May 11, 2010

On fashion and food

Michael Pollan writes quite rightly that organic food is about telling stories; yet if words alone could carry sustainable fashion into the mainstream, we'd be in every storefront by now. Last week, I attended yet another panel discussion, this one accompanying the Eco Chic exhibition at Scandinavia House. With so few ethical clothing lines in stores, or really even being covered by the fashion media, it's starting to feel like the sustainable fashion movement is still just a lot of talking (and blogging) heads. Let's face it: even with all the talk, sustainable fashion still hasn't begun to create the sort of impact that organic food has.

At the Eco Chic discussion, Bodkin designer Eviana Hartman made a salient point about eco-fashion's failure to launch: It's not the consumers who need to be educated, she argued, it's the designers. People already know why it's good to buy sustainable fashion; they're just not finding enough out there that they like. Her own line, she said, began as an experiment that blossomed when she discovered that there was indeed a demand for well-designed clothes made ecologically.

Ultimately, customers need to find a selfish benefit in choosing to buy one item over another. Since food goes into (and even becomes) our bodies, the connection is more direct. But with unsustainable fashion, the effects are less personal — somebody's land is getting polluted somewhere, some seamstresses are getting exploited somewhere else. (Interestingly, according to fabric suppliers I've spoken to, most organic fabrics are used for baby clothes. It seems we're worried about all those chemicals contacting our children's delicate skin, but not our own.)

The most important thing we can learn from organic food, then, harks back to Eviana Hartman's point: make the product appealing. It's hard to remember the days when "organic food" meant bland, brown meals of nuts and grains; these days, we associate the term with higher-quality produce, tastier meats, fresh food with altogether more flavor and nutrition than the bland, factory-farmed alternative.

I issue this challenge, then, to organic fashion: let's be even better than the "conventional" stuff. Let's make thoughtfully designed, well-fitting garments that acknowledge trends enough to look current, yet have classic style and quality finishes that will make them last long enough to be handed down. And let's make them in beautiful, ethically sourced materials, tough as those are to find.

The textile industry, ultimately, needs to step up, because here the parallel between chefs and designers breaks down: while chefs can work directly with farm-raised ingredients, designers are dependent on the fiber and textile industries to create fabrics we can work with. As organic textile maker Marcus Bergman pointed out on the Eco Chic panel, while it's possible to make bad clothes out of good cotton, it's utterly impossible to make good clothes out of bad cotton.

The impetus needs to come from designers, many of whom have given up on organic and recycled fabrics because the pickings are, quite honestly, slim. Instead of giving up, we need to exert pressure on fabric mills and agents, to let them know there's a market out there, if only they'll serve it. And then, crucially, we need to buy those fabrics when they're offered; too often, I've watched mills enthusiastically create whole new ranges of organic fabrics, only to cancel them due to lack of interest. So let's be interested — and interesting. And if we can do that, the buyers will come.

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