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Is Eco-Fashion an Oxymoron?

Is Eco-Fashion an Oxymoron?

Organic cotton camisole with organic kimono cardigan and organic cotton patch skirt, all by Stewart+Brown—on display at the Eco-Chic Fashion Show in honor of World Environment Day 2006.

September 17, 2007 —

Fashion on the Eco-Runway

Walk into any upscale boutique and next to the inviting feel-good floor displays, you might find handsome shelves of apparel fashioned of "environmentally friendly cloth." Whatever that means. I went into such a store recently looking for a new shirt and was surprised to sidle up next to organic hemp shirts. Was I supposed to wear them or smoke them? The floor display informed me that the shirts didn't contain the 17 teaspoons of chemicals used in processing a conventional shirt. That's the actual going rate. The stuff, which looked beautiful, is part of the "eco-fashion" phenomenon.

Eco-fashion is a trend that is catching fire as consumers realize they don’t have to dress in shmatas that are made for sweatshop wages and that reap serious environmental harm. Successful shows for eco-fashionware in New York, San Francisco, and beyond have been running for the past couple of years. The doyens of major fashion houses and department store buyers are paying attention to this niche, as are writers for the fashion magazine world.

Is This Conjured Out of Whole Cloth?

Designer Richie Rich says of eco-fashion: “It’s definitely something we’re going to continue toying with. People often perceive the fashion world as superficial, so it’s great to work with materials that are actually good for the environment. I had my doubts, but when we actually saw the fabric swatches we were blown away. They were gorgeous, and it wasn’t hard to design with them.”

So the designers are weighing in with enthusiasm. No wonder. Among the sustainable materials used for cloth are bamboo, sea cell, soya and sasawashi (linen-like made from a Japanese leaf with anti-allergen and anti-bacterial properties).

Yet, with the attention—and there is nothing like the fashion world’s attention—there is not a huge demand for eco-fashion. That's largely a matter of price. Eco-fashion is damn expensive. Critics are opining that eco-fashion is so expensive that it won’t translate into a strong fashion appeal, and will remain a niche that has little impact on the politics of environment and worker conditions.

Also, the pirates of knockoff are knocking off designer eco-clothes, attaching eco labels to clothes that may not have a stitch of anything remotely eco in them. Further, there is no regulatory body governing this fledgling niche. Some observe that designers are not creating new styles with eco clothes, but are refashioning existing lines—perhaps diminishing the appeal to more purely fashion conscious buyers.

Only time will tell if eco-fashion will break out of its niche and have lasting power. Small retailers continue to serve the small market (and larger companies try to sell their buyers and slightly more natural offerings). Where the fashion world goes, the mainstream market may eventually follow. Consumers—like you—will determine if eco-fashion is a fad or not, one purchase at a time.

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