Eco Fashion Comes of Age
Eco fashion has emerged as a counterculture force, confronting flaws in the current system and consolidating change. Born in tangent with the human rights movement of the 1960s, eco fashion has finally shed its tawdry typecast.
Our renewed social and environmental consciousness is reshaping industry standards and inspiring innovations in design. Capturing the spotlight with standout initiatives like Esthetica, eco fashion is entering the mainstream and proving that ethics and aesthetics can coexist.
The fashion industry is one of revolution. Eco fashion has emerged as just that – a full-force social movement that is challenging the deeply entrenched systems of production, commerce and consumerism.
While the movement has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years, generating momentum and gaining popularity, it is still subject to a stigma that warrants explanation. “The eco fashion movement has experienced a long slow growth, with its roots in the 1960s and the human rights movements of the time. It further developed through NGOs and sustainable development, mostly through craft based cooperatives in the developing world,” says academic and author Sass Brown. “Some amazing things were achieved through that movement, but the focus was initially entirely on human rights, social and sustainable development. With activists directing product development, so much of it was by default boring and pretty ugly. That image has stuck with the current eco fashion movement, even though it has long outgrown its past.”
While fewer people now uphold the outdated idea that sustainably produced clothing is any less fashionable than its unethical counterpart, misconceptions remain that eco fashion is simply not luxurious enough. Conversely, some also hold the belief that eco fashion is too expensive, making it inaccessible to mainstream consumers.
“At the moment, eco fashion is seen as a premium product instead of the norm, so that is passed on to the consumer in the price tag. But if everything along the chain had sustainability worked into it then it wouldn't be an issue,” says journalist and filmmaker Leah Borromeo.
Fortunately, as we delve deeper into the age of knowledge, people are beginning to recognize that fast fashion comes at a cost. Tragedies like Rana Plaza, which killed over 1,000 Bangladeshi garment workers, are inducing the overthrow of apathetic fashion. As society comes to consciousness, there is a more pronounced desire for transparency – and a realization that luxury and transparency should be inextricable.
Designers are responding to the increase in sustainable textiles by incorporating innovative new materials into their design process. “Good designers don't just consider the aesthetics of an object, but how that object comes to be - right down to the growth and manufacture of it,” says Borromeo. Contemporary designers are proving that ethics and aesthetics can coexist. Exploitation isn’t sexy, and as the demand for transparency grows, it won’t sell either.
Like with any successful social movement, to attain long-term success one must appeal to the mainstream. Initiatives such as Estethica, which spotlights cutting edge designers committed to working sustainably, are doing just that. During the past six years, Estethica has established itself as a reputable and fashion forward platform, showcasing its carefully selected designers at London Fashion Week.
Orsola de Castro, co-curator of Estethica and founder of eco label From Somewhere, expands upon Estethica’s success, “We really did help to change perceptions, we helped to position our designers right in front of the best press and the most important buyers...and we passed the test. We have helped and supported well over 100 brands by now, provided mentoring, free stands for the very young, nurturing and advice.”
Estethica has launched the careers of Christopher Raeburn and Ada Zanditon and hosted the likes of Honestby and Bottletop. From collaborations with Livia Firth to campaigning against cotton picking in Uzbekistan, Estethica’s success has proven unprecedented in advancing perceptions of eco fashion and streamlining change.
Increased visibility has encouraged more brands to embrace eco fashion. Labels like H&M and Gucci have launched sustainable initiatives that will further ingrain ethics into the core of the industry. Still, there are challenges. Admitting to exploitation is a daunting threat to an established brand’s image. Corporations may be reluctant to embrace new practices, as this would mean acknowledging the flaws of their current system.
Terminology presents another obstacle. There is a need for a clear delineation of ‘eco fashion’ itself, so as to avoid the term’s devaluation. “A term like eco or green does not have a strict dictionary definition, so it’s always been open to interpretation and misinterpretation,” says Brown.
As environmental and social consciousness mounts, consumers are realising the impact of their purchasing decisions. “What I've noticed is that once people become informed and engaged with their clothing on this level it inspires a new relationship and decision making process around what individuals choose to have in their wardrobe. It’s always very much down to personal choice, taste and ethical concern. Having a more in depth 'story' behind a garment gives us more to relate to and can be quite empowering,” says environmentalist and sustainability expert Jocelyn Whipple.
An expression of social and environmental consciousness, eco fashion runs contradictory to industry norms. As ethics are acknowledged as a priority for brands and consumers, the movement will fully unfold. “We need to consolidate this change,” says de Castro. “We need to divert the course of all industry. This can’t be niche - it has to be global.”