Feature

Why Green is the New Black

G Magazine

Treading lightly is the newest fashion trend from the catwalks of Paris and New York to a store near you.

Green is the new Black

Credit: Andrew Lee

- Advertisement -

Fashion is a fickle creature.

One minute we’re floating around in flimsy tunics and ‘boho’ skirts and the next being told that we should squeeze ourselves into skinny jeans (and if they’re a size 00 then so much the better).

But there is one look steadily infiltrating the world of fashion that has more to do with hemp and bamboo than it does Hermès and Balenciaga. This is eco-fashion, and the latest style to hit the catwalk.

Of course, ‘eco’ clothing is not a new concept. Socially responsible and environment-friendly garments have been around for ages, but they’ve been more closely associated with hippies than high fashion.

However, just as ethical and organic products are becoming commonplace in the food and beauty industries, so too are fashion designers beginning to address the issues of doing good as well as looking good.

“People today talk about the conscious consumer. Hopefully there’s a conscious designer too,” says Sue Thomas, fashion lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne.

“It’s the idea that as a designer you’re making considered choices and thinking about the repercussions of those choices: what is it that you’re designing, why are you designing it and why is it needed? And as a consumer you’re thinking, do I need this? And if I do need it, then what am I paying for it? Where is it being made, what is it made from and will wearing it and laundering it impact on the world?”

So-called ‘green fashion’ has been building momentum since the turn of the century, but it’s during the last couple of years that it has experienced significant growth.

“Five years ago there were just a handful of eco-designers,” says New York-based Summer Rayne Oakes, who has been dubbed ‘the Eco-Model’ for combining her environmental activism with a successful career in modelling.

“Now there are hundreds. Independent designers are coming to terms with sustainable style and creating designs that are lighter on the planet.”

On the catwalk

In October 2006, Paris held its third annual Ethical Fashion Show, which showcased ethically and ecologically responsible fashion. The show, held over four days, attracted around 60 exhibitors, three times more than the inaugural event in 2004, and welcomed an estimated 4,000 visitors.

During New York Fashion Week in 2005, a ‘FutureFashion’ event was staged to showcase eco-friendly fashions by 28 top designers, including Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta. Models sashayed down the catwalk in designs created using only fabrics that were renewable, reusable or more environment-friendly than conventional material.

And in the UK, ‘Well Fashioned: Eco Style in the UK’ has been the most visited exhibition hosted by the Crafts Council in the last 10 years.

“So few examples [of ‘eco’ clothing] that make it through to the consumer are worthy of consumption or press,” says Rebecca Earley, a London-based textile designer and researcher at Chelsea College of Art and Design who curated the Well Fashioned exhibition.

“But the last couple of years have improved in terms of design and availability, and once you get a few coming through, then people get excited and there’s a natural acceleration of interest.”

Some of these designs belong to high-profile names and include Katharine Hamnett, the British designer as famous for her politically-charged T-shirts (such as “Education, Not Missiles” and “Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now”) as she is her sharp tailoring.

In 2005, she launched her chemical-free menswear label, Katharine E. Hamnett, saying that she was determined to make clothes with minimal impact on the environment and in an ethical manner (hence the ‘E’ in the name).

In the March 2005, Ali Hewson and her rock star husband, Bono, along with the designer Rogan Gregory, launched a clothing brand called Edun. The label, which Hewson described as a “socially conscious clothing company”, aims to increase trade and create sustainable employment in the developing world.

Rogan is also the man behind the hip US eco-denim label Loomstate whose maxim reads, “people who give a shit are sexy”.

The mainstream

But it’s not just rock stars and high-fashion designers who are becoming more eco-aware. ‘Mainstream’ brands are also taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint:

  • Patagonia, the US-based outdoor clothing company, was one of the first brands to explore using less polluting fabric back in 1991. They developed recycled fleece and polyester, began using less-harmful cotton and now offer an entire line of recyclable clothing.
  • Levi’s introduced their Levi’s Eco line of jeans to the US market in November last year. The range features 100% organic cotton, natural indigo dyes, recycled buttons and zippers.
  • Nike have set a target to introduce five per cent organic cotton into all their cotton-containing products by 2010.
  • The grande dame of the British high street, Marks & Spencer, has just launched its own fair trade line.

What the fuss is all about

This is all well and good, but why do we need environment-friendly trousers anyway?

The answer is rather frightening. The clothing, shoe and textile industry is one of the largest in the world, employing around one billion people worldwide.

It is also one of the most polluting.

Take cotton, for example. Traditionally considered to be a ‘natural’ fibre, in reality it's one of the fashion industry’s worst culprits when it comes to environmental damage. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), cotton amounts for 10 per cent of the world’s agricultural pesticide use.

Traditional cotton farming uses substantial amounts of chemical sprays and the World Health Organisation estimates that around 20,000 people die annually in developing countries owing to exposure to these and other pesticides.

And then there’s the process of turning the raw material into fibre or yarn.

This part of the production process uses an estimated 8,000 chemicals in the form of softening agents and dyes, and is often carried out in developing countries where labour is cheap and working conditions are not always safe and fair.

But experts in eco-friendly and sustainable fashion argue that it needn’t be like this.

“Seventy-five per cent of all the environmental damage caused by all products is created at the design stage,” says Anthea Van Kopplen, a fashion lecturer at RMIT University and curator of the After Fashion exhibition, which explored sustainability in fashion design and was held at the National Wool Museum in Geelong, Victoria, in 2005. “So the emphasis is on design if we want to change the world.”

Choices

In Europe and the United States, there are a growing number of independent designers who are attempting to do just that.

