A: Amsterdam Fashion Week

The average catwalk might not be the greenest place on the planet. But there’s definitely a shade of green to be seen at the catwalks of Amsterdam Fashion Week.

In the past few years, The Green Fashion Competition served as the most prominent sustainable event on the Amsterdam Fashion Week agenda. Started in 2010 as a challenge for international designers to find a balance between the economic, ecological and social impacts of their collection, the competition enabled labels such as OAT Shoes, Elsien Gringhuis and Carrie Perry to present at Amsterdam Fashion Week.

In 2012 the government’s financial support to The Green Fashion Competition has ended, which has led the Amsterdam Fashion Week to look for new ways to incorporate sustainable fashion in its programme. Since 2013, that spot has been found predominantly in Amsterdam Fashion Week’s business programme. European not-for-profit organisation Made-By regularly hosts workshops, for instance to inform fashion brand about ways to make wet processing in their supply chain more sustainable.

Perhaps surprisingly, Amsterdam Fashion Week, which refused a ban on fur in 2012, has also hosted aworkshop by Bont voor Dieren (Fur for Animals, Dutch campaigners against fur). In a much-debated talk show in January 2013, Honest By designer Bruno Pieters and textiles manufacturer Ecological Textiles shared their experiences with sustainable collections and materials. And talked about the pros and cons of furfree fashion.

Meanwhile, sustainable collections that can often be seen on the Amsterdam catwalks include Studio Jux (a slow fashion label that produces its collections in their own factory in Nepal), MLY (a locally producing, artisanal green fashion designer based in Eindhoven), and Winde Rienstra (a finalist of The Green Fashion Competition in 2010). Brands with a green touch include Marga Weimans (who creates her own fabrics), Elise Kim (who embraces craftsmanship in her collections), Tessa Wagenvoort (who designs handprinted textiles), FREDFARROWBRITTAVELONTAN (a designer duo that celebrate handmade knits and artisanal embroideries) and Sophie #1234567+ (a designer collective whose approach to seasonal collections could be called slow).

And there’s a small consolation for eco fashion lovers that are unable to attend the invitation only press events at Amsterdam Fashion Week. The downtown programme, which is open to the public, often includes collection presentations by sustainable fashion brands, such as Shekila Eco Fashion and O My Bag.

A: Alternatives to mainstream fashion

Ever changing trends, the continuous creation of new must-haves, constant pressures on reducing labor costs. The fashion industry does not generally serve as a model for sustainability. So do we need to develop an alternative fashion system? Some experts are convinced we do – and very soon too.

According to cradle to cradle philosophy, a closed loop system will be infinitely more sustainable than the current linear process. In the fashion industry, this would mean that clothing would be recycled into new products without creating any garbage. That’s not an easy feat, even for vintage loving designers. In fact, for an eco-efficient, cradle to cradle proof fashion system to become a reality, designers would need to take into account the future recycling options (‘designing for recycling’). An example is making garments made of one type of fabric – and using recyclable elements such as zippers and labels – so that they can be re-used in their entirety.

As cradle to cradle is considered to be a rather complicated business model, sustainable fashion pioneers have also suggested other alternatives to the contemporary fashion system. Slow fashion is probably the most popular one. Fast fashion is often associated with trend driven, low quality, cheap items that contribute to labor exploitation in production countries and to throwawayism among Western consumers. In response, slow fashion has produced timeless, high quality collections that are meant to be worn for a long time.

Needless to say, slow fashion cannot compete with fast fashion when it comes to price. What’s more, given the current pace of fashion trends, slow fashion designers have difficulties to increase their market share. In a sense, slow fashion suffers the same fate as cradle to cradle design: if the mainstream fashion system does not change at its root, these alternatives have little hope of keeping up.

