Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is Green My Colour? Sustainable fashion is not just a fad and it won't require you to compromise on Style. By Christina Matte for Monday Magazine

Green is the most important fashion statement
of 2008—and not on a colour
wheel. From manufacturing practices
to fibre sources, components of the apparel
industry are spurring the next major shift in
the market for an organic—or, at least, more
carbon-neutral—lifestyle. New fabric choices,
like bamboo and soy, are allowing apparel to
become eco-friendly, while remaining stylish and
modern (see sidebar).
Organic, recycled and sustainable are just a
few frequent terms. Organic fabric—like food—
is made without pesticides, insecticides and the
like. Recycled designs are when designers take
items and re-design them into something new.
Sustainable, like eco-friendly, is a blanket term
used for a number of conscious practices, supplies
and approaches to fashion. It takes into
consideration a recycled fashion might be made
out of polyester, but it’s still less impactful on the
planet by the fact that it’s being reused.
Curiously, sustainable fashion seems to have
come into full-bloom rapidly—and recently.
When Gord Johns opened the first Fiber Options
Naturals store in Tofino in 1997, he says, “we felt like we were
a museum. It was a huge challenge in developing and educating
the consumer.” In 1998, a second store was opened in
Whistler and then a third here in Victoria in 2000, selling
home decor items, body and personal care products, and of
course, a wide range of clothing. In that time, he has watched
others flounder in niche market issues; however, a corner has
been turned.
“The styles have drastically changed, and more and more
creative Canadian entrepreneurs are bringing out eco-friendly
lines,” he explains. “We’ve also witnessed a huge change
in quality and availability.” As higher-quality textiles have
become available, and consumer awareness has heighted,
larger companies—like MEC, Patagonia and Lululemon—
have converted to organic cotton, or started incorporating
other naturals. In 2005, MEC was one of the top-25 buyers
of organic cotton in the world, and when they make cotton
clothes today, it’s always 100 percent organic. “This,” adds
Johns, “only helps us, because the consumer recognizes that
our company is not just partially committed, but we are
leaders.” It also lends legitimacy, exposure, and large capital
investment to the whole market.

More than pretty
Since Pam Skelton first opened her chic and
sustainable Fort Street boutique, Not Just Pretty,
the changes in her business have been acute. “In
the beginning, there were less than 10 designers
[carried in the store]. Now, that’s grown to
around 40.” And she doesn’t have to go searching
for them. “I get e-mails, phone calls—around 10
a week—from new designers.” As long as she can
find ethical, caring practices behind what they
make and how, she considers designers from
all over the world, though she prefers to source
locally as much as possible.
For Jennifer Graham, owner of Sooke-based
label and boutique Salts Organics, the purity of
her textiles—and her practices—are her hallmarks.
Her clothing is carried in both Johns’
and Skelton’s stores and is made of organic cotton,
whether purely, or blended with other naturals.
“The main reason I do this,” says Graham, “is
because I don’t want to put my name on something
that’s contributing to the destruction of the
planet. And, I’m really careful to make sure
that everything I make would sell to a person
who doesn’t care. That’s kind of my goal. Then,
I don’t have to educate them, and they’re still
going to buy a really great product.”
Graham is also one of the few designers that
manufactures entirely in Canada and visits her
factory frequently to make sure her standards are being met.
“Waste is huge,” she explains. “I make headbands, leg warmers,
whatever I can out of my excess. In the shop we recycle,
we use low-wattage light bulbs and do our part in all the
normal ways.” The compelling data on mainstream fashion’s
practices makes it nearly impossible to call any of it a business
The culture of cotton Off-shore production, which Johns
says accounts for somewhere
around 96 percent of manufacturers, and sweatshop
labour have widely understood environmental, economic
and social costs. But it’s actually our most favoured natural
fabric that is one of the biggest offenders. Cotton is natural,
renewable and accounts for two percent of global farmland;
unfourtunately, for every pound of cotton grown, a third of
a pound of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and defoliants
are applied—all of which are highly toxic to soil, people and
animals. As the soil is depleted, the amount of fertilizer and
water needed for future crops increases. Excess water runs
off—poor soil doesn’t hold it well—and those chemicals seep
into the ecosystem, and in many developing countries, the
surrounding community’s drinking water.
The UK-based Pesticide Action Network estimates 20,000
people in developing countries die every year from exposure
to agricultural pesticides, and that another three million suffer
acute, reproductive or long term exposure effects. Because cotton
isn’t identified as a food crop—although cottonseed oil ends up
in cattlefeed and other foods such as canned tuna—its chemical
treatment isn’t as rigourously regulated.
In 2006, the Global Organic Textile Standard was developed
by an international group of organic certification
bodies to ensure that from harvesting the raw material—to
manufacturing and market—consumers could be assured that
“organic” really means just that. These efforts coincided with
the interest of larger companies in eco-friendly fabrics.
Essentially, awareness blended together amongst retailers,
designers, special-interest groups and everyone else with a stake in
this planet, and retailers like Skelton and Johns are optimistic that
it won’t be unravelling anytime soon. “We spend a lot less time
now discussing the environmental benefits with our customers,
and more time finding them the size, style and colour. Most of
our customers, and certainly the Canadian customer, are well educated
about natural products and the environment,” explains
Johns. “From what I see at mainstream clothing trade shows, and
the attitude of traditional mainstream retailers, I think natural
clothing is here to stay.”
And while no one aspect of the process is perfect, the
more we invest, the greater the potential for innovation. “It
all needs work,” admits Graham, when asked about energy
consumption, waste-water regulating, certification and other
eco-consideration, “but if you don’t support the process, it
won’t get better, either.”

• Bamboo is a pest-resistant, fast-growing
crop. Whether a silky knit shirt
or a structured woven jacket, bamboo is a
breathable, hearty fabric that absorbs 60
percent more moisture than cotton, and can
be laundered the same way. Because it’s
heated and processed into charcoal particles,
bamboo fabric absorbs odours too. “Bamboo,”
says Not Just Pretty’s Pam Skelton, “is the
fabric of the future.”
• Lyocell fiber (commonly called Tencel, for its inventor,
Tencel Inc.) is made from wood-pulp cellulose, and is the
first new fibre in over 20 years. Although it’s a manufactured
fibre, it’s processed in a non-toxic, recyclable dissolving
agent, and is economical in its use of natural resources and
energy. Its yarn absorbs colour better than most fabrics, and
can be processed to mimic durable cotton, or luxurious silk.
• Soybean fiber has similar antibacterial properties to
bamboo, and also has UV-protection properties. The amino
acids in the fabric are also an on-contact micro-activator of
collagen (the substance produced to keep skin’s elasticity).
Like Lyocell, it’s made from the by-products of another production
process. The proteins left over from soybean oil, tofu
and soymilk production are solidified into a fiber after going
through a process called wet-spinning to combine them.
Soybean fiber is the fashion equivalent to recycled paper.
• Organic cotton is growing in popularity, as more companies
are investing in it. It’s grown with beneficial bugs,
manure and cover and rotation methods to ensure good
crops. Most other organic fabrics, like bamboo, are blended
into a yarn with cotton, but be wary that many companies
will blend their organics with conventional cotton.
• Hemp fibre requires no chemicals to grow, because, like
bamboo, it’s naturally pest-resistant. It also doesn’t exhaust
the soil, leaving excellent growing conditions for future
crops, and is naturally a good soil builder. One of the strongest
natural fibers available, hemp is a great denim alternative,
and like denim, hemp’s appearance and feel improve
the more it’s laundered. It can also be blended with silk to
make eveningwear and more tailored looks.

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