For most of us, getting dressed is personal. We use clothes to convey a message about ourselves to the outside world and to express, perhaps outlandishly or subtly, our aesthetic sensibilities. As such, the questions we run up against in the closet range from the prosaic (“Do these jeans make my butt look big?”) to the theoretical (“Can I wear this on a job interview?”).
But as more and more designers acknowledge the importance of a growing eco-fashion market, we may well be asking bigger-picture questions as we build our wardrobe: What kinds of material is this fabric made of? How much energy was consumed to create this item? Under what kind of working conditions was this made?
These are the concerns facing many designers, including the burgeoning niche of fashion purveyors concerned with creating clothes and accessories that are as sustainable as they are stylish.
But what exactly is eco-fashion?
Raina Blyer, the designer behind the cozy yoga-and-lifestyle line Creem, focuses on two things to keep her line sustainable: natural fabrics and local production. "Materials like recycled or organic cotton, bamboo and hemp are much more eco-friendly than anything poly or synthetic," says Blyer.
According to Earth Pledge -- a non-profit that provides business sustainability counseling -- thousands of chemicals are used to transform raw materials into fabric. Plus, up to 25 percent of the world's pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. Some garments, Blyer adds, have a sometimes flame-retardant chemical finish that helps them keep their shape
For her part, Blyer buys vintage when she's not wearing something from her own line. She also loves trading with other designers and friends. "I try not to buy things that are trendy," she says. "Buying a lot of cheap items and throwing them out at the end of the season is really wasteful."
As for the benefits of local production, the same arguments used by locavores -- conscientious foodies who eat local grub -- also apply to clothes. Less overseas shipping and international travel means smaller carbon footprints and more stimulation for the local economy. For Blyer, who works out of Manhattan's Garment District, it's also satisfying on the human level: "I visit my factories a few times a week. I know what the workers are getting paid and what time they go home," she says. "You don't really know what's happening unless you're there."
Of course, harder-to-source textiles and fair trade usually lead to higher prices for the consumer. And while some fast-fashion retailers produce a percentage of their garments using organic cotton, Blyer recommends researching a company directly to learn about their sustainability policies. Currently, there's no official certification for eco-designers, so it's up to consumers to read labels, familiarize themselves with company policies and (more often than not) pay a little bit more for sustainably produced goods.
Alison Baenen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her writing has appeared in Style.com, ContributingEditor.com, Epicurious.com and Concierge.com. In addition to editorial work, Alison is a copywriter for Theory, Gilt Groupe and PRPS.