Eco-Fasion for Everyone

Sustainable style may be the hottest trend in fashion, but not all eco-apparel is cut from the same cloth. Here's what you need to know to look and shop smart.
By Sarah Toland

Whoever coined the phrase “green is the new black” several years past was amazingly clairvoyant. Today, green is so much the new black that couture’s other colors pale in comparison when not paired with sustainable textiles, nontoxic dyes, or recycled packaging. You can now buy environmentally conscious clothing at big-box retailers such as Walmart, Target, and H&M, while luxury labels, including Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Armani, Givenchy, and Versace, are sewing sustainability into new high-end lines. What started as a cottage trend in the 1990s among a small group of green designers has grown exponentially to become the most significant shift in fashion since the popularization of blue jeans.
“The trends in fashion today are more environmental interest, better fabrics, and more designers and brands addressing green issues,” says Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Earth Pledge, a nonprofit that helps apparel companies adopt sustainable practices and technologies with its FutureFashion initiative. “As a result, eco-fashion isn’t its own industry anymore—these days, eco is an attribute of fashion across a very broad range.”

And that broad range includes an array of manufacturers, from the US’s largest clothing producer, American Apparel, which markets an organic line, to smaller clothiers like California’s Indigenous Designs, which helped launch the eco-fashion movement in the US in the early ’90s.

“When I told my wife 16 years ago that I was going to start an organic-clothing company, you can only imagine what she thought,” says Scott Leonard, cofounder of Indigenous Designs. “But now that eco-fashion is sexy, companies are getting into it that either don’t care about the environment and are just doing it for the sex appeal or don’t have the bandwidth to understand their impact.”

Leonard isn’t the only one drawing distinctions among eco-capitalists. As with many areas of environmental commerce, the eco-fashion industry is rife with controversy and competing opinions over what it means to be green—and what it means to greenwash.

“There are lots of terms thrown around fashion today: ethical, green, organic, sustainable,” says Howard Brown, cofounder of Stewart+Brown, an ethical clothing company launched in 2002. “We define ethical as working toward sustainability, which is basically an impossible ideal, but includes using organic, renewable fibers and trading fairly. Trees and nature are important, but so is sustaining communities and economic growth.”

“The endgame is not just to bring an organic T-shirt to the market,” says Karen Stewart, Brown’s wife and business partner. “You have to watch the whole cotton process, and no process is perfect. Anytime you change a plant into a shirt, it’s going to require impact, and you have to look at it like a puzzle to figure out how you can decrease impact.”
Reducing your impact as a consumer isn’t always easy, but the first step is learning about the issues. The second step is learning about style. We help you do both over the next eight pages, shot on location at the environmentally friendly Four Seasons Aviara.

Organic cotton
According to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), conventional cotton is the dirtiest crop in agriculture, responsible for 25 percent of the world’s insecticide use. What’s more, the EJF estimates as much as 65 percent of the effects of cotton production find their way into our food. Organic cotton is grown and harvested without synthetic pesticides, reducing impact on people and the planet. Although organic-cotton production has increased considerably over the past several years, with a 26 percent jump in plantings in 2009, the crop accounts for only 0.02 percent of global cotton production. Walmart, Nike, and H&M are among the top 10 consumers of organic cotton worldwide. When buying organic cotton, keep in mind that fibers can be labeled organic even if they receive chemical treatment after harvesting.

Sustainable fibers
Organic cotton isn’t the only textile from which to weave eco-apparel. Hemp, soy, organic wool, jute, and bamboo are several of hundreds of sustainable alternatives to conventional fibers. But every sustainable option comes with its own set of problems, says Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Earth Pledge, and controversy abounds. Hemp receives particular acclaim for being a renewable crop with a faster life cycle than cotton, but the fabric is tough and requires heavy chemical processing to become wearable. Conversely, renewable, biodegradable soy is naturally softer than hemp but wears out more quickly, still requires chemical processing, and is often harvested from genetically modified crops.

Fabric dyes and finishes
Many traditional dyes and fabric finishes are bad for your health and the environment. Most synthetic dyes contain known toxins, while the World Bank credits 17 percent to 20 percent of industrial pollution to worldwide textile dyeing and treatment. Some manufacturers use low-impact dyes—synthetic colorants with lower levels of toxins and heavy metals. Other clothiers rely on natural dyes derived from insects, minerals, plants, and other organic sources, though these colorants can still contain mordants—substances replete with heavy metals used to fix color to fabric. Dyeing processes can also vary. For example, cold-water dyeing has been shown to reduce wastewater and the amount of energy used, while fiber-reactive dyeing eliminates mordants altogether.

Recycled fabric
The most obvious form of fabric recycling occurs when you donate to or purchase used clothing from thrift or vintage stores. Some environmentalists believe that this is the most sustainable form of eco-fashion because nothing is harvested, treated, dyed, packaged, or shipped. “Recycling” also occurs during manufacturing when clothing companies buy surplus fabric from other companies to create new apparel. But some industry experts argue that this method is not sustainable because it encourages a market for excess fabric instead of relying on existent textiles.

Fair trade
Not just a social issue, fair trade, which ensures ethical labor standards for farms and factories, includes a host of ecological criteria as well, protecting workers against agrochemicals, reducing wastewater, limiting energy use, and promoting sustainability. Paying workers fairly also gives them the financial means to become stewards of their land, says Tierra Del Forte, manager for TransFair USA, the only national third-party certifier of fair trade products. This spring, TransFair is launching the first domestic certification for cotton; the organization intends to begin certifying other fibers in three years. Note: Some eco-fashion companies trade fairly but aren’t certified fair trade, while others market apparel as “fairly traded” or “sustainably made” without adhering to high standards. “That’s what we call first-party certification,” says Del Forte. “There are no checks and balances. What one person thinks is fair is not necessarily what someone else thinks is fair.”