One word of advice to mainstream designers who want to do something eco-friendly: Releasing a T-shirt made out of organic cotton and donating the proceeds to charity isn’t doing much to help the cause of sustainable design.
My vision of “eco-friendly” has been clouded by all the muted shades of dusty mauve, cracked wheat, and oatmeal fabrics sewn to resemble peasant tops, or striped palazzo pants, or anything you’d associate with the rubber-covered hardwood floors of a quiet yoga studio. All things I would not be willing to add to the waste pile of tops I will never wear or don’t need.
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If I feel inundated by organic T-shirts, it’s because they are the easiest product for fledgling labels to push: They’re inexpensive, and thus anyone can afford to take part in the “green” revolution. But they’re a turnoff, because wearing one and calling it an "eco-day" feels so superficial. So where are these “eco-chic” designers doing innovative, legitimately sustainable design?
I started with eco-design Web site Inhabitat, which has reliable taste when it comes to design that extends beyond an unbleached T-shirt with the word “love” silkscreened onto it.
“Unfortunately there is this total misperception of the 'organic T-shirt rut,' which is still lingering in the mainstream fashion world,” said Inhabitat publisher Jill Fehrenbacher. “This means that there is just very little awareness about any of these extremely talented, up-and-coming, green-minded fashion designers.”
One reason for the lack of awareness could be the difficulty in discerning what is meant by the term “eco-fashion.” There is no one unified "green" movement in fashion at the moment—there are different approaches taking place simultaneously. There are designers sourcing fibers like soy or hemp from sustainable farms; then there are those working with small local producers abroad to ensure that products or textiles are manufactured under fair conditions.
Is every company touting itself as “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” involved in every one of these approaches at once? Not necessarily.
“It's going to take some time, but there are labeling systems in the works that will make it easier for people to figure out whether or not a garment is organic, fairly traded, recycled or, ideally, all of the above,” said Yuka Yoneda, a writer for Inhabitat. She recommends looking at L.E.A.F. ( Labeling Ecologically Approved Fabrics), which will soon provide consolidated information about eco-approved fabrics for consumers.
Other designers are taking a quality-over-quantity approach, emphasizing artisinally crafted goods with a shelf life well beyond a single season—“slow fashion.” Bag designer Larry Olmstead of Entermodal uses pre-Industrial Revolution techniques to produce bags that are meant to last for 50 years.
“There is such an abundance of terms out there that it's easy for consumers to get confused,” said one design writer. “It's kind of like the whole fat-free versus low-carb versus sugar-free thing.”
“One of the byproducts of modern consumerism is that almost everything we purchase is mass-produced,” said Olmstead, “Many techniques for making and hand-crafting were lost in that shift, so it becomes something like being a history detective.” To re-create a molded leather bag from the mid-19th century that he found, for instance, Olmstead discovered that all it takes “is simply water, the right type of leather, and lots of time and patience.”
SANS, a small New York-based label known for their experimental designs, uses sustainable fabrics and manufacturing practices but without the aim of putting themselves in the “green” revolution category of designers. Now, they’ve introduced sewing patterns on their Web site, a creative solution to the problem of wider distribution and production for a smaller design house.
“We were getting so many requests from places where the shipping was cost prohibitive and it made us think about the whole distribution model,” said Alessandro DeVito, who co-designs SANS with Lika Volkova. “Now we have customers in something like 30 countries without having to use agents or do shows. There is no footprint, no waste, and the designs are accessible well beyond major metropolitan areas.”
At the end of the day, how does one sort through it all and decide which eco product to buy?
“There is such an abundance of terms out there that it's easy for consumers to get confused,” said Yoneda. “It's kind of like the whole fat-free versus low-carb versus sugar-free thing. Each of these has both positive and negative aspects. For example, some people don't care about what materials a garment is made out of as long as the workers who made it were paid fair wages. Others may feel that organic cotton is the way to go because they don't want to wear pesticides.”
Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."