Does all this sound abstract to you? Being aware of what you buy can be a first step towards an alternative (in the sense of: more sustainable) fashion style. Items with a price tag that is too good to be true are just that. Someone else – put bluntly: most likely some overworked, underfed employee in a low wage country – will pay the costs. Environmentally friendly fabrics may not sound too sexy, but there are ever more attractive options available, ranging from lyocell to eco linen. And let’s not forget the increasingly trendy swapping parties, vintage stores and upcycling collections.

Adopting a slow fashion attitude will also require cherishing the items in your wardrobe, creating your own style regardless of seasonal trends. Another must-do: hiring or lending special items you’re not likely to wear often, such as wedding party outfits.

In the end , it all comes down to that good old cliché: buy less, choose well. Now that does not sound too complicated, does it?

A: Animals in fashion

Massages for horses, designer wear for dogs, aroma therapy for cats. Thanks to a growing wellness industry, we’re able to pamper our pets in unprecedented ways. (Antidepressants for rabbits, anyone?). But while we spoil Beauty, Buddy and Tiger, our daily outfit is far from animal friendly. And we’re not just talking about fur here.

Just think about the ubiquitous jeans. Every year, about 50 billion pairs of jeans are made worldwide. In the Chinese town of Xintang, the effects of the large-scale production of denim have become clearly visible. The rivers and lakes in the vicinity of the city, which produces some 260 million jeans every year, have come to be colored the darkest of blues – the result of (illegal) dumping of dyes and chemicals. Needless to say, these toxic chemicals have negative effects on the environment, and are life threatening to fish and other waterlife.

And the fashion industry poses other threats to the world’s aquatic life as well. One clothing item made of polyester can emit more than 1900 fibers per wash – and these all add up to the island of plastic waste that is floating somewhere between Australia and Africa. Experts estimate that every year about 100.000 sea mammals and one million sea birds die as a result of this plastic soup.

Do woolen jumpers offer viable alternatives to polyester tops? That’s doubtful. Traditional wool production in Australia is based on large-scale cattle farming which involves practices such as mulesing and tail cutting. Closer to home, wool is largely a byproduct of the meat industry – with all the hormones and antibiotics that come with it.

What about silk, you wonder? In order to produce silk, caterpillars are cultivated and then boiled alive. Only in the production of so-called peace silk are caterpillars’ pods harvested after the butterflies have outgrown them, which means no animals die in the process. But because peace-silk creates fabrics of lower quality than conventional silk, it’s rather rare in the fashion industry.

When it comes to shoes and accessories, animal lovers better pay attention too. Leather production does not only involve a lot of hazardous chemicals and, in some low wage countries, child labor. For animals, it’s no fun either. Reports by international research organizations have repeatedly shown that in India, which produces leather for amongst others European shoe brands, illegal factories tend to skin cows alive. Producers of fake Uggs have been accused of illegally killing raccoon dogs.

And if this weren’t too much bad news already, there is of course jewelry made of pearls and ivory. Even though the ivory trade in Africa and China has been forbidden since the 1980s, illegal trade has continued. The African elephant is now one of the most endangered species on the continent.

Now let’s not spoil the average World Pet Day with too many depressive thoughts. Because there’s also good news.
Greenpeace has convinced labels such as G-Star, C&A, H&M, Nike and Adidas to put an end to clothing factories dumping hazardous chemicals in rivers and lakes. Because the global clothing industry is based on a large number of subcontractors, it’s unlikely the production process will be cleaned up in a few years. But the ambition is to end pollution in 2020 at its latest.

The fight against the plastic soup has so far focused primarily on reducing the use of bags and packaging. But experts have called upon fashion brands and washing machines producers to develop new methods to prevent plastic fibers from being emitted during consumer washing. Until they do, we’d better avoid buying polyester and fleece cloths and minimize washing the polyesters that we already own.

In the case of wool, consumers can also make a positive difference. Organic wool production is more animal friendly than conventional cattle farming. Sheep (and goats as well) are kept with ample space to graze, fed with organic food and not treated with antibiotics. What’s more, mulesing is not allowed in organic farms. Clothes made from organic (or even recycled) wool are therefore a good choice for animal lovers who just love the look & feel of wool.

