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Searching for sustainable fashion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 24, 2009 - Think you have to go coastal to find fashion? No, St. Louis is abuzz with Spring Fashion Week , where you, too, can attend runway shows and get the scoop on which colors will define fall and winter 2009.

Consistently, though, people are looking at fashion and asking questions that go beneath surface appeal.

  • What are the consequences of one-season-only fashions?
  • Is the garment industry environmentally sustainable?
  • Is the person who's making our clothes able to make a living?

These questions and more make it difficult for a person who's relatively aware of environmental and social issues to pick something up off the rack and not feel a little tug of conscience, even if she's not quite sure why.
St. Louis-based professional wardrobe consultant Lori Allen understands why more than most. One part fashionista, one part environmentalist and social activist, Allen advocates awareness of what your money and lifestyle support through her consulting business and blog, No More Dressing in the Dark .

"If you say, 'It's cute, I'll buy it,' the industry knows as long as it's cute it doesn't matter how it was made," says Allen.

The acceleration of fashion trends over the last 20 years has caused Allen alarm.

"I've always been an environmentalist," she says, "but being an environmentalist and being into fashion were not so much at odds until the '90s. We used to have four fashion seasons. We have six to eight presently."

Fast Fashion

The name of the game is fast fashion, the mass manufacturing of high-fashion styles that are then sold at low prices to consumers. If you've ever bought a trendy item on the cheap and seen it fall apart after a couple washes or found yourself donating loads of castoffs each year after one season of use, you're a player. And while you're nowhere near alone - fast fashion is a global issue - experts say problems in the current model run deep.

Dr. Melody LeHew, associate professor of textiles at Kansas State University, said in an email that the current fast-fashion clothing industry is not environmentally sustainable. Even natural fibers, such as super popular cotton, are water-intensive crops and require water-intensive dying and finishing processes, she says. Manufactured fibers, such as polyester, are constructed from non-renewable resources, like petroleum.

Additionally, inherent complexities within the industry make it difficult to change the way things are done.

"Due to the global nature of most apparel supply chains, one nation's government cannot regulate all the firms within the chain," she said.

Difficulties in regulation extend to the labor side of things, as well.

In Bangladesh 

Visiting Assistant Professor of Strategy at Washington University Romel Mostafa went back to his home country of Bangladesh for 15 months with a team of researchers. They visited clothing factories and interviewed business owners and workers.

While Mostafa agrees that some of the factories he saw in Bangladesh, the sixth-largest clothing exporter to the U.S., would undoubtedly be considered sweatshops, he also says that many would not and that textile production is a common industrial entry point for developing nations.

He warns that cutting back on imports from poor countries could be the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

"In the Bangladesh garment industry, about 90 percent of the workers are women," says Mostafa. "They will tell you that their alternative is to stay at their parents' and wait for their marriage. Here at least they get some money in their pockets ... and they will tell you, 'Now we can make our own decisions'."

Still, Mostafa is a proponent of improved labor conditions, perhaps by way of an international third party oversight group, but he acknowledges that it's a complicated issue. "As a consumer, you want that red thing saying, 'Discount.' That means somewhere, in some other place, somewhere in Bangladesh, there is a factory that is fighting for a good price and is not able to get one."

Certified Fairtrade 

Allen points out that you can find clothing certified by Fairtrade, an organization that regulates livable wages, among other issues.

She acknowledges, however, that it's a growing category in the organization's current realm of coffee, sugar and other food products.

"It's harder to find the clothing, and when you do find it, it tends to be a little more hippy," she says. Still, Allen walks the walk, and the super soft, chocolate-colored hemp scarf she's wearing during an interview seems pretty mainstream.

Apart from becoming Fairtrade certified , it is up to individual retailers and factories to decide how eco- and people-friendly they want their businesses to be.

Companies are springing up that try to make a transition to ecological awareness easier. Kellee Sikes owns and runs the consulting firm P3 Strategies  in St. Louis. P3 proposes that any company should be concerned with three bottom lines: profit, people, and planet.

"What we say is you can actually increase that profit line if you also focus on elevating people and diminishing your impact on the planet," says Sikes.

By doing so, companies are able to tap an ever-growing market segment.

"One of the first things we do is begin a conversation about conscious consumers," says Sikes. "Brand loyalty has a lot more depth and longevity from a conscious consumer."

After examining employee conditions and environmental practices, P3 suggests ways companies can create a more focused and effective workforce; reduce, reuse and recycle materials that otherwise would go to waste; and develop a more democratic work environment. In many cases, she says, these changes result in better use of time and resources, which increases profits.

And as for consumers? "The phrase conscious consumer - and that's a positive thing -" says Sikes, "means being realistic about what you need, that it was made by people who were paid fairly, and with sustainable practices."

Allen adds that being more conscious and maybe buying fewer items as a result in no way means looking less than your best. "You buy the best quality that you could possibly get and you make it last," she says. "If you only have great stuff, you'll always look great."

She also says that making the personal transition to a less-is-more mentality isn't easy. "I can't tell you how to go through that. It's an individual, personal thing, learning to be happy with less stuff. The reward is the confidence that I bought the best I could get for my money."

Being a Choosy Consumer

One consumer guide several of the sources for this story recommend is the Better World Shopping Guide. Available at Left Bank Books and Plowsharing Crafts, BWSG has examined companies' eco- and people-friendly policies and then ranked them by category on an A to F scale. Better yet, many of the profiled companies are household names.

As Allen says, "We're not asking you to go way outside, we're asking you to go to a different section of Target."

Tips to green your wardrobe

1. Break out the clothespins. "The greatest environmental impact related to clothing comes from the use of the product," says LeHew. She suggests washing at lower temperatures, hang drying (a great way to reduce energy bills and make clothes last longer) and avoiding dry cleaning.

2. Buy to last. Look for durable, classic cuts that can be revamped seasonally with accessories.

3. Choose clothes made with natural dyeing and finishing. It can be hard to know what's what, but a good starting place is eliminating intentionally distressed denim from your wardrobe, says Allen.

4. Become one with natural fibers, such as hemp, bamboo, organic cotton, organic wool or peace silk, says LeHew. Allen swears by cotton/hemp knit mixes. "Cotton and hemp yoga pants?" she says. "Your grandchildren will be doing yoga in those pants."

5. Seek out Fairtrade-certified clothing. Some brands Allen suggests: Indigenous Designs, Good Society and Sweetgrass Natural Fibers.

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.

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