Twenty years ago, I would drive an hour to get to the closest Whole Foods. Today, in most cities, you would be hard-pressed not to encounter multiple organic grocery stores, farmers’ markets, clusters of yoga studios and a handful of vegetarian restaurants.
This much is clear: There is an ongoing shift in public consciousness. What was once considered alternative is now being embraced by the mainstream. Younger generations are active in their pursuit of a healthier and more sustainable world.
But does this translate to the even more staid fashion industry? Eco-fashion? Many people would argue that the term itself is an oxymoron. Could the fashion industry, an industry based on materialism, embrace environmentally friendly practices — and thrive?
The answer to that question is an emphatic “yes.” As a matter of fact, the fashion industry can only thrive if it adopts responsible policies and material change.
We are in the age of the conscious consumer, and, while style, quality and cost are as important as ever, for today’s consumer, radical transparency is key. Increasingly, buyers are asking questions: How are my clothes being made? Where are they made? By whom?
The tipping point
Digital culture has made it possible for consumers to pose these questions. And they are finding that the answers often violate their moral codes on environmental, humanitarian and personal levels.
The environmental ramifications of fashion are alarming, to say the least. The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter after coal, representing 10 percent of the world’s carbon impact. Twenty percent of fresh water pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing. Five percent of landfills are filled with textile waste.
For decades, consumers have been trained to value a faster-cheaper-more mentality, but this comes at the expense of the people who are growing and sewing our clothes. Think of Bangladesh Rana Plaza: In 2013, the garment factory, poorly constructed and severely overcrowded, collapsed, leaving 1,133 people dead — people working 18-hour days while getting paid as little as $36 a month.
We talk about pesticides in relationship to our food, but they’re in our textiles, too. Cotton farmers are getting sick spending long hours in toxic fields. In India, conditions are so bad that dozens of conventional cotton farmers commit suicide every day by drinking pesticides. These are the same chemicals that go straight into garments and get absorbed through the skin. Quite literally, fashion is costing lives.
The good news? Consumers are waking up. With all of these issues coming to light, they are rejecting the brands that play into this corrupt, broken system. They are turning away from traditional fashion, going in search of the many burgeoning and disruptive brands that make sustainability and traceability a priority. Today’s new fashion designers are gravitating to innovative sustainable fashion options and are sourcing domestically on platforms like Makers Row. Among Millennials, environmentalism is not only an ethical imperative, it’s cool.
Smart brands are targeting these consumers and with good reason. According to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report, Millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers in numbers — and they have made their presence felt. Millennials have shifted corporate marketing strategies with their demand for authenticity and purpose.
We see so many examples of this “eco-renaissance” happening in the food industry. Each year, as the public gains consciousness about chemical additives, factory farming, GMOs and other health issues, there is a rise in demand for organic products and humanely raised meat and poultry. Organic food, which was once a niche, alternative market, has grown into a $43.3 billion industry in the U.S. alone, with 84 percent of American consumers now eating organic food, at least occasionally — expanding even further as public awareness increases.
If the fashion industry embraces similar changes, within a few years, it could see an economic boom as substantial as the one that is taking the food industry by storm. Fiber is the fastest-growing sector in the non-food organic movement — globally, organic textile sales have shot up from $245 million in 2002 to more than $16 billion in 2015, and, like organic food, it will only grow from here.
Breaking the stigmas: no compromise
When I founded each of my companies, eco-chic lifestyle brand Under the Canopy and turnkey sustainable apparel factory MetaWear, I saw needs that were not being met. “Ethical” or “eco-friendly” were seen as sacrifices, whether that meant bland flavorless food or itchy unflattering clothing. I wanted to bring modern design and comfort to a genre of clothing and textiles that usually brought to mind all things crunchy, frumpy, boxy, beige and boring.
And, contrary to popular belief, it is entirely possible to keep the price tag low. In a typical fashion supply chain, there can be up to 10 suppliers, with each taking a markup. By going straight to the source — the farmers — I was able to shorten the supply chain, eliminate markups and keep prices low while adding value to finished fashion.
Fundamentally, business is more powerful than government when it comes to affecting change. People are voting with their dollars, and companies are responding. Even huge corporations like H&M, Target, Kering and Macy’s are taking steps to reduce their footprint. And as awareness continues to spread, and more consumers seek out brands that embody values, embracing eco-fashion is no longer about staying ahead — it’s about not being left behind.
Marci Zaroff is an internationally recognized eco-lifestyle expert. She coined the term “eco-fashion” and is the founder of Under the Canopy and MetaWear.