I am a proponent of (and probably obnoxious about sometimes) what is informally called eco-fashion. The words "conscious," "responsible," and "sustainable" are associated with this movement. It's about using fabrics that come from renewable material and can be recycled or repurposed when they wear out. It's about fair trade, making sure that everyone along the production line of a product is paid a fair wage. It's about buying fewer, higher quality garments rather than masses of throwaway items.

For quite a while now, I have been very label-conscious. I always look at the origin of something I buy, apparel no less than any other product. It's one reason I do a lot of shopping at Plum, specifically for clothes in their Simone and Tobias lines. I look for those tags that say "Designed and Made in Canada." When I was in New Orleans, I found a dress I absolutely loved, and loved even more because it was made in San Francisco (I didn't find anything "made in New Orleans"). When I buy something imported, I'm picky about the source. I'd like to know that it comes from a country that is at least moving toward a more just society.

I fall down on some things, I know, notably shoes. If there are shoes made in Canada, I haven't found them. I remember when New Balance runners were made in the United States, but those days are long gone. Being a bit of a shoe slut, it's rare for me to invest in a pair made somewhere such as Italy. They just cost too much. So shoes are my guilty pleasure in more ways than one.

The origin label is one reason I shop in small boutiques and tend not to buy designer labels. The most expensive clothing is still almost always made in a low-wage country. Curious, no? Someone is making a huge profit, but it's not the garment workers themselves. Any designer can manufacture overseas, but I have a better chance of finding domestic or fair trade production from a small label.

I realized something while I was browsing through boutiques in Nolita and later at Lord & Taylor. I've been putting too much emphasis on the origin label. I should be paying more attention to the fabric label. I'm realizing there are many garments made out of a fabric that I would rather not buy.

To wit, polyester.

Polyester these days isn't the stiff, horrible substance of 1970s leisure suits. In look and feel, it's pretty much indistinguishable from a fabric such as rayon. It breathes. It's durable and easy to care for. You can wash it. When it dries, it has few if any wrinkles.

But even though it's a better fabric than the polyester of yore, it's still derived from petroleum. That is hardly sustainable. And when it wears out, there is almost nothing that can be done with it except put it in a landfill. And once there, it will probably be around for archaeologists to find hundreds of years from now. It's fortunate while it's being used that it's so durable. But fashion waits for no one. It might still be wearable when it's thrown away.

I don't know why it hadn't struck me this way before. Going through racks at Lord & Taylor, racks of expensive designer dresses, I was dismayed to see how much polyester was used. It took some doing to find (actually, for Sweetie to find) one dress in cotton jersey and one in rayon. I have also looked back at some of my favourite Plum dresses. Simone dresses are typically 92 percent poly and 8 percent spandex. Cue the groans (from me).

Finding clothes made of sustainable material is even more difficult than finding clothes made by workers who are paid a living wage. Even something like organic cotton might not be the best choice. Cotton is a very water-intensive crop. Growing it uses up huge amounts of arable land. As someone wrote, the world can produce only so much cotton. And conventional cotton uses huge amounts of pesticides. Rayon is a good choice, even though some rayon garments have to be dry cleaned. It's a man-made material, but it's made of cellulose from wood waste. Bamboo and hemp are becoming more widely available (and not just in hippie clothes, thankfully).

One reason I am finding myself at Nicole Bridger more often is that I can be certain of two things: the garments are made with sustainable material, and they are designed and made either in Canada or under a fair trade agreement. Nicole used to use birch modal, a kind of rayon. I have noticed that modal, which feels wonderful, is not very durable, so I was not surprised to learn that she had shifted to Tencel® (lyocell), another kind of rayon.

Make that three things I can be certain of when I shop at Nicole Bridger: the designs will be gorgeous. And given the quality and beauty of the clothes, her prices are reasonable. But they're not fast fashion prices. You get what you pay for. And if you're paying hardly anything for a garment, it's pretty much impossible that the person who made it is being paid anything like a living wage.

I'm not going to go super-virtuous all at once. It's a process over time. But I will look more carefully for fabric labels that say things like
  • organic cotton (still far better than conventional).
  • silk (not for some vegans, but I'm not a vegan).
  • linen (a natural fabric making a big comeback).
  • bamboo (both sustainable and naturally anti-bacterial!).
  • hemp (used in blends).
  • various rayons (including modal and Tencel®).
And I might be less fussy about the origin label, even though ideally I want both sustainable fabric and fair trade.

Locally, I continue to favour Nicole Bridger because she really does everything right and also makes beautiful clothes. But there are other designers and shops that are also conscious and sustainable. Blue Sky Clothing exclusively sells sustainable, fair trade products. Body Politic sells clothes from a number of eco-fashion designers. Many shops in Vancouver have at least some eco-fashion. Judging by what I saw in the northeastern US, we really are at the forefront of this movement. There are also online stores. I have a tunic and a dress, both of which I love, made from beechwood modal by Autumn Teneyl Designs of Colorado.

Nothing is simple, of course. I'm mentioned the problems even with organic cotton. And there are issues having to do with dyeing some of the rayons. I take small steps. I try to keep learning so I can take better steps. And I don't beat myself up for having some polyester items in my closet. I just hope that when I give them away and they reach Value Village, they don't just get tossed away!


Aerin Caley said...

Yeah, there's never a perfect answer. With the burgeoning popularity of bamboo, it's starting to have problems with poor sustainability in growth, poor payment of workers and less eco-friendly processing methods.
I've always preferred cotton, silk, linen, hemp and I'm glad that they are getting easier to find. Wool is also a good choice (for those who can wear it - I'm allergic, sadly.) Check out companies like IceBreaker who have a very cool transparent production process. The Consort would wear nothing but IceBreaker if I let him - sadly it's all functional wear. Very well designed functional wear, but not really fashionable.

Véronique said...

I forgot about wool! Thanks for the reminder. Again, not for vegans, but fine for me. And they're making lighter fabrics with wool now.

Yeah, processing can be problematic. I read that the lyocell process is better in some way than the process that produces viscose.

As you know, I'm totes about fashion and not about function. And while I love the boho trend, I do not do hippie. So that can make buying a bit more difficult. Polyester is so easy to make into clothes that are shiny, pretty, durable, and easy to care for. I love silk, but we know what it costs, and also what dry cleaning costs.

Andréa Hector-Brown said...

i hope to be making my own clothes when we move to the DR.

i hope to be using beautiful material from the amazing country i will be privileged to live in.

i can't wait!!

shoes though ... well, we'll see what i get there lol!

Véronique said...

One of the reasons I am studying merchandising and not design is that I don't know how to sew! This is something I'd like to remedy. Good on you to be able to make your own clothes! As I recall, Aerin does as well.

Caitlin said...

Fluevog shoes are made in Canada.

Véronique said...

Maybe they were once, but that's not what their site indicates now. China, Vietnam, Peru, Mexico, and Poland. But supposedly all the factories are ISO 9002 certified and comply with strict labour codes, so that's good. Unfortunately, I'm one of the few people who does not like Fluevog shoes! I find the designs interesting but not for me to wear.