Sustainability, Fashion and New York City

So what does sustainability have to do with fashion? We all wear clothes on a regular basis, so why not pick greener alternatives that are healthier for us and the Earth? Our everyday choices about what we buy and where to shop have a major effect on the environment, and it’s even more dramatic when we take into consideration everyone else who lives here. What we buy affects not only the demand for the Earth’s natural resources, but also how these resources are manufactured into products and how they are disposed. By learning about the costs of what we purchase, we can start making informed shopping decisions that will protect our planet.

The nonprofit Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP) defines eco-fashion as clothes “that take into account the environment, the health of consumers and the working conditions of people in the fashion industry.” I’ve learned through my research that cotton accounts for 10% of the world’s annual pesticide consumption, which costs about $4 billion annually worldwide according to Earth Pledge, an organization that partners with business, communities and government to accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices such as green roofs, local agriculture and eco-fashion. Cotton is also among the world’s most heavily irrigated crops, in part because water runs quickly off fields where beneficial soil organisms such as earthworms have been exterminated (J.C. Ryan and A.T. Durning, “Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things,” p. 22-23). This has caused major water pollution, chronic illness in farm workers, and devastating impacts on wildlife. In the United States, cancer rates in states that produce cotton are significantly higher than in neighboring states that do not. The acidic chemicals used to process synthetic fabrics find their way into our rivers and streams, lowering the pH and destroying ecosystems. And according to World Health Organization estimates, one-third of the 500,000 to two million victims of agrochemical poisonings worldwide are cotton farmers. Leslie Hoffman, head of Earth Pledge’s FutureFashion Initiative, believes that sustainable fashion is within reach and need not limit the range and quality of products that designers can offer, from couture to sportswear to home furnishings. By promoting eco-friendly products such as organic cotton, organic wool, corn fibers, recycled fabrics, biopolymers, natural dyes to industry and consumers, we can prove that style and sustainability can coexist – creating market demand and improving our environment and health. Other materials such as bamboo and hemp are faster growing, more durable, and more renewable than conventional textiles. The Inter Press Service article “CULTURE-ITALY: Eco-Fashions Find a Place in Shop Windows” also argues that recycling is another important component of eco-fashion, “not only for protecting the environment, but also for promoting conservation in big companies or recuperating materials in developing countries.”

I was able to participate in a number of Earth Month events this past April in New York City. I attended “Turning Green” hosted by Teens for Safe Cosmetics, a league of extraordinary young women educating and inspiring awareness about potentially harmful ingredients in beauty and daily use products that may be linked to a number of health risks such as cancer. The event was presented by Whole Foods Market and consisted of an eco-fashion show and green spa displaying the latest sustainable, organic and green products. Eco-conscious fashion stylist Bahar Shahpar was able to showcase her works on the runway, where her designs use only ecologically sound materials [including natural buttons and unbleached organic cotton linings], minimizing waste and overall energy consumption in every instance possible. What’s even more interesting is that I managed to bump into Bahar at the second annual “Project Earth Day” event three weeks later. Presented by the EGBNY (which stands for Emerging Green Builders New York, and is part of the national US Green Building Council), the fashion show is dedicated to the promotion of green design and creating a platform for leaders – both present and future – in the design industry to bridge their environmentally-conscious ideas and developments together. Its eco-friendly venue was the Teknion Showroom, which played a key role in highlighting sustainable techniques such as the use of compact fluorescents for accent lighting at the bar.

There’s also been an emergence of eco-friendly stores in New York City. For example, Kate Goldwater is a 23-year-old NYU alumna who designs clothes for AuH2O, an environmental and socially conscious clothing store in the East Village. A few blocks away is Gominyc. This earth-friendly boutique carries brands such as Del Forte Denim and Loomstate and holds environmentally responsible materials such as organic cotton, bamboo and hemp. The store has been named “Best Eco-Friendly Fashions” by Village Voice 2006. MooShoes, Inc. is another example. It’s a vegan-owned business that sells cruelty-free footwear as well as other goodies, and offers its services through an online store and in its retail store in New York City. It is the first cruelty-free store of its kind in New York City, and its slogan is “One cannot have fashion without compassion.” Gaelyn & Cianfrani in Brooklyn is known for their signature material, often mistaken for leather, that’s made by hand from recycled bicycle inner tubes.

We live in a wasteful society, and it has become increasingly clear that we can no longer ignore the impact of industry on our health, habitats, and resources, so it seems only logical for businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. But it’s also obvious that the philosophies of eco-fashion and its savvy designers can change the consciousness of consumers in all areas of consumption in a revolutionizing way. So what can you do to help? Clothing swaps, rummage sales, and shopping at thrift stores or eco-conscious ones are some ideas. Other pieces of advice include buying what you need, buying products made locally, choosing products with minimal packaging, watching what you eat, reusing and recycling, buying low-impact products, looking for durable products, and getting involved locally. Remember: every step you take counts towards a brighter, healthier and more sustainable world for everyone.

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