Finally, let’s not forget that there are plenty of imitation fabrics that are animal friendly as well as comfortable to wear and stylishly fashionable. Think: imitation silk, faux leather, fake suede and imitation pearls. Linen, rubber and hemp all provide excellent fabrics for shoes. Creative producers are even working towards bioengineered, i.e. labgrown, animalfree leather. And let’s face it: who really needs real fur to keep warm in our rainy climate?

B: Bangladesh

With approximately 28 euros per month per month it has the lowest minimum wage in the world for factory workers. Between 2006 and 2012 more than 800 clothing factory workers have been killed as a result of fire and building violations. An estimated 4500 textile factories in the country are unsafe. And although officially banned, the deadly sandblasting technique is still in use in sweatshops. These are some of the sad facts about the 15 billion euro textile industry in Bangladesh.

These unfair labour practices, although taking place in a distant country, are not unrelated to our wardrobes. Bangladesh is among the top three producers of European clothing. H&M is the largest buyer of clothing in Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza factory disaster, which killed over 1000 garment workers in April 2013, demonstrated unequivocally that Bangladeshi factories produce for high street retailers such as Zara and Benetton.

So what can be done to make things better? In Spring 2013, the Dutch government announced its intention to coordinate international donations and efforts to improve factory safety in Bangladesh for the next two years, which would result in a widely shared action plan. In the meantime, a growing number of international fashion retailers, including H&M, C&A, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, have signed the binding Fire and Building Safety Agreement which was initiated by the Clean Clothes Campaign amongst others.

Worryingly, companies such as Disney have announced to stop producing in Bangladesh, and move business to countries such as Myanmar and Thailand. Obviously this wouldn’t help garment workers in Bangladesh, nor contribute to fair labour practices in its rival developing countries. Another challenge concerns our clothing shopping habits. A Dutch survey held a mere week after the Rana Plaza factory collapse revealed that just 24% of consumers intend to check clothing labels in shops in order to see where an item was made. No more than 1% of Dutch consumers think they are responsible for the Rana Plaza tragedy. The majority of respondents says it’s primarily up to the Bangladesh government and factory owners to take action.

The good news is that the Dhaka factory collapse has put the labour rights situation in Bangladesh's garment industry firmly on the agenda of governments, brands, retailers as well as consumers. This awareness could put the spotlights on fashion labels that are producing ethically in Bangladesh, such as Tulsi Crafts and People Tree. And surely once Western consumers become familiar with the appeal of these types of brands, they will be more likely to embrace sustainable collections in favour of the cheap, fast fashion that is at the root of the problems in the Bangladesh garment industry?

B: Bamboo

As bamboo clothing becomes ever more popular, an increasing number of critics openly question its green nature, it seems. Bamboo being a plant that grows quickly without the need for irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers, its fibers have increasingly been promoted as environmentally friendly. Add to that the positive features that we tend to ascribe to a fabric made from plants plus bamboo clothing’s silky feel, and bamboo’s popularity among a green consumer audience becomes understandable. Companies like Green Daddy, Under the sun and Royal Bamboo benefit from this trend.

Perhaps in response to this, critics of bamboo – and they’re not always eco cynics – have become more vocal in citing the downsides. Bamboo fibers are made by dissolving cellulose into chemicals and creating what’s called a viscose solution. And viscose, as everyone will know, is a man-made fiber that does not score well on sustainability. In Made-By’s environmental benchmark, viscose fibers (including bamboo viscose) are classified as E, which means they are the least sustainable option available to clothing producers. What’s more, bamboo is not biodegradable and as the fashion industry often uses bamboo-cotton blends, bamboo clothing is difficult to recycle.

