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Do You Know the Truth Behind the Clothes You’re Buying This Shopping Season?

We buy a lot during the holiday season, so it's a good time to look for clothing options that are sustainable--because the fashion industry is a major environmental offender.

Twenty years ago, I started trying to “wear what I stand for.” Back then, my shopping outlets were the random craft fair or “green festival,” the only places I could easily find sustainable clothes. I still own the items I acquired during those early fashion forays: a soft sweater woven from hemp and dyed with natural henna, shoes soled with rubber recycled from car tires, socks and underwear made from bamboo.

Browsing the stalls of one crafter, I donned a luxurious sweater coat being sold by a woman who sustainably raised and humanely sheared sheep and milled their wool. Though pricey for me at the time, I forked over $350 on the spot. There was no place else to get an earth- and animal-friendly coat like that.

Beyond Bamboo Underpants

Buying bamboo underpants was one thing; trying to find a bamboo or even organic cotton blouse or silk business suit was quite another. Clothing may seem benign in terms of eco practices because we never see how the plants that are made into fabrics are grown, how the fabrics are dyed, or how the clothes are cut and sewn into the actual garment. We never see the mountains of dresses, shirts, and pants that are thrown away every year as we purge our closets and make room for what’s new.

The advent of “fast fashion” is one reason women are estimated to throw away 82 pounds of clothing per capita every year.

If we did, we’d be appalled. Most fabrics are dyed using chemicals that are so toxic and tainted that they destroy the seas they’re often dumped into when they become, literally, waste streams. Growing cotton—which seems like such a timeless practice—is one of the most water- and pesticide-intensive industries on the planet. Shipping clothes once they’re made (especially those pieced together in Asia and then sold off the rack in America) has a noticeable carbon impact. And the advent of “fast fashion”—the phenomenon of making, selling, and discarding garments every few weeks—is one of the reasons why, on average, women are estimated to throw away 82 pounds of clothing per capita every year.

Meanwhile, sweatshops subject their human labor force to the most inhumane conditions imaginable, including paying a pittance for grueling work and locking doors so employees can’t leave their factory floors, a practice that recently led to a terrible tragedy in Bangladesh when a factory caught on fire and the workers couldn’t escape.

Pioneering New Practices

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Eileen Fisher has pledged to make her elegant clothes more eco-friendly than ever.

But there’s a growing tide of concern—and new options—on the fashion front that embraces planet- and person-friendly practices.

Consider style icon Eileen Fisher. Fisher didn’t set out to become the queen of green. In fact, ironically, the color green isn’t much included in the palate of grays, whites, blacks, and beiges you’ll find when you shop her elegant, non-fussy fashion line.

But don’t let the company’s look book fool you. Over the years, Eileen Fisher has evolved from an interior designer whose admiration for simple, roomy Japanese kimonos inspired a $350-million empire into a business titan who has greened—in the eco-sense—every level of her design and manufacturing chain.

The Eileen Fisher company has established its “VISION 2020” as a guidepost for how to operate moving forward so “social and environmental injustices are not unfortunate outcomes, but reasons to do things differently.” The business also issued a series of pledges, starting with a commitment to use “the most sustainable fibers we can lay our hands on…All our cotton and linen will be organic by 2020,” the Fisher forces vowed. “And our merinos will get an ethical makeover: We’ll use wool from sheep that are humanely raised on land that is sustainably managed. We’re determined to wean ourselves of rayon…and we’re taking a new look at polyester. If it’s recycled, we’re in.”

Recycled polyester (read: your old soda bottles) is the basis of Eileen Fisher’s quilted hooded jacket.

The company also promised to invest in alternative energy and reduce its reliance on air shipping. “By 2020 our U.S. operations won’t just be carbon-neutral,” promises the company. “They’ll be carbon-positive.”

The result? If you shop at Eileen Fisher today, you’ll find camisoles cut from organic cotton jersey alongside organic linen and silk tanks and sweaters made from cashmere that’s bluesign-certified. Translation: It’s been dyed using safe chemicals and “the best practices for water and energy usage.” The company chooses boiled and felted wool for its coats because the process softens the scratch of regular wool using hot water rather than the toxic chlorine other wool manufacturers rely on. Recycled polyester (read: your old soda bottles) is the basis of its quilted hooded jacket.

Riding the Eco Wave

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Stella McCartney has started using regenerated cashmere, made from cashmere waste, for outfits like this.

Eileen Fisher is not alone in her effort to refashion the clothing industry. If her breed of understated couture isn’t your aesthetic, Stella McCartney’s ultra-chic styles may be more to your liking.

McCartney, the daughter of Beatle Sir Paul, has upended London’s posh designers and even taken Hollywood by storm. A lifelong vegetarian, she uses no animal leather or fur in her designs, which have shown up on the backs of Great Britain’s Olympic athletes as well as A-list actresses on their way to the Oscars.

