There was a time when sustainable apparel was just background noise in the fast-paced, trendy world of fashion must-haves.
So if one couldn’t afford that “it” item from the high-end label of the moment, no worries. A fast-fashion facsimile would surely do.
Thanks to the slow shift in our lifestyle these days — we’d rather binge-watch TV than binge-shop — that’s all changing.
Sure, it still matters how our butts look in this spring’s cute, wide-legged trousers. But we aren’t buying a million of them. And when we do purchase that one special pair, we want to know: What are they made from? Where are they made? Do we really love them?
These questions are at the heart of sustainable fashion, and the focus of a recent presentation between the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator and Fashion Group International.
My takeaway: The time is now for all of us who get dressed every day to factor sustainability into our apparel choices. And because of the wide variety of entrepreneurial offerings, from so-called 10-year hoodies to 30-year sweatshirts, we can.
“We’ve reached a tipping point,” said Elissa Bloom, executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator.
In the six years Bloom has led the nonprofit headquartered at Macy’s in Center City, she’s seen an increase in the number of designers-in-residence who tout eco-friendliness in their taglines. This year, three of the program’s six CEO-hopefuls have worked sustainability into their business plans.
“People are hungry for it,” Bloom said. “It’s no longer just a buzzword. People are really starting to grasp what sustainability really means.”
In its simplest terms, sustainable clothing is conceived, designed, and made with as little impact on the environment as possible. This is important because apparel manufacturing is among the most harmful industries to the environment.
There are lots of ways companies define themselves as sustainable. Some use only textiles woven from natural fibers. Others make it a point not to have their clothing made abroad, but instead in their own cities — if they are lucky, the same neighborhood they live in, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the FedEx trucks and airplanes used to transport samples and shipments.
There are some designers who hold themselves accountable for every scrap of fabric they use, such as Christie Sommers, a 38-year-old women’s wear designer from Wyndmoor whose West Oak Design separates look cute and incredibly wearable.
“I’m working on being a zero-waste company,” Sommers told me after the forum. “And this is my way of making as little impact on the environment as possible. The core of my sustainability platform is low landfill waste.”
That said, it’s difficult for designers with the best of intentions to create a collection from sketchpad to sales rack that’s 100 percent eco-friendly — or to know what practice is more sustainable than another.
For example, you may be committed to using organic cotton because it doesn’t require harmful pesticides, but it takes exorbitant amounts of water to grow and harvest it.
“So,” said Joanne Litz, owner of Steel Pony, a Queen Village women’s wear boutique and one of the first sustainable fashion companies in Philadelphia, “are you really being sustainable when wasting a resource?”
Instead, Litz uses genetically modified, nonorganic cotton grown in America, because it requires less water and uses fewer pesticides than regular nonorganic cotton.
Whether entrepreneurs are filling niches, like Pound Cake Cosmetics of Philadelphia’s makeup line for men or Barefoot Babes‘s T-shirts with positive affirmations, they are fueled more by problem-solving than hem lengths.
And keeping the environment livable — especially when the Trump administration has not made it a priority — is high on that problem-solving list.
“Sustainability is the standard now,” said Ashley Painstil, director of editorial content and outreach for FashInvest, a Wilmington company that links designers with technology.
And it’s not just the small companies that are making inroads. Everlane lists all the materials used to make its garments, and Kering, the Paris luxury company that owns Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, and Gucci, is working on a project to develop sustainable fabrics.
“It’s no longer something that’s not fashionable,” Painstil said. “It can be beautiful. The quality can be good.”
But can shoppers practice sustainability on a budget?
Diane M. Phillips, a professor of marketing at St. Joseph’s University, advises buying fewer but better things, an idea many people have embraced.
According to research from the London marketing company Mintel, 63 percent of consumers say ethical issues are important when shopping. And, the research found, 78 percent of shoppers ages 18 to 34 who make $75,000 a year or more care about sustainability.
Those of us who came of age when shopping was a form of entertainment are struggling a bit more.
I’ve managed not to buy too much this year, as I’m trying to subscribe to the mantra of Japanese tidiness expert Marie Kondo: “Only buy what you love.”
Then on Saturday, I bought a red-and-white checked long-sleeve maxi dress from Theory — so gauzy, summery, and perfect. (Theory is running a recycling campaign, “Theory for Good,” urging customers to bring in old Theory pieces to get a discount off new ones.)
But I’m thisclose to returning it because I know I can get a close copy at a fraction of the price.
Or — sigh — live without it.