Let's be honest. At times, the fashion industry seems inherently eco-unfriendly. It's built on the notion of seasonal obsolescence (imagine for a second that your lightbulbs were designed to go dark every two to six months) and more or less constant consumption. Clothes are often manufactured in faraway lands under sometimes questionable working conditions and then shipped long distances by pollution-spewing conveyances. If you think too much about it, buying next season's "it" bag can seem like the equivalent of backing over a harp seal with your Hummer.
That makes the rise of "green" and socially conscious fashion a welcome development. But pinning down exactly what terms like "green" mean is no simple task. While organic foodstuffs and beauty products bear the familiar U.S. Department of Agriculture label and have strict guidelines, buildings have LEED certification and appliances Energy Star ratings, when it comes to fashion, clarity evaporates.
"There's a huge proliferation of 'eco-labels,' " said Ryan Zinn, national campaign director for the Organic Consumers Assn. "Companies are starting to throw up anything [and call it green], and I think that's a big challenge. . . . People are getting more and more confused as their consciousness continues to grow and evolve."
Even if consumers could accurately parse terms and claims such as "conflict-free," "fair trade," "carbon neutral," "upcycled" and "post-consumer waste," that's only the beginning. Denim woven with certified organic cotton and dyed with all-natural indigo can then be bleached with caustic chemicals.
Hemp is a less energy-intensive crop than cotton, but because its cultivation is banned in the U.S., it has to be imported -- which increases the amount of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere. And wooden bracelets that one group certifies as coming from "sustainably harvested forests" may not pass muster with the standards set by another organization.
"There is a lot of green noise out there," says Summer Rayne Oakes, an environmental activist, model and author whose new book, “Style, Naturally,” spends 344 pages (printed with vegetable inks on recycled paper, naturally) guiding consumers to "sustainable style" options. "Putting a logo on the label is supposed to be a kind of shorthand, but most of the ones out there are, frankly, meaningless to most consumers," Oakes says.
"I said this five years ago, and I'm probably going to be saying it five years from now, but what the fashion industry needs is transparency" -- a way to show the impact on people and the planet of every step in the life of a garment.
The Organic Consumers group's Zinn says his organization is working toward a set of guidelines for apparel that would be as concrete as those put out by the USDA for organic food, guidelines that also would take into consideration things like workers' rights and carbon footprints.
But it's not there yet. And as consumers wait for such initiatives to take hold, Oakes says, the responsibility lies with them to start buckling down before they start buttoning up. "People need to get to know their brands and what they do all along the supply chain. . . . And look, if someone comments on your bangles or your shoes and you've got a great story to tell about them, that's going to make them better than the bangles or shoes on someone else -- because you've got the story to tell. These stories of corporate responsibility are going to be the new prestige."
In that spirit, we've profiled a trio of Southland folks who are striving to combine style and sustainability. Rather than aiming to have no impact at all on this blue/green planet, they've each found a way to tread lightly, do well and do good at the same time. And let their actions speak louder than their labels.