fashion

We love shopping, and any day now we’ll be checking out the new fall fashions. That’ll be fun. We also, however, love the environment, so we need to use nice-to-the-earth practices when we shop.

If you slip for a moment, deciding that something not very eco-friendly is too cute to pass up, try to remember that the fashion industry is one of the world’s major polluting industries.

That should do the trick.

The terminology of sustainable fashion is something of a thorny problem. We throw terms like “organic,” “vegan,” “recycling” and “biodegradable” around without really explaining them, and environmentalists often provide differing interpretations, compounding the problem.

“Too few consumers really know what each term in the green vocabulary means,” says Donna Worley of the Textile Exchange, a trade association devoted to industry integrity and responsible supply. “And knowing that is really the first step toward fashion responsibility. After that, it becomes a question of putting our money where our mouth is.”

Understanding the sustainable vocabulary isn’t as easy as it sounds. “Organic,” for example, might seem straightforward. It stands for textiles from fibers grown using natural processes, but “natural” means different things to different groups and people around the world. When shopping for something organic, Worley suggests looking for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label, Global Organic Textile Standard tags or the Exchange’s own Organic Content Standard label.

Eco-conscious consumers

The Textile Exchange, as well as Lancaster fashion experts like Jay Filling of Filling’s and Jeni Kneisley of Oh La La, say consumers are becoming increasingly interested in sustainable fashion.

Because of that interest, Worley says, more fashion designers, brands and retailers are responding with fashion that’s high-quality, chic and eco-conscious. The days when “green” clothing looked more at home in a commune than in an office or a suburban party are definitely over.

These days, you will find top designers like Vivienne Westwood, Prada, Eileen Fisher and Stella McCartney on the eco bandwagon.

Filling says his customers are definitely friends of the environment.

“So much of the apparel in our store is wool, one of the most eco-friendly textiles available, and we seek out vendors and brands of great integrity and responsibility,” he says. “The fabrics and clothing come from countries like Britain and Canada, where sustainability and fair trade are a way of life. And, of course, wool is extremely long-lasting. We also feature bamboo clothing. I only wish more U.S.-made clothing was available. Cutting out long, fuel-burning trips from overseas would reduce the carbon footprint.”

Kneisly says few of her customers mention ecological concerns when they come into her shop.

“They express more enthusiasm for the good prices on fashions from the likes of Chanel, Vuitton and Versace,” she says. “They come here because secondhand fashion shopping has become very chic, and they have learned how much fun it can be. And that’s fine. Whether consciously or not, they’re recycling. And I think the fact that we also carry formal wear adds to our sustainable profile. Let’s face it: More often than not, a formal gown is only worn once or twice, so ending up on some other lucky woman’s back is a lot better than ending up in a landfill.”

Complex task

Perfection is elusive when it comes to sustainable fashion. For example, everybody applauds organic cotton, which is the most compostable fabric of them all, but it requires a shocking amount of water to grow and produce.

It takes about 660 gallons of water to make one cotton shirt, according to the Water Footprint Network.

Other examples include textiles like rayon, viscose and modal, which are termed sustainable and are well-loved by designers and consumers because of their softness and wearability. However, they are often made from old-growth trees from tropical rainforests.

Then there is silk, which like cotton is considered a natural fiber. Unfortunately, it means a horrible end for most of the silkworms that spin it. The cocoons are tossed into boiling water to kill the silkworms. A movement is now afoot to let the silkworms emerge from their cocoons and die a natural death.

On the brighter side, some textiles are now being produced from materials like pineapple leaves, coffee grounds and food vegetable waste.

Meanwhile, eco-warriors urge us to buy smarter, keep our clothing longer and, if we really don’t want an item anymore, recycle.

Meanwhile, eco-warriors urge us to buy smarter, keep our clothing longer and, if we really don’t want an item anymore, recycle. Sixty percent of clothing that ends up in landfills could actually be recycled, either through thrift shops or charities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.