Eco Fashion Moves Forward at Women in Green

The fashion industry has an enormous presence in Los Angeles, worth about US$5.7 billion in annual revenues. Add all the ancillary businesses to the goods and services that support the fashion industry, and Southern California reaps about US$36 billion from the fashion industry each year. Over 5000 fashion lines make their home in the Southland, and 50,000 buyers visit the region each year to make buy clothing lines for upcoming seasons.

Fashion also has a huge effect on the planet as well. Of course there are the working conditions in factories across Latin America, Asia, and Africa that have soiled the reputation of many a brand. Then there are the effects on the environment. An estimated 8000 chemicals are used to create textiles—dyes are only the start—and then you have the pesticides. About 25% of all the world’s pesticides go towards the production of non-organic cotton.

But fashion is evolving and has started to make a difference. Once lampooned in the legendary British sit-com Absolutely Fabulous’s 1990s pilot that equated “fashion cares” with recycled paper invitations and large screens showing photos of poor kids, now large fashion houses like Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta have shown more interest in eco-friendly fashion.

And eco-fashion hardly means lifeless potato sacks made out of hemp that look good on the Discovery Channel but not on Park Lane, Harajuku, or Fifth Avenue. The Women in Green Forum pulled together an impressive forum of women who are successful in pairing their love for fashion with the desire to make a difference.

Rebecca Mink’s past struggles and current success have made for one inspiring story. Her passion for non-leather shoes took her to Italy, where she searched for materials that offered the best quality available without using animal hides or animal glues. She first realized that many of the shoe factories had established relationships with tanneries, hence the lack of interest in non-leather materials. Finally she found a small family-owned factory that “got it” . . . only to realize that at first no one would buy her shoes when they first went into production. Nobody wanted to hear about upcycled fabric, sustainable dyes, or recycled cork. But the last few years, consumers started to ask questions about vegan shoes that Mink had wanted to hear in the first place. Now she is close to signing a contract with a major department store, and has investors—and is on a mission to change the entire shoe industry.

Deborah Lundquist and Sandy Skinner are two fashion designers that have worked hard to integrate high fashion with sustainability. Lundquist started out working for mainstream designers, then found a niche through the creation of one-of-a-kind jackets and accessories that she made from repurposed fabrics. Over the years she experimented with everything from recycled wire to vintage cashmere sweaters—and after a last-minute decision to close a local fashion show with a wedding dress made from recycled fabric, a few blogs picked up on her work, and now the orders have flooded in. Skinner followed a similar path: she worked her way up the corporate ladder at major department stores and fashion designers, but found that if she were to make a commitment to eco-fashion, she would have to go out on her own—so she did.

The challenges that eco-friendly fashion designers face are still steep. Anna Griffin, Founder and Editor-in-Chief for Coco Eco Magazine, pointed out that designers who want their clothes manufactured in the US will never be able to compete with Asian factories on a cost basis. While factories in the far east can do everything from trimming to packaging under one roof, a more conscientious designer in the US will likely source from several factories, adding to a clothing line’s cost.

In the end, Skinner summed up the sentiment behind eco-fashion well—true, you can go to a big box store and buy something cheap, but we are reminded that these clothes were made by women who often live in or near their factory, work six days a week, and labor under often miserable conditions. Is it legal? Of course it is—but can you support it? That is the choice each consumer must make.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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