Not Too Sexy for the Earth

Want to save the world and look fabulous doing it? Try
on one of self-described ‘luxury eco’ designer Linda Loudermilk’s
latest fashions; they’re sexy, sustainable, and flatteringly
toxin-free. With prices ranging from $350 to $1,700 per garment,
though, you may have to choose between making an entrance and
making next month’s mortgage payment.

Welcome to the glamorous world of ecofashion, where clothing
makes a bold statement about your values and the size of your
wallet. The concept of ecofriendly clothing isn’t new, of course:
Hemp wearers have been preaching it for decades. What’s
revolutionary is just how haute the new designs are.

Last season, upscale retailer Barneys New York co-sponsored
FutureFashion, a runway show that focused on ecofriendly fabrics.
The trendsetting store ‘helped convince top designers to
participate,’ reports Joel Gershon in E Magazine
(July/Aug. 2005), and it ‘featured the eco-outfits in its windows
for several weeks after the show.’ Saks Fifth Avenue recently began
carrying its first-ever ecofashion clothing line, Edun, created by
Bono (yes, the rock star) with his wife, Ali Hewson, and designer
Rogan Gregory. Edun was also recently showcased in Vogue,
the fashion industry’s bible.

While clothes that are both stylish and sustainable remain a
luxury of the wealthy, no one denies that the ecofashion movement
is on the right track. The fashion industry’s current practices
have left a very unstylish footprint on the earth.

Cotton, fashion’s all-time favorite fabric, is a
pesticide-intensive crop, accounting for 10 percent of the world’s
pesticide use. According to the Pesticide Action Network North
America (PANNA), it takes two-thirds of a pound of pesticides to
make a pair of jeans. Wool, too, is highly toxic. ‘Conventional
wool comes from sheep that are plunged into a pool of pesticides,’
writes Gershon. The pesticides used on the cotton crops and the
sheep are some of the most hazardous available, and they pose
extreme threats to fish, wildlife, and farmers’ health — not to
mention the well-being of those who don the final product and risk
absorbing the toxins through their skin. PANNA analyzed a 2005
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study and found that 90
percent of people tested carried a mixture of pesticides — which
have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and neurological
problems — in their bodies.

The production of synthetic fabrics takes a similarly disturbing
toll; converting petroleum into polyester, nylon, and acrylic
pollutes the air with carbon dioxide and the other usual suspects.
And that’s just the ecological impact. There’s also the fact that
textile manufacturers often rely on cheap overseas labor, turning a
blind eye to unsafe factory conditions, sub-par health care, and
inadequate wages.

While a few pairs of pricey bamboo pants are hardly going to
turn the toxic tide, ecofashion’s appetite for organic cotton is
already making a difference for farmers. According to Organic
Exchange, a Berkeley, California-based resource center for ethical
consumerism, demand for organic cotton has increased 300 percent in
the past three years. Behemoth Nike pledged to use 5 percent
organic cotton in all of its cotton apparel by 2010. If mainstream
corporations continue to catch on, it will go a long way toward
making organic cotton farming a viable enterprise.

The rise of conscious consumerism in the fashion world feels
more than a little familiar. It wasn’t long ago that organic food
caused a similar stir and was dismissed with similar cries of
elitism. It was too expensive, we claimed, and too nichey to appeal
to the mainstream consumer. Yet sales of organic food have exceeded
all predictions, forcing supermarkets to adopt ‘natural food’
aisles to hang on to those precious LOHAS (lifestyles of health and
sustainability) consumers.

The consensus within the ecofashion community is that once high
fashion fully embraces sustainability, it will trickle down to the
average consumer, presumably at a lower price. Besides, says Sean
Schmidt, founding editor of the online magazine SASS (Style and
Sustainability Seasonal), ecofashion is only partly about making
sustainability look good. The part about ‘bringing sustainability
to the style world,’ he writes, ‘is simply a must.’

Consumers could opt to drop out of the relentless cycle of
retail consumption and resurface in the world of clothes swaps and
buying secondhand. In the short term, though, the answer probably
involves compromise: purchasing some new organic clothes and some
used clothes, and supplementing with hand-me-downs from Mom’s
vintage wardrobe. And in the long run, sustainable fashion, like
sustainable agriculture, will require going beyond pesticide-free
and even fair trade to an entirely new way of thinking about our
clothes, knowing where they really came from and caring where they
end up.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.