Chicago Manual of Style – 10/21/2008

Since hemp is no longer the only eco-friendly fabric, green doesn’t have to be granola.

By Jessica Hester

Green is the new black.

It’s hardly surprising, given that “environmental sustainability” is one of the most prominent catchphrases of the moment. Questions of sustainability and development have inevitably become hot issues in the current presidential race, manifest in debates about drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge and America’s dependence on foreign oil. With the ozone layer rapidly depleting, eco-warriors encourage wasteful Americans to be more conscientious consumers and consider the environmental implications of the food we eat and the cars we drive.

While many people probably feel a degree of gas-guzzling guilt, most shoppers are likely unaware of the environmental impact of the clothes that they buy. Conversations about consumption and environmentalism have begun to include discussions about skirts as well as SUVs. More than ever, the fashion industry is getting in on the environmental action.

The eco-chic craze first registered on my fashion radar a few years ago, when Anya Hindmarch’s “I am not a plastic bag” totes took London by storm. The initial shipment sold out within two hours at the Sainsbury supermarket chain, and the bag has since become a coveted North American import. Though originally intended to serve as a cute replacement for their environmentally toxic plastic counterparts, the totes became the purses du jour for fashion fiends everywhere, and were spotted on the arms of international It Girls such as Kate Beckinsdale.

Since hemp is no longer the only eco-friendly fabric, green doesn’t have to be granola. Recent Project Runway winner Leanne Marshall is a champion of conscientious couture. Her impeccably tailored and beautifully structured garments are as easy on the environment as they are on the eyes: Marshall used recycled textiles and natural materials such as organic cotton to create the fanciful wave dresses that she rode to Runway glory.

Marshall’s fanciful frocks are out of a student’s price range, but it’s possible to go green on a budget. Clothing megachain The Gap has jumped aboard the eco-friendly bandwagon. In spring 2007, the brand’s 500 North American stores began carrying men’s shirts made from unbleached organic cotton. Conventional cotton is maintained by chemicals that soak up nearly a quarter of the world’s pesticides. At $16.50 a pop, these shirts are a wallet-friendly way to wear your environmental consciousness on your sleeve.

Target is another superbrand that’s invested in affordable eco-fashion. From May 18 to June 28, 2008, the retail stores featured pieces by the 11th GO International designer, recent CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner Rogan Gregory. Gregory, a renowned purveyor of high-end eco-chic, is the latest in a line of hip designers commissioned by Target to translate their expensive pieces to a lower price-point. Nature-inspired palettes and relaxed silhouettes were paired with bold hues and feisty prints, giving the collection an easy, edgy vibe. The line, which included wardrobe staples like loose tanks, wrap dresses, and hoodies in addition to more dramatic wide-leg trousers and crocheted blouses, used organic cotton, bamboo, and linen, and started at just $14.99. H&M also carries an affordable organic line that enables students to save without skimping on style.

Though it relieves the burden on the environment, some eco-friendly clothing increases the toll on laborers. To make eco-chic clothing profitable, large companies might find themselves having to cut corners in other ways. It is important to remember that eco-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean worker-friendly: Some clothes given the eco-friendly stamp of approval are deplorable when it comes to labor regulations. In order to get the cheapest price and lowest turn around time, large organic operations continue to export physical labor to countries that are notoriously lax on labor laws. Levi’s is one company that puts its money where its mouth is: In addition to using organic fibers in many of its clothes, it has negotiated fair contracts with laborers. I hope that more chain stores follow this model and provide affordable clothes while having commendable ethics.

At its core, the eco-chic movement is about encouraging stylish, small-scale adjustments to stimulate a large-scale transformation. Those in the know realize that when it comes to fashion, the adage “you are what you wear” has been amended to include, “you are what you do.”