McCartney’s now-global retail brand is based on three pillars:  Respect for nature, Respect for people, and Respect for animals. “Out of all the materials we use, virgin cashmere has the highest environmental impact, roughly 100 times that of wool. That’s why we have stopped using virgin cashmere in our knitwear collections,” reports the company’s website. “Instead, we use Re.Verso, regenerated cashmere made from post-factory cashmere waste in Italy. Our commitment is to making fashion circular, which means an industry that is restorative and regenerative by design.”  

Green Fashion for Less

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Kate Fisher started Synergy Organic Clothing, which sells less expensive clothes that are just as eco aware.

While Fisher and McCartney levitate at the upper edges of the price scale, other brands are less expensive but just as eco.

Synergy Organic Clothing was founded by another Fisher, one named Kate (no relation to Eileen) during her first trip to Nepal in 1993.  The former Himalayan kingdom very much figures into Synergy’s business model, as the company’s handwork seamstresses are based in the Kathmandu Valley, where they sew garments from certified organic cotton colored with low-impact dyes, and where people are paid a living wage for their work.

Nepali seamstresses sew garments for Synergy Organic Clothing using certified organic cotton colored with low-impact dyes and are paid a living wage.

At Synergy, we believe that it matters how your clothing is made. We believe that consumers deserve the choice to buy clothing they feel good about wearing with the knowledge of where and how it was produced,” the company declares.

Synergy’s message to consumers dovetails with my own over at my site Big Green Purse.  “We strive to empower consumers to make more purposeful choices in the clothing they buy and wear. Ethical fashion is about more than just clothing, it is casting a vote for the type of future you want for the world and the people who live on it.” Exactly.

Planet-Friendly Favorites

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Patagonia, which sells “Worn Wear,” has been at the forefront of recycling clothes instead of throwing them out.

If it’s shoes you’re looking for, check out Bourgeois Boheme, the same company that recently caught the attention of Princess Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. Like McCartney, this business is based in London, where it designs shoes that can be made from “the finest eco-friendly Italian vegan leathers.” Italy makes vegan leather? Who knew? Bourgeois Boheme has also burst the fast-fashion balloon. They don’t want you to buy shoes and throw them away so you can buy more. They want you to buy a pair—and hold onto them.

If you’re looking for outdoorsy options, Patagonia’s got you covered. Years ago I bought one of the company’s first “synchilla” fleece vests, made from recycled polyester, and it’s still keeping me warm. Patagonia has a whole section on its website where you can buy second-hand Patagonia pieces. It’s called Worn Wear. Fair Indigo makes organic cotton tee shirts and tops, and WearPact sells organic cotton yoga clothes.  Pretty much any type of garment you want to find is now manufactured in a more environmentally responsible way. Simply search “eco + clothing type” and you’ll find a good option.

Here’s the last word on sustainable fashion: WearPact founder Bryndan Synnott started his company with a lofty goal: “to create the comfiest clothes in the world without destroying the earth, or harming people [because]…I believe that what we wear matters.”

If you do, too, you have more to choose from than ever before.

Other Options for Greening Up Your Closet

It’s worth noting that eco-fashion isn’t all about buying.

Rent Your Way to Great Style

There are lots of occasions when you may only need to wear something once. In that case, Rent the Runway could be perfect for you. The online business (with just a couple of brick-and-mortar storefronts) offers a “rotating closet” that lets you take advantage of the “sharing economy” by renting clothes either one at a time or via a monthly subscription.

Rent the Runway offers you a “rotating closet” filled with high fashion clothes.

My 20-something daughter, who attends a lot of fundraising galas on the D.C. social scene, regularly uses Rent the Runway to keep her wardrobe new and trendy without draining her bank account or overfilling her closet. A friend who got invited to a Christmas party at the White House turned to Rent the Runway for the perfect gown: one that fit her to a T but that she didn’t need to hold on to—though if she’d wanted to, she could have bought the dress at a discount.

What’s behind Rent’s philosophy? “Every time you rent, you’re saving all the water, electricity, and emissions used to manufacture a new piece of clothing,” they explain. “Renting things you wear a few times is the sustainable answer.”

Giving Your Old Clothes New Life

Here are a few other aspects of Rent The Runway that I love. At the end of the season, they donate garments to organizations like Operation Prom. They’re phasing out real fur and never dry clean with toxic chemicals.

Madewell takes your old jeans and has them made into housing insulation for communities in need.

Here’s another way to go green. We’ve all been dropping off worn stuff at places like Value Village and Salvation Army. But now you can take your old jeans to Madewell, where they’ll eventually be transformed into housing insulation for communities in need. Just in case you don’t feel quite enough satisfaction from your good deed, you’ll also get a $20 credit towards buying a new pair of jeans.

Remember Synergy? When you recycle your old clothes with them, you’ll receive a voucher for 20 percent off one new Synergy Organic Clothing item. They’ll also donate garments in good shape to local Santa Cruz non-profits and women’s shelters.  Eileen Fisher operates similarly, giving you $5 when you bring their clothes back, which allows them to refurbish the garments and sell them again at a discount.

A version of this story was originally published in March 2018. 

By Diane MacEachern


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