Originally published in
September 2005
'Ethical' has become the fashion buzzword in the last couple of years with brands both large and small jumping on the sustainable lifestyle bandwagon.
Aside from the whole landfill issue, recycled fabrics last longer and express individuality

Eco fashion is nothing new of course. Queen of green Katharine Hamnett has been championing environmental causes for over 20 years but now this global issue has become a going concern thanks to a growing number of conscious consumers who demand to know the back story to the clothes they choose to buy.

But can an industry married to a twice-yearly lust for conspicuous consumption ever truly go green? In fact fashion is one of the biggest polluters going. The fertilisers used in fabric production account for almost a quarter of all used worldwide. It pollutes drinking water supplies, damages wildlife and risks the lives of the farmers who work the land. The World Health Organisation estimates that accidental pesticide poising causes 20,000 deaths and 3 million non-fatal poisonings every year. And once the textiles are ready, there is the issue of sweat shop factory conditions and the underpaid labour exploited to create the throwaway fashions so many brands depend upon.

So how do you procure raw materials sensitively and employ humane production methods while still creating a desirable garment at an affordable price?  In many different ways, it turns out. London Fashion Week leads the way with Estethica, a space within the main designer exhibition space showcasing collections by designers with a clear conscience. Alongside Hamnett there is Ciel by Sarah Ratty, Central Saint Martins graduate Davina Hawthorn and the Observer newspaper’s ethical fashion product of the year award winner Terra Plana, makers of revolutionary footwear.

Filippo Ricci of From Somewhere is co-curator of Estethica. “The idea came out of a conversation between us and the British Fashion Council. They asked us to put together the best in eco fashion at the moment as well as develop a vision of what the space could become in future.” From Somewhere’s own design ethos is to recuperate textile off cuts from factories and turn them into sumptuous womenswear. Specialising in intricate crochet, patchwork and panelling detailing, Filippo and his partner Orsola transform the unwanted into the coveted, the discarded into the beautiful. “We are a label with minimum environmental impact and currently reuse in excess of one tonne of waste each season. Selfishly we do it to sleep better at night, altruistically we do it to try and create an imprint on ethical living.”

Junky Styling also shows at Estethica. Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager have been recycling and remaking since 1997. “Green is the new black,” says Kerry. “Aside from the whole landfill issue, recycled fabrics last longer and express individuality.” Annika believes that in a notoriously fickle business, the tide if finally turning. “I think there is a concerted effort to be ethical in fashion now. People’s mindsets are changing so the industry has to as well. Once you question how it is you can buy a pair of jeans from a supermarket for a few bucks, you can’t go back. Customers are interested as much in what they put in their bodies as what they put on them. It’s not just a fad.”

Danish designer Peter Ingwersen takes inspiration from catwalk pioneers such as Hussein Chalayan, Stella McCartney to create Noir, a meaningful luxury label that is as desirable as it is socially responsible. “`Noir proves that ethical clothing does not need to be so thick that you can smoke it,” says Peter. “We want to be the brand that turns corporate social responsibility sexy.”

Three seasons old, the Autumn/Winter 07 collection Reflection takes its aesthetic from the cabaret scene of the Weimar era; a mesmerising metropolis of night people, visionaries, artists, sexual entrepreneurs and political fanatics. Among this imagined salon Noir’s dark beauties roam in androgynous uniforms made from organic fibres – from transparent organdies to tuxedo shirting and crepe. “Noir will always be about contrasts. Luxurious fabrics developed in the third world, masculine complementing femininity, slim versus oversized. For AW07 we have created a tribute to Berlin in the 30s, celebrating intellect and free thinking people set against austerity.”  And going further still, Noir is launching Illuminati II, a sub-Saharan initiative which aims to produce organic, fair trade cotton while giving a percentage of its revenue back to the African workers who farm the raw materials.

Stylist and creative director Gary Harvey takes recycling to a whole new level with his conceptual frocks. Having spent over a decade working for commercial brands such as Levi’s, Dockers and French Connection, he left to create his own couture inspired label that comment about the exploitation and conspicuous waste of the fashion industry. “I got sick of the awful fashion turnaround on the high street,” he says. “People have also lost respect for design. I wanted to do something that was 100 percent recycled and had an element of craftsmanship that harked back to the days of elegant 1950s glamour.”

His first London Fashion Week collection comprises of nine grand gowns made from different iconic garments, one began life as 18 trench coats, another as 28 army jackets and another as 26 nylon baseball jackets. “Sportswear was originally meant for practical, active pursuits. Now it has entered the six monthly fashion cycle rendering perfectly wearable garments redundant. Most sportswear is also made from manmade fibres too, which goes into landfill sites and doesn’t biodegrade.” His black T-shirt gown meanwhile is 37 logo tees draped into a sheaf dress with a bustle. “T-shirts used to be underwear, they’ve turned us into walking billboards and made in appalling conditions by people earning less than the minimum wage.”

Ethical fashion has lost its hippyfied perception. It’s a global phenomeno and people are beginning to take notice. But at the end of the day image is first and foremost. It if looks good, its fashion, If it’s just got a good hearted message but doen’st look good, it will get ignored. I could buy fabric and get the same results but if I do things ethically and get the same results, I hot that informs other people too.

There’s still a long way to go to slow down climate change, let along reverse it. But as consumer interest in ecology strengthens, so fashion is becoming its cultural barometer.

In 1899 economist Thomas Veblen creted the concept of conspicious consumption to describe the shopping habits of the leisure classes. A century later, we are beginning to place environmental and social sustainability before decadent, logo-crazed shopping. A socially responsible supply and demand exchange known as conscious consumption is creating a new frontier for the fashion industry.

Even the big boys can’t ignore it. Levi’s has launched its own 100% oeganc jeans range Levi’s Eco. And (RED), co-founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver at the World Economic Forum in 2006, has lured Gap, Converse and Armani into launching products which gives its products to buying and distributing anti-retroviral medicine to Aids patients in Africa.

And on a smaller scale, Bono and his wife Ali Hewson’s New York-based brand Edun (designed by Rogan Gregory of Rogan jeans fame) support sustainable third world employment while is sister label Loomstate has launched Barneys Green with the department store to offer exclusive organic apparel lines.

Today, fashion is more than protection against the elements or a reflection of how trendy you are. It’s a projection of your personal identity to the world. As a consumer your clothes speak volumes about your personal choices. We’r entering an eco age with issues concerning sustainablility, fair traide and organic production are seeping into our fashion conscience, offering a vital emotional and experiential conection that many brands now seek. Now you don’t have to sacrifice your style or the environment

Are they jumping on the bandwagon? As far as Filippo is concerned, the more the merrier. “This is a dawn, which is daunting and exciting. Fashion moves in trends and it’s early days at the moment but let’s celebrate the intention.”

People are jumping on eco as the latest fad. But if enough get on board and get educated, we can start to change things long term. We can’t change the world in a couple of seasons, but we should do what we can do by making ethical consumer choices.