The zebra-like, black-and-white, elongated shrug keeps disappearing from the rack at the flagship Barneys New York store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. To customers, the incredibly soft and warmer-than-wool sweater is a must-have, even though most have no idea what the hangtag means by "Alpaca" or "Rogan."
Rogan is actually an avant-garde line by Rogan Gregory, whose various ventures — from denim to furniture — are businesses with an eco-friendly bent. The designer is best known for his high-end organic denim line Loomstate, and his collaboration with rockstar Bono's Edun collection.
Made of fur from free-range Alpacas (multicolor, sheep-like llama cousins, native to Peru) handspun into yarn, Gregory's popular sweater is knit with naturally black and white yarn so no toxic dyes are used to achieve its two-tone look. With herders continuingly breeding out the non-white species due to underwhelming demand (white fleece is easier to dye and therefore more commercially viable), Gregory uses the sweater to bring awareness to this inhumane practice as part of his "Save Our Colored Brother" campaign.
This sweater, and not some burlap sac rescued from the trash can by granola-eating hippies, is the essence of green fashion. What sets eco-fashion apart from conventionally produced garments is the environmental, ethical and even social considerations weaved into the design of each piece. It can be as simple as using a sustainable fabric like organic cotton and donating proceeds to an earth-friendly charity, or as extensive as providing ethical employment to offshore factory workers. Across the entire fashion spectrum, from accessories to haute couture, designers are finding ways to incorporate their green lifestyles into their work.
Of course, not every brand is as considerate of its eco-impact as Rogan. Without any certification or governing bodies overseeing the greening of the fashion industry, any label with any degree of eco-ambition can color itself, well, green. This means companies that use recycled paper hangtags are on the same eco-platform as those running on wind-power. For example, Banana Republic recently launched a 50-piece green collection. The pieces push all the right buttons — their 100 percent recycled paper price tags have names like "Bamboo Printed Wrap" and "Leaf Tee" — but as may often be the case, the actual clothing may not be made in an eco-friendly production process or even from sustainable materials. Besides, would the average shopper at the local mall even know the difference?
"It's a catch 22," says Alice Demirijian, Director of Fashion Marketing at Parsons at The New School. "To be truly sustainable is to buy less." Designers are well aware they need to educate consumers to make a business out of sustainable fashion. Not only do they need to differentiate themselves from other green designers (especially from eco-posers), and spread the word about the virtues of greening the industry, they also need to compete with non-eco-products, which tend to be more reasonably priced. This is why marketing is key for these labels. But there is a difference between informing customers and outright fibbing about environmental claims, also known as greenwashing. According to many environmentalists and critics of this practice, marketers often employ tactics that paint products greener than they actually are.
As more and more mass retailers like Wal-Mart and the Gap jump on the green fashion bandwagon, they're looking to established indie labels for direction and inspiration. greenKarat jewelry, Olivia Luca couture, and Mink shoes may not be household names, but their success is proving to mainstream brands that going green is good for business.
Back in 2003 when he co-founded greenKarat, the ecologically and socially responsible jeweler and CEO, Matt White, didn't know a whole lot about jewelry-making. But as a CPA, he knew the numbers in the gold-mining industry didn't add up. "Two thousand five hundred tons of gold is mined each year, even though there is already enough idle gold above ground to satisfy the jewelry industry for the next 50 years," White says. This is why his company makes a point of using only recycled gold and other metals in made-to-order pieces. In fact, the myKarat recycling program provides store credit in exchange for gold jewelry for melting.
Likewise, baubles in greenKarat designs only reuse stones — or they make their own. Using heat and pressure to simulate the conditions under which Mother Nature produces diamonds and other rocks, created gems are as real as the naturals because they share the same chemical makeup. In White's opinion, lab-grown gems should eliminate the need for mining that harms both the environment and miners.
Though White has noticed an explosion of new green jewelers this year, he's concerned most of his competitors, don't disclose their products' origins even though they're working under the same limitations. greenKarat customers get a detailed report tracing their purchase's history, including the not so eco-friendly parts. While brick-and-mortar stores are interested in carrying his work, he is wary of potential pitfalls. "There's a lot of greenwashing out there,” he says. “By selling only through our website, at least I can control the message and try to educate consumers about their purchases."
"In the past two months, I've done the same amount of business as my first six," says eco-couture designer Terri Spaek-Merrick, whose online cut-sew-and-ship dressmaking business is barely a year-old. The veteran Portland designer, who maintains a physical bridal studio called Embellish, is expanding online to reach green-conscious customers who shop on the Web.
Her Olivia Luca website is essentially a digital game of dressup, where users can click on options from skin tone to eco-fabric before submitting the order. Not only does the designer promote the use of sustainable fabrics on the site, she also designed the concept right into her business. To minimize overhead costs and waste, she doesn't order any materials until she can confirm a design job. Pieces are produced in-house using couture technique, which means a lot of hand rather than machine sewing with a minimal carbon footprint. As a result, her custom-eco-formal wear prices are quite accessible, even for the average green conscious customer. An Olivia Luca custom gown might run a couple hundred dollars, while a Vera Wang Luxe Collection starts at $6,000 — and the Luca is eco-chic and shipped directly to your home.
Unlike greenKarat or Olivia Luca, Mink isn't really a green fashion company. It is a high-end vegan footwear brand created by vegan stylist Rebecca Brough out of frustration that sexy yet animal-cruelty-free shoes didn't exist back in 2002. As it turns out, what's animal-friendly tends to be good for the environment.
Determined to create leather-free high heels that belong on the same shelf as Gucci and Prada, Brough spent one and a half years in Italy finding a willing shoemaker to give vegan shoes a try. From four-inch heel stilettos in scarlet to bold lines of sequins cascading over the foot, it's hard to remember the trend-setting products are earth-friendly. Not only are embellishments like sequins and buckles sourced from vintage surplus stores, some heels are made of recycled cork or wood, organic cotton fabrics instead of leather, and each shoe is handmade for minimal energy consumption, not to mention maximum comfort.
Department stores that just a few years ago wouldn't give her the time of day are actively approaching her to retail her shoes. While Brough still relies on styling gigs to finance her vegan shoe business, she knows that what she's doing is better for the environment. "This is the right thing to do, even if it means I won't get rich from it," she says.
Ultimately, going green in fashion isn't about riding on an imaginary train through clever marketing. For businesses, it's about recognizing the environmental costs involved in every decision and finding innovative ways to minimize that cost. For consumers, it's realizing the influence spending holds on businesses and leveraging that for positive change.