So should we steer clear from bamboo clothing and accuse companies promoting its sustainability of greenwashing? It’s not that simple. There are ways to mechanically produce bamboo fibers for clothing production and these do not use chemical treatments (although the subsequent dyeing processes tend to be far from clean). Because these production methods are relatively expensive, they are less common than viscose, but of course when the market for bamboo fabrics grows these costs may decrease.

In addition, experts agree on one thing when it comes to sustainable fabrics: our planet will benefit from a fashion industry that embraces a diversity of fibers. And that would mean that bamboo could have a considerable role to play in clothing production. That role may be more modest that its current proponents may wish. But then it’s up to us consumers to make greener choices, choosing not only appealing materials like bamboo, but also its sustainable counterparts like hemp and nettle. And let’s face it, don’t these good old fibers deserve a chance in our closets too?

B: Big brands

H&M has agreed to stop using toxic and nonbiodegradable perfluorinated compounds (PFCs for short) in their outerwear by 2013. Nike has recycled more than 28 million pairs of athletic shoes through their Reuse-a-Shoe program. And as a result of Greenpeace actions, brands like Puma, Adidas and C&A have promised to stop their clothing factories from dumping hazardous chemicals in nearby rivers.

As these examples show, a growing number of international fashion companies are taking up the challenge to produce in more sustainable ways. Brands like H&M and Puma have developed ambitious CSR programmes, which include targets about topics as diverse as the use of water based adhesives in shoe production and CO2 emissions.

The general consensus is that large companies are crucial to changing the fashion industry and improving the environmental and social issues at stake. For example, the buying power of players such as C&A and Zara means that they can decisively stimulate organic cotton trade.

At the same time, due to their global operations, multinationals have difficulties controlling their supply chain. For instance, production for H&M takes place at approximately 1650 supplier factories around the world. Controlling labor conditions in all these factories – and the many subcontractors that are often involved as well – is no easy feat.

According to many of the upcoming sustainable fashion brands, producing clothes ethically may be more difficult for large, established companies than for young, small labels. The current forerunners in sustainable fashion are often small, visionary companies that have embraced corporate social responsibility from the start. Contrary to large corporations that are now pressured into changing their ways of doing business, ecofashion labels have sustainability in their genes. As a consequence, they are able to quickly adopt new strategies and develop innovations.

It may therefore come as no surprise that The Ethical Fashion Consultancy’s Ilaria Pasquinelli has claimed that sustainable innovations have come primarily from small companies with visionary, highly specialized designers and product developers. Only these types of companies are able to have the ideas and flexibility to be unique and stay ahead of the masses, Pasquinelli says. If this is true, we’d better support the pioneering fashion brands that have put sustainability on the fashion agendas – from People Tree to Kuyichi, RE-5 and Camilla Norrback. Enjoy!

C: Cynics (they can live green too)

Vanessa Farquharson, of the blog Green as a thistle and the book 'Sleeping naked is green', knows all about the changes towards a greener lifestyle. And ecofashionistas, please read on, because Farquharsons account of 366 days of greener living include quite a few pieces of advice for those of you working towards a sustainable closet.

Here are some of the clothing & textiles related things that Canada’s former eco cynic did to improve the environment.
291. Only buying organic, unbleached cotton towels.
153. Buying organic cotton or bamboo bedsheets.
327.Only buying handmade, bamboo or organic cotton blankets.
219. Only buying wooden hangers, preferably used.
16. Using tote bags, no more plastic bags.
158. Only buying eco-friendly jewellery.
233. Only buying organic cotton underwear.
156. Not buying any leather.
167. Only buying eco-friendly shoes.
265. Knitting scarves instead of buying them.
270. Learning to sew and mend clothes.
93. Recycling anything and everything that can be recycled — no excuses.
362.Recycling old running shoes.
171. Buying and donating clothes to Goodwill and other thrift stores.
227. Borrowing and sharing.
260. Not bothering with any rubber charity wristbands or ribbon campaigns.

Now, who’s up for a similar challenge?