Treehugger is fielding an attractive photo essay of twenty up-and-coming eco fashion designers (pictured: Meadow Compton of Miami). The group represents a broad spectrum of design — from New York haute couture to more casual styles — featuring a mix of organic fabrics, low-impact dyes, and repurposed components.
But eco fashion’s future is uncertain. Despite a hot start about four years ago, eco fashion has failed to broaden far beyond the luxury goods market. The sector’s attention to low production volume materials and fair labor puts eco fashion at a disadvantage to cheaper, more conventionally produced clothing. That’s not a good place to be during an economic downturn.
There also remains the basic conundrum of fashion: How can anything based on perpetually changing style be considered sustainable? Is a jacket made of organic cotton — but worn for a single season — really any greener than a conventional cotton jacket designed for years of use?
Quality is the real green
The answer might be investment fashion: designing clothes to last. Take the case of our organic cotton jacket. While organic cotton is produced without pesticides, it is no less thirsty than regular cotton. Over half of the world’s cotton crop is irrigated, requiring up to 17 thousand liters of water to produce a single kilo of lint. Cotton’s primary environmental impact is on freshwater ecosystems.
Most clothing sold today is less expensive — and is of inferior quality — than clothing sold a few decades ago. It’s poorly sewn by cheap labor, made of cheap materials, and is designed to compete in marketplace driven by purchase price, not value. But if eco-conscious consumers would demand better made clothing, we could dramatically reduce the resources necessary to produce them.
A cotton jacket designed to last several years is more earth-friendly by many degrees than an “eco-fashion” organic jacket designed for a single season, or mass-produced clothing sold at the lowest possible price point. This is where the next generation of ecofashionistas need to look: beyond the boutique, and into the closets of working-class consumers. Making quality fashionable again is both a market opportunity for troubled financial times and the way to true sustainability.