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A passion for eco-fashion

By Fiona MacDonald - posted Thursday, 30 August 2007

The darker side of the fashion industry is its trail of waste and toxins. A new wave of designers are trying to keep wardrobes planet friendly by using recycled and organic materials. This season there is just one trend predicted to outlast the year: eco-fashion. No, it’s not an oxymoron. Forget dreadlocks and Jesus sandals; environmentalism is becoming oh-so sexy. Just as boho made its way from the protestors to the catwalk, now too is environmental consciousness.

It seems that in the past three years environmental issues have started to pop up in everyday life. Eco-fashion is a buzz word at the moment, but few understand what it really means and why it might be so important. Are the rumours true? Is green really the new black?

It started with food: organic, chemical free, cruelty free, locally grown. Issues rarely thought of a decade earlier were suddenly important when choosing what to eat for dinner. Makeup soon followed. Companies advertised their products as pure and moved away from animal testing.


Five years ago if you mentioned someone’s “footprint” you’d have been talking about the beach or their shoe size, now it’s all about greenhouse gas and climate change. Kate Noble, sustainability representative for the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), explains, “Towards the end of last year people really woke up and realised that climate change is real, it’s impacting on us now”.

Society, however, was a little unsure of what to do with this wake up call. No one wanted to trade in their creature comforts for cold showers and lentils but everyone wanted to do their part for the environment. The solution was for everyday luxuries to become green. Yes, even fashion, the most fickle of industries, is finally showing its softer side.

Of course sustainable food, makeup and fashion have all been around for decades. But it is only recently that they have left the realm of health food stores and entered mainstream culture and couture.

The fact that the fashion industry is mirroring society’s concern over the environment is not surprising. Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is not something that exists only in dresses. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Maybe the industry has finally realised that it won’t survive in this changed world without altering its ways. But what exactly does eco-fashion entail?

“A sustainable item doesn’t take much energy to produce, doesn’t need much water and is created using products that are easily renewable,” explains Kate Noble. Cecilia Heffer, fashion and textiles lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), assesses sustainability “in terms of waste products”. Both experts agree that an item of sustainable clothing needed to last more than a season of wear.

Eco-fashion, in theory, limits the use of pesticides, chemicals and dyes. In a social sense, a sustainable item of clothing is made under fair labour practices. Basically, sustainable clothing should be able to be created forever, without the planet suffering as a result.


Unfortunately fashion by nature is an environmentally un-friendly business. “You’ve got a whole industry set up to make money out of fashion changing. That means over consumption,” says Kate Noble. This translates to more clothes being made and thrown away. The traditional process of manufacturing the clothing is extremely damaging to the environment. Growing cotton alone uses 22.5 per cent of the world’s insecticides and 5 per cent of its land. At the other end of the journey clothing takes up a large amount of landfill. Factor in the environmental costs of packaging, transport and washing and it’s a wonder that the poor old planet has survived this long.

Fashion designed using organic cotton and recycled materials come as a welcome and much needed relief to this poisonous industry. Unfortunately, they also come at a price to the consumer. It is hard to sell organic cotton, humanely made t-shirts for over $100 when the same shirts sell for a quarter of that at Supré. The price of sustainable clothing is only this high due to the costs of paying award wages, locally growing organic and/or sustainable crops and sourcing vintage material. Unfortunately this matters little to the average consumer driven customer. This is where the trend factor comes into play.

With eco-fashion now becoming mainstream, the selling point may be celebrity over sustainability. Cecilia Heffer believes that designers using online marketing are contributing to sustainable fashion’s popularity. Models such as Summer Rayne Oakes now have online campaigns for a sustainable planet, “bloggers” are pushing underground green labels and celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon too. Keira Knightly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hilary Duff, Madonna and George Clooney have all been spotted wearing eco-fashion.

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This article is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.

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About the Author

Fiona MacDonald is features editor at ScienceAlert. She completed honours in reproductive zoology at The University of Melbourne and is currently studying journalism at Deakin University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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