From Hippie to Hip
Fashion designers are filling catwalks from New York to Los Angeles and Paris to Milan with fresh looks that make sustainability sexy.
With the lights dimmed and the music thumping, a line of leggy young models strutted down the catwalk on the eve of Fashion Week in New York City. Fashionistas and celebrities—including Isabella Rossellini, Calvin Klein, Carly Simon, and a handful of Project Runway alumni—nabbed the coveted front row. Twenty-eight top designers, from Burberry to Yves Saint Laurent, showed their latest creations. It seemed to be business as usual.
But backstage, before the show, models were wondering aloud about the clothes they were wearing. “Is yours heavy? Is it paper?” asked one. “It smells a little natural,” joked another model, who was wearing an ivory dress made of hemp silk and piña cobweb, a delicate fabric fashioned
from the leaves of a pineapple plant. From casual day wear to gowns, the entire collection of the FutureFashion show featured a feast of earth-friendly fabrics—from corn-based biopolymers (a renewable-resource version of petroleum-based polyester) to black mud silk (naturally dyed in crushed roots and dirt). Designer Donna Karan presented an evening gown of sasawashi and peace silk—the former an organic linen-like fabric made from paper and leaves, the latter a type of fine-spun fiber that lets the silkworms live to emerge from their cocoons as moths before the silk is collected. The gown had been soaked in tea for a natural amber tint.
From London to Los Angeles, from Paris to Milan, similarly themed shows are sprouting up. Planet-friendly clothing has journeyed far beyond its style-challenged origins, leaping from hippie to hip—and even haute. Just 15 years ago choices were largely limited to sack-shaped hemp dresses for sale in health-food stores. “It’s definitely come a long way,” says Marci Zaroff, founder of Under the Canopy, an organic clothing and linens company. When she started her business in 1996, she jokes, “ecofashion wasn’t even a word, it was an oxymoron.” That same year she coined (and trademarked) the term.
Only now is everything falling into place: better fabrics, greater interest by designers, and more consumer awareness. The Future-Fashion show proves it. “We’ve worked with hundreds of designers at this point, but I have to say this [show] really shoots the moon in terms of who has joined forces with us,” says Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Earth Pledge, the nonprofit that launched the FutureFashion initiative in 2005 to help the industry be more sustainable. “We have designers participating together who don’t normally even eat together. It really indicates that this is an idea whose time has come.”
Each piece of clothing we wear has a story behind it. It can be made up of parts from multiple countries, and often travels thousands of miles before it ends up in your closet. Each step—from growing the fiber to dying the fabric to transporting the finished garment—has an environmental impact.
The biggest culprit is cotton, which accounts for roughly half of the 100 billion pounds of textiles manufactured annually. “People think cotton is natural. But it’s not,” says Zaroff, who was a member of the former Organic Fiber Council’s Steering Committee. “It’s one of the leading causes of air and water pollution and one of the most heavily sprayed industries in the world.” Although cotton amounts to less than three percent of global agriculture in terms of land, it uses more than a quarter of all the applied insecticides and pesticides. Of the top nine pesticides used to grow cotton, the EPA lists all of them as Category I or II, the most toxic classifications.
The chemical stream doesn’t stop at the farm. Many poly-cotton blends, especially “easy care” and “permanent press,” are treated with formaldehyde. Chemicals like ammonia soften the fabric. Dyes and bleaches—including dioxin and toxic heavy metals like cadmium and chromium—are also an important part of making clothes look the way they do. Because labor costs are lower, clothing is often sewn in the poorest parts of the world. Although this can benefit communities, in many places it means unsafe working conditions and low pay. Transporting these clothes across oceans and continents to the consumer requires fossil fuels. Then there are the synthetic fabrics: Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polypropylene are all made from oil. With these come polluting factories. Manufacturing nylon, for example, releases nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
For conscientious designers, it hasn’t been easy. Like painters limited to only a few colors, they had slim pickings when it came to fabrics that were sustainable and stylish. “When I started, it wasn’t like I could walk into a fabric store and buy something off the shelf,” recalls Zaroff. “I literally had to go out to factories and to farmers and convince them that there would be a valuable market.” She, along with representatives of several large clothing retailers, is on the board of Organic Exchange, a nonprofit that helps build the global organic fiber marketplace. “We travel all over the world to make sure the supply and the demand are communicating effectively. We’ve gone from six countries growing organic cotton to 24. The market is starting to tip because finally all that groundwork has been done.”
Five years ago Earth Pledge’s library of sustainable fabrics totaled about 50 samples. Today’s collection numbers more than 2,500. To educate designers about these revolutionary materials, the FutureFashion initiative offers a textile research team. Advances in science are also helping to fill the green wardrobe of tomorrow. Sweaters are knit from spun milk protein. Dresses are made from lyocell, a wood pulp fiber. Shirts are crafted from soybean protein, a byproduct of soybean oil production. Skirts are woven with seacell, a seaweed-based fiber, or with Tencel, a fiber from eucalyptus. There are even researchers working on a wool-like fabric made from some of the four billion pounds of chicken feathers left over from poultry processing each year. “These textiles are where the future innovations are going to lie,” says Zaroff. “It’s very exciting. It’s taking fashion to a whole new level where it never really existed before—where it’s not just about looking good. It’s about feeling good, too.”
