What Actually Is Green Fashion? FashionEtc Investigates

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Photos: Imaxtree; courtesy of Loomstate; Imaxtree

Eco-friendly looks from Stella McCartney (left and right) and Loomstate (center).

Earth Day is here yet again (on April 22), and eco-conscious citizens the world over are unplugging their appliances and sorting the recycling. But what about our closets?

While eco-friendly or “green” fashion is no new concept, it’s still new enough that there’s no regulating body that deems what is green and what isn’t. Is it locally produced? Organic cotton? Recycled fibers? FashionEtc took our many questions to Susan Egan Keane, who works with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean by Design program, for a bit—OK, a lot—of Earth Week enlightenment.

Clean by Design, which aims to make the textile and production industries more environmentally friendly—from encouraging energy efficiency in factories to promoting earth-friendly dyes—boasts green-minded types like Julie Gilhart, Stella McCartney, Scott Hahn and Rogan Gregory, Angela Lindvall, and Sally Singer on its advisory board, but they’re more than bold names. Keane talked to us about material production, what’s really hogging the energy, and what shoppers can really do to make a difference.

When designers say their clothes are eco-friendly, what do they mean?

It doesn’t have a single set definition. There’s not any one group who’s defined “green” or hands out certificates. People make up their own definition [of what's eco-friendly]. A lot of people focus on where the materials come from. Is the cotton organic? Is it a fiber like bamboo that’s easy to grow? Or is it something like polyester that’s essentially a petrochemical, not renewable, and uses a lot of energy?

Another side of it is how the material is produced and, subsequently, how the garment is produced. Say you’re starting by using organic cotton, but then what? Are you using nasty dyes and chemicals, and lots of energy and water, or using more sustainable methods, like low water, low energy, and environmentally friendly dyes?

All those dimensions have merit, but it’s hard for the consumer, since there’s no one group that blesses it. What are they really getting? If they care about it, they have to really look at it.

Tell me about your work with Clean by Design.

Clean by Design is actually two parts. One is we’re working with the fashion world in New York to try to educate them about these issues, particularly materials and the production process. They’re not a huge impact on the environment because production volumes are so small, but we’re hoping that by their example they can raise awareness.

The other dimension is much more practical, on-the-ground work, which takes place mostly in China and Bangladesh, which are both big centers of textile production. We’re working with mass retailers—Walmart, the Gap, Levi’s, H&M, Lee & Fung, Nike—and we’ve just started to work with Marks & Spencer and Target. All of those companies have high production volumes. We’re focusing our work on the production side, and on the material end of things, specifically in fabric mills and dye houses that have a huge environmental footprint. They use a lot of energy, a lot of hot water, and a lot of water in the dye process.

We’re working with mass retailers and brands to try to get them to encourage their suppliers to adopt simple practices to reduce water and energy needs. There are a lot of little measures that don’t cost a lot of money and have real environmental impact. One really simple one is for mills to make sure their pipes are insulated—that saves a huge amount of energy and can really reduce their environmental impact.

What is most damaging to the environment: production, shipping, waste?

There are different life-cycle analyses, and it depends on what dimension you care about. For our work, there’s the fabric dyeing and finishing. Cutting and sewing factories have a lot of waste, and they have some impact, but compared to the impact of trying to heat up tons and tons of water to make steam … that’s an a energy hog.

What about textiles that are made from recycled plastics?

There are materials like recycled polyester, and there’s a great benefit compared to virgin polyester. Virgin polyester is a petrochemical made from oil and gas, which is obviously not renewable. There are carbon emissions when it’s made, and it’s a really energy-intensive process. If you take plastic bottles, they can be shredded up and re-extruded to create poly fibers. It’s a much lower-energy process, and you’re making use of waste materials.

Almost everything we’ve talked about so far relates to retailers and companies. What can consumers do to help?

It’s a tough question! There’s not one governing body that says, “This is what green means.” The only thing I can tell consumers is that there are materials and resources out there to educate yourselves. You can look for things like the kind of material, like organic cotton. Even then, it’s hard because it could be 5 percent organic cotton, mixed with other things.

They should also try to find out about practices of the brands they buy from—if they have an environmental ethic that would translate. Some have very explicit policies about procuring materials. It does take a little research—it would be easy to look for the hangtag with the tree on it to know what’s environmentally friendly, but it’s not that mature yet. There are claims that aren’t very verifiable.

There’s no one way to know. If there’s a particular designer or brand you’re interested, go to the Web site and ask about their practices! E-mail them and ask questions—the more they hear that consumers care about this, not just organic cotton or materials but the way clothes are produced, the more it will inspire them to put more pressure on their suppliers. They listen. Companies care what their customers want to buy.

Shopping with your pocketbook is the number one thing to do. Do the research and seek out companies that behave ethically so they’re rewarded. Consumers need to be willing to shell out an extra few dollars, though it doesn’t always mean paying more! What we’re doing with these companies is encouraging them to do things with ecological benefits that also reduce water and energy costs.

Do you think the movement will ever be regulated so there might eventually be something as simple as a hangtag system?

There are efforts in the industry buzzing around that aren’t fully formed yet. The companies we work with are aware that the customers know about these issues, so there is an incentive to produce in a more environmentally friendly way. It’s complicated because it’s processing. I do have hope that such a thing will be created in the future.

Do you think environmentally friendly textile production is something that can realistically be achieved in the foreseeable future?

There’s much more awareness today—it’s much higher than it used to be, and a lot of people are making honest efforts to improve. Of course, that's counterbalancing the forces of large-scale growth, the globalization of the world, and increasing demand of people. It’s possible to produce sustainably. I’m hopeful but it will take a while. There’s a lot of genuine commitment. But it’s a big world!

Eco-friendly clothes used to have a sort of hippie stereotype—how has that changed as they become more widely called for?

Historically, people thought dressing in an eco-friendly way was wearing burlap sack, but today there are all kinds of beautiful fashions. Bamboo is a great example; it has a beautiful feeling. Alpaca, compared to cashmere, is another good example. The production of cashmere on a big scale is very ecologically damaging, whereas alpaca is not. Once designers themselves became more ecologically aware and customers were demanding high fashion materials, there was a response to that demand.

Can you explain the cashmere vs. alpaca issue? We’ve been hearing a lot about alpaca lately.

Cashmere goats only live in particular habitats: high, cold plains, like Mongolia, China, and the Himalayas. They’re very sensitive ecosystems, these cold deserts; the soil is delicate. Cashmere goats have really pointy hooves, and when they graze they pull plants up by the roots, and this destabilized soil can lead to erosion.

Alpaca have padded feet and don’t do as much damage to the soil, and they don’t eat from the roots—they just graze. Also, with cashmere goats, the high-quality cashmere only comes from the underbelly, and you have to pluck that hair and process it with chemicals and other stuff to make it soft.

Cashmere takes a lot of goats. If you want a lot of cashmere, you need a lot of goats, and that leads to a lot of damage on the sensitive plains. With the alpaca, each animal yields a lot more fur, so there are fewer animals for the same product, and there’s not the same environmental damage.

If a consumer can only buy one eco item, what should it be? Organic fabrics? Recycled materials? Organic beauty products?

That’s a little too simplifying. I know that’s what people need: “Tell me what to buy!” But it doesn’t take into consideration the reality of people’s preferences. If someone wears jeans all the time, they should really focus on jeans. Consumers need to figure out what they spend a lot of money on, whether it’s their wardrobe, personal-care products, or something else, and try to make that as environmentally friendly as possible.