothing is post purchase. If you really want to save the world wash in cold.
On this issue of constructing a truly green garment, readers should check out what Truly Organic Apparel is creating. www.truly-organic.com.
The name says it all: Truly Organic Apparel aims to be a truly organic brand with the very smallest footprint possible.
Truly Organic brings naturally beautiful and chemical-free apparel to the mainstream market with 100% organic cotton, botanical dyes and fair-trade manufacturing. What really sets Truly Organic apart from many other “green” brands is that Truly uses no-impact dyes derived from botanicals such as indigo, pomegranate and onion skin. Plus, Truly uses a dye process that doesn't use harmful chemicals. So while many of the organic cotton garments out there are indeed organic cotton, improving the environment, the garments are being dyed in a chemical process that still has negative impacts on environment. But Truly is chemical-free!