Fast Company

How The Fashion Industry Is Greening Its Operation

While being eco-friendly has been in style the last few years, it’s questionable whether green will still be fashionable next season.

"Fashion is a tool for cultural creativity, innovation, self-expression and connection," says Sasha Duerr, founder of the Permacouture Institute through the Trust for Conservation Innovation in San Francisco. "Over-consumption, with limited understanding of where our materials come from or where they go is a huge issue in our modern times. We need to close the loop through practice and education."

Throwing a green event is more expensive and more complicated than you would think -- it's not just using recycled paper. For starters, in the self-proclaimed fashion capital of the world this past February, New York Fashion Week brought on sponsors with a greener edge. High-end skin and hair care product supplier, Aveda, rolled out a green initiative campaign, including supplying tap water and reusable aluminum water bottles (with the green-minded label, "Beauty Is, Beauty Does") in place of bottled water to event participants and attendees. The company also served organic, locally grown food to the production staff and models backstage.

"Aveda is an activist brand at heart, so we are thrilled to be a force of change in helping to reduce the carbon footprint of the Spring/Summer 2008 shows," says Dominique Conseil, president of Aveda. "The response to the program exceeded even our own expectations and we believe it has the potential to become a global movement in the world of fashion." Despite findings in an Associated Press investigation in March that New York City tap water has remnants of heart medicines and prescription tranquilizers, the water is quite drinkable and doesn't taste much different from most bottled water brands.

For an industry that barely existed in the United States three decades ago, bottled water itself has become a fashion -- but at a damaging cost. Only 10 percent of the 2.5 million water bottles consumed each hour in the United States are recycled, according to a 2005 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

It's not just paper and plastic materials dragging water down. Each week, nearly 1 billion bottles of water are being shipped from coast to coast by truck, train, boat and airplane. At the sky-high price of $124 a barrel already, one can just imagine how much gas is fueling the bottled water business.

On the opposite side of the country, Portland Fashion Week proudly proclaimed it was the world's first entirely green fashion production. Beyond using eco-friendly fabrics (such as organic cotton, linens, and silk) for the garments adorning the models, Portland organizers constructed the world's first bamboo runway, used recycled fabric for drapery, and installed energy-efficient LED lighting. Not to mention the invites were printed on recycled paper. And, all proceeds from the green event went to protecting Oregon's Willamette River.

The Portland event organizers intend to repeat their green strategies at the next fashion week this fall. "We are trying to be eco-responsible in every respect, we have tried to do something on every step to make the production sustainable. We will use a sustainable runway, sustainable hair and makeup, we're doing our media kit on recycled paper," Tito Chowdhury, the event's executive producer, says. "Portland is nationally known as sustainable city. We want to make this fashion week the place for sustainable designers from all over."

Los Angeles took another approach altogether. At the city's Fashion Week in March, one of the highlighted events was the Green Initiative Humanitarian Show, debuting the collections of six designers on a runway flanked with bamboo plants, given away at the end of the show. While the emphasis of the green production was largely in the garment design, corporate sponsors did their part to appear eco-friendly. Shipping giant DHL gifted fashion week goers with recycled mailing materials, and title-sponsor Mercedes-Benz highlighted the company's switch to clean diesel technology, Bluetec.

Despite the industry's sluggish response by only getting into the green game within the last year, fashion's green future could be blooming. "We hope that this commitment to the environment sets an example for the rest of the fashion community that it is possible to be profitable while using sustainable materials and designs," Davis Factor, co-founder of Smashbox Studios, one of the event's premier sponsors, says.

In the last two years the fashion industry has taken big strides to show concern for the environment and many fashion companies have incorporated it into their businesses. The question remains: Are throwing green events just a fleeting trend, or will they become the mandated way of producing events in the future?

Trend or not, companies are emerging nationwide solely for consulting and producing green events. Some amenities include basic program management, air and ground transportation, and energy efficient lighting and audio-visual needs. "Needless to say, fashion shows are often pretty extravagant productions," Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Earth Pledge, a Manhattan-based group that partners with businesses in organizing events with sustainable materials, says. In January, Earth Pledge held FutureFashion to kick off New York Fashion Week, bringing in big name designers, like Mark Jacobs, Stella McCartney, and Calvin Klein to get their message to the media. But the blogosphere isn't buying it, criticizing designers for only doing this for the publicity. Yet green event organizers welcome any kind of acknowledgement that change is necessary. "They're getting a ton of press because there's only a handful [of green fashion shows]," says Susan Taber Avila, a design professor at the University of California, Davis who is hosting an exhibition on sustainable fashion in Davis on May 18. "There is criticism that designers only do one show and go back to their ways. But I think it does help somewhat."

One of the major consequences of lavish fashion shows is the carbon footprint left behind. At the Hong Kong Fashion Week, for example, the footprint for transportation and accommodation for the exhibitors and buyers to attend the four-day event was estimated at over 49,000,000 pounds of carbon, or the equivalent of over 1,200 average Americans living their lives for an entire year, Duerr says. She added that this figure doesn't include the carbon footprint of the entire production process underlying the manufacturing and fabrication of all of the clothes as well as other infrastructure necessary for the event.

"A lot of fashion shows actually use materials once," Hoffman notes, "When you think about the fact that the show itself is happening for a short period of time, it really does make sense to think about where materials are being sourced from, how they can be put to use again instead of thrown away and left behind." To offset the carbon footprint, Earth Pledge partners with farmers to sequester the carbon dioxide emissions by absorption through plants.

Loads more work is needed to keep the green fashion trend alive, Hoffman acknowledges. One of the biggest materials wasted at fashion shows is paper. While her company utilizes environmentally friendly printing techniques and recycled paper, no one is ready to go paperless quite yet. "Greening events is a pretty interesting field because [the events] are so fleeting that its obvious to people that there is a significant amount of waste involved," Hoffman says.

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  • Kelly Jad'on

    Rachel,
    It seems it is only within the last year that green living has really taken off, especially on the East and West coasts. Several news sites have added a green living section for readers, updating them on the latest environmentally-friendly trends. An awareness is being raised--as I once read, "There is no 'Away,' as in 'Throw it away.'"
    Kelly Jad'on/Founder
    www.BasilAndSpice.com/Living-G...