One such designer is LA-based Deborah Lindquist who was one of just three American designers to showcase her collection at the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris in 2006. Using a mixture of recycled materials that include vintage sari fabrics along with hemp blends, organic cotton, wool and soy, Lindquist produces high-end fashion that she describes as “rock ‘n’ roll feminine”.

“It’s about making choices,” says Lindquist. “Some people say ‘OK, I can drive a hybrid vehicle and that’s what I can do to help the environment or I’m going to recycle my bottles’."

"I’m a clothing designer and this is what I do all day long. And if I’m in this business I might as well do something good with it, not just to make money but to give something back and to support an industry of new fabrics raised without pesticides.”

Lindquist, who counts celebrities such as Sharon Stone and Gwen Stefani among her clients, is perhaps best known for her recycled cashmere jumpers featuring quirky motifs such as a Pirates of the Caribbean-inspired skull and crossbones.

She has designed red carpet gowns out of vintage kimono fabric, a wedding dress using hemp blends and jackets using repurposed floral cloth curtains. In one collection she created a catsuit out of bamboo and a leotard using soy that, according to Lindquist, “looks like something Jane Fonda could have worn.”

Another California designer breaking new ground is Tierra Del Forte who was inspired to start her premium denim line, Del Forte Denim, after witnessing first-hand the environmental and social impact of working in the fashion industry.

“I worked in the mainstream denim industry in New York where the fashion was very fast, very price conscious and super competitive,” says Del Forte.

“And you realise that if you’re charging US$6 for a pair of jeans then someone, somewhere, is not being paid properly.”

Del Forte’s jeans are made using 100% organic cotton that she sources mainly from farmers in California and Texas and are manufactured at two nearby factories. Launched in May 2005, her designs, which are stocked alongside ‘aspirational’ brands such as Seven For All Mankind, can already be found in 55 stores across the US and are proving a hit with the ‘premium’ denim market.

Home grown

In Australia, however, despite consumers becoming increasingly eco-savvy, environment-friendly clothing is still very much in its infancy.

“We are still behind the world in the development of this,” says RMIT’s Thomas. “But it is happening and inroads are being made.”

One Byron Bay-based designer paving the way is Rachel Bending, whose eco-conscious fabric, clothing and homewares label, Bird Textile, lays claim to being the first climate neutral company in Australia. Launched in March 2006 under the slogan “pioneering sustainability in style”, Bending has already seen her designs snapped up by buyers in Australia, the US and Asia and has plans to open a store in Sydney.

“It’s really about recognising that the fashion industry is notorious for waste,” says Bending of her company’s philosophy.

“And recognising that the industry is not taking responsibility in terms of human sustainability - in other words underpaid labour in Third World countries - or in environmental sustainability in the production of crops for fashion garments. So we’re looking at ways to improve in these two areas.”

She explains how her designs are created locally using solar power, and all carbon emissions produced by the business – from powering the showroom to freighting the finished goods around the world – are offset by funding projects that slow global warming.

But although Bending is committed to being carbon neutral, she is equally determined to produce cutting-edge designs.

“I’m very clear about targeting the range as a lifestyle fashion range in its own right, rather than just trying to sell it as a sustainable fashion range,” says Bending.

“People will not buy something just because it’s sustainable, they will buy it because they like it and it’s at a price they can afford.”

This sentiment is echoed by Sydney-based Sara Victoria, who designs what she describes as ‘high-end’ fashion using 100 per cent organic cotton. In 2005 she launched her line, Sara Victoria Organic Softwares, at the Organic Expo in Sydney and generated enough interest to keep her in business for the whole of her first year.

“There were a few others selling organic clothing but my sample range was more angled towards ‘fashion’,” says Victoria of her success.

Each item of clothing that she produces, from organic cotton wrap dresses to silk blend skirts, comes with a label detailing statistics involved with the production process. Buy a plain white T-shirt, for example, and you learn that as a consumer you have “saved the earth from around 226 grams or 1/2 pound of toxic chemicals” and that “approximately 1/2 the amount of water is used in this process [as opposed to traditional cotton]”.

“It gives people an idea of what’s involved,” explains Victoria. “It provides a measurement. People think, ‘Golly that’s a lot of chemicals. And look how many T-shirts there are everywhere’.”

And there are other Australian designers flying the flag of eco-friendly design. India Flint is a designer, costumier and dye expert based in Mount Pleasant, Victoria, whose signature ‘eco-print’ was established in 1999.
Created using natural eucalypt dye, the striking colours and patterns that evolve on her chosen materials of wool, felt and silk are proof that fashion can be created in your own backyard.

“In Australia we have these amazing resources,” says Flint who wrote a book on plant dyes designs costumes for the West Australian Ballet production, Debris.

“There are more than 1,000 species and sub-species [of eucalyptus] and they all give different shades from greens, to golds to orange, tan and red. You can even do black if your dye vessel is made out of iron.”

In 2005, Flint launched her fashion label Benedictus at the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival.

“It’s really about sartorial salvage,” explains Flint who works mainly by commission.

“Redeployed clothing that is cut up and reconstructed with hand stitching, and over-dyeing with plant dyes so that it is no longer recognisable. It’s about sustainability and fashion and the whole principle of making do and cherishing something and making it live longer.”

A bright green future

But despite movements by independent designers towards a greener fashion future, the question remains, can eco-fashion succeed in an industry that traditionally relies on making it cheap and selling it cheaper? Is green chic a wave of the future – or will it disappear once the next fashion trend comes along?

Encouragingly, industry experts believe it’s here to stay.

“We can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m only going to wear ethical clothes from now on’,” says Thomas. “And we might not go completely organic from our PJs to our underwear. But instead we’ll start making the occasional purchase and this is how things change.”