Never before has conscientious clothing been so fashionable, says designer Rogan Gregory, whose mix of ethics and aesthetics won him the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Award in 2007. “This generation of consumers is becoming more aware of the impacts their buying decisions make—the power is in their pockets.”
In May 2007, on the David Letterman show, the actress Jane Fonda donned a milk fiber shirt and hemp pants, quipping, “You can drink my top and smoke my bottom.” Natalie Portman—actress and vegan—teamed up with shoe label Té Casan to design a collection of animal-friendly footwear. Rocker-activist Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, partnered with Gregory to launch the responsibly sourced, partially organic Edun line in 2005.
As one of the designers who participated in the FutureFashion show, Gregory believes the event “is a great example of how much resources have grown in the last five years in terms of textiles. Everybody is asking for it. Fashion is very trend driven. It’s a copycat industry.” In fact, he notes, the progressive work being done in green fashion “is already trickling down to the mass markets.” Evidence is Gregory’s own collaboration with Target. His “Rogan for Target” and “Loomstate” collections include dresses, shirts, rompers, and even swimsuits in organic cotton, bamboo, and hemp.
Unlike the organic food industry, however, sustainable fashion has yet to fully hit the mainstream. There is—for now—no fashion equivalent of Whole Foods. But it’s getting close. In 1996 Patagonia was the first major sportswear company to commit to using 100 percent organic cotton. Nike and Timberland are now blending organic cotton into many of their garments and using 100 percent organic cotton in some products. Levi’s recently launched a 100 percent organic cotton jeans line, “Levi’s Eco.” Meanwhile, ecofashion is being snapped up by big retailers such as Barneys, Target, Gap, and Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest buyer of organic cotton.
“Because of how large Wal-Mart is, the impact it’s had on the market has been very positive,” says Zaroff. Global organic cotton sales hit $3.2 billion in 2008, though they still account for only about 0.55 percent of the global cotton market, according to Organic Exchange. At the same time, sales of all organic fiber in the United States reached $472 million, up 65 percent from 2007.
The undertaking involves more than just picking earth-friendly fabrics. “Designers are starting to incorporate sustainability into the manufacturing process as well,” Hoffman says. Washing and styling denim, for instance, is an energy- and chemical-intensive business. Premium denim brand Earnest Sewn switched from chlorine bleach to environmentally friendly peroxide and ozone. At Under the Canopy’s main dye factory, rice husks—not fossil fuels—power the building. The clothing line Doucette Duval, which uses reclaimed fabric (from vintage pieces or cloth remnants), takes care that the rest of the production process also treads lightly. Doucette Duval manufactures its entire line in New York City’s garment district, shuns plastic garment bags and tags, and ships in recycled boxes. For designer Lara Miller, sustainable fashion also means flexibility in a piece of clothing: A halter dress transforms into a skirt, a sweater upside down turns into a collared shrug.
Many conscientious consumers are taking an additional step by looking at what happens to clothing after it reaches the closet. Hoffman points to a study that determined cleaning a garment requires two times more energy than its production. “Two-thirds of the carbon footprint of a typical garment happens after a consumer owns it,” she explains. Leading by example, she launders with cold water and natural detergents, and line dries her clothes, which she calls “a forgotten luxury” that scents her clothes with an aroma yet to be replicated in a bottle—fresh air.
While the latest fashions are being crafted from futuristic fibers, one of the greenest fashion choices you can make is also one of the oldest: hand-me-downs and thrift shop finds. In a sea of discount clothing and cheap designer knockoffs, low prices mean that consumers are buying—and throwing away—more clothes than ever before.
In 2005 Patagonia launched its Common Threads Garment Recycling Program. Customers are invited to return many of their worn-out clothes—about 65 percent of the company’s products can be recycled through the program. The old clothing is transformed into fibers for new clothes. For Patagonia, it’s one more step in closing the manufacturing loop, and textiles are not its only targets. In 1993 the company introduced fleece made from recycled plastic soda bottles (shower curtains were recently added to the mix). Patagonia now uses recycled plastic in 298 of its products, each year saving, the company estimates, 26 million plastic bottles from landfills—and enough oil to fill the 40-gallon gas tank of a Chevy Suburban 20,000 times.
When it comes to green fashion, “every single retailer realizes that this is where the future growth lies,” Zaroff explains. Nevertheless, environmentally friendly fashion is still a paradox: Fashion encourages consumption, preferably with a trendy new wardrobe every six months. But as designer Michael Kors told The New York Times recently, “These days it is a badge of honor to wear an outfit more than once.”
Take, for example, supermodel and vegetarian Shalom Harlow. “I think that the fashion industry can be looked at as somewhat frivolous,” she told me at FutureFashion. “But anyone who has a heartbeat these days realizes that there needs to be significant action taken to change the way we do all aspects of life—fashion is a part of that.” Harlow showcased a gown constructed out of several vintage wedding dresses. “Our hopes are that by getting these fabrics into top designers’ hands, they’ll see the quality and potential that’s there.”
Hoffman is banking that fashion will set trends across a variety of industries and markets. “I think it’s a real harbinger of good things to come. The fashion industry is showing the world, ‘We are up for this.’ ”
Gretel H. Schueller writes about science and the environment. Besides Audubon, her work has appeared in Discover, National Wildlife, New Scientist, and Popular Science.
Back to Top
Back to Top