A brief history of Canadian eco-fashion

Photo: Photo courtesy of Nicole Bridger
Take a crash course in sartorial history with our resident eco-fashionista!

When, where and how did the sustainable fashion movement start in Canada?

You might think that the eco-fashion movement has only just begun, however its roots actually extend back decades. In the 1970’s the hippie movement re-popularized the (once mainstay) idea of making your own clothing, from tie-dye to the very “granola” patchwork look. The introduction of hemp, around that same time, was what really created a name for green fashion and inspired many designers to work it into their collections. It even made its way onto the fashion runways in the ‘80’s with designers Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and, by the time the mid ‘90’s hit, several independent designers were also using this highly durable and equally controversial fabric.

It is important to note that the plants referred to as hemp and marijuana are not one and the same. Both are members of the Cannabis sativa plant species, but they are two distinct varieties. Despite the scientific research that explains their differences - particularly that marijuana contains high levels of THC (the compound responsible for the plant’s psychoactive effect) while hemp does not — there are many who strongly oppose its cultivation. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Agency in the United States has made it nearly impossible to grow hemp, making the U.S. the only industrialized nation where growing industrial hemp requires a permit.

Regardless of its controversy, hemp fabric has become a popular choice among the sustainable fashion set. When blended with other fabrics such as silk or organic cotton, it creates a luxe fabric that can even be seen on many a red (or green) carpet.

Second hand or “thrift” shopping also became quite trendy in the ‘80s with the “New-Wave” music movement; however it wasn’t its environmental benefit that made vintage shops popular. The wallet-friendly nature of second-hand clothing offered an alternative to the designer label craze of the 1980’s, and then appealed greatly to a growing number of students in the 1990’s whose loan debts made it difficult to buy anything new. In addition, the alternative music scene gave it a renewed “hip factor,” as Generation X’ers flocked to the underground clothing markets in order to achieve the popular grunge look.

Only in recent years has the vintage or second-hand option been specifically referred to as ‘sustainable.’ This is mainly due to the fact that we now have documentation to support the amount of textiles that end up in landfill each year. According to Earth Day Canada, the average Canadian contributes an astonishing seven pounds of textiles to landfill every year!

The Pioneers

Designer Linda Lundstrom was one of the first in Canada to embrace social and environmental initiatives in the fashion industry, including the development of a ‘lean’ manufacturing facility, her work with First Nations communities, and the use of eco-friendly fabrics.

Preloved is the brand that put ‘up-cycling’ on the map in Canada. Founded in 1995 by Julia Grieve, Preloved features unique clothing made from vintage fabrics, such as men’s suits, sweaters, and pants. Grieve has also recently launched a home line, accessories, and a kid’s line, which utilize scraps and clippings from the main collection, further strengthening the brand’s commitment to sustainability.

“I consider myself to be somewhat of an accidental environmentalist,” states Grieve. “When I started Preloved, the environmental aspect of my business was not at the forefront. We were all about creating one-of-a-kind clothing, and looking great. Now 17 years later, we are still making people look great, and saving the planet at the same time.”

Another pioneer in the eco-fashion movement is Montreal based Harricana, who in 1993 began recycling fur and transforming existing pieces into new fashionable items. Her work can now be purchased in eighteen countries worldwide.

But it is really in the past five to ten years that there has been a significant boom in the sustainable fashion movement. Designers like OOM EthikWear from Montreal, Nicole Bridger from Vancouver, and Toronto-based Thieves have really lead the way. Fashion Takes Action (FTA), which launched in 2007, is Canada’s premiere non-profit organization aimed at promoting and supporting sustainability in fashion by working with both industry and consumers to raise awareness. In 2010 FTA launched the first sustainable fashion design award, and later that same year Eco Fashion Week launched in Vancouver.

Where are we now? How far have we come?

There are now more than 100 designers in Canada, from coast to coast, who have in some way embraced sustainability. In just five years, Fashion Takes Action has worked with more than eighty designers, and anticipates that by the end of 2012 that number will be well over a hundred.

As sustainable fashion has evolved over the past twenty years, so too has its definition. Up-cycling, slow fashion, organic materials, repurposing, fair trade, vintage, locally made, waste consciousness, and natural dyeing are now just some of the terms used in conjunction with eco-fashion. The average person is slowly learning that there are many ways to become sustainable when it comes to our wardrobes and that it doesn’t always mean you have to go out and buy something new. Reducing our consumption is just as important as buying brand new pieces from sustainable materials.

In recent years, the eco-fashion movement has hit several significant milestones. Standards and sustainability metrics tools have been developed. Big brands and fashion houses are collaborating with small designers and non-profit organizations. And sustainable fashion is certainly not limited to North America, as the UK and other European nations are making great progress, and Australia is now emerging as a serious player. This global uptake is due in part to many of the big brands who are taking on corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives as they pertain to water, energy, waste, toxic chemicals, transportation and labour. While many larger brands are making sustainable fashion more accessible to the average consumer, not all companies are created equally when it comes to their CSR or sustainable initiatives.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), for example, is an industry-wide group of leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, manufacturers, academics and non-profits working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of fashion around the world. Members include Adidas, H&M, Gap Inc., Mountain Equipment Co-op, Patagonia, Nike, and Levi Strauss & Co., to name a few. The group is working toward creating a tool that enables companies to evaluate material types, products, facilities and processes based on a range of environmental and social practices and product design choices. However, things are not always what they seem. Just last year, Greenpeace discovered that Chinese factories linked to SAC founding members Nike, Adidas, and Puma, were discharging hazardous and persistent chemicals with hormone-disrupting properties. The wet processing of textiles - dyeing, washing, printing and fabric finishing - can lead to the discharge of large quantities of waste water that contains hazardous substances. Although each company has agreed to work with Greenpeace to ‘detox’ their supply chains and achieve a mutually beneficial result, it has still cast a shadow of doubt on the integrity of the SAC.

What major challenges does sustainable fashion face now?

“Greenwashing” has become a major challenge, both for independent designers and larger fashion houses or brands, but for different reasons. Critics and environmental watchdogs are skeptical about the intentions of some of the companies who have joined organizations such as the SAC, as it may just be a “green screen” that they are hiding behind. Membership in socially and environmentally responsible organizations can sometimes provide a false sense that the company is actually making improvements.

Greenwash comes in many shades. On the lighter end, greenwashing may be more discreet, like empty alignments with environmental NGOs, or launching a special “ECO collection” that only contains 10% sustainable materials. The deeper shades of greenwash are seen with those who slap a leaf or a panda bear onto the front of their packaging in the hopes that their customers are not smart enough to read between the lines.

Then there are those who genuinely believe that their product is sustainable based on what they are told by their supplier or manufacturer, despite not having any third-party verification to back-up such claims as being fair trade or organic. Unfortunately, this is more likely to occur with smaller independent designers - the ones who are extremely passionate about doing the right thing and making a product that people can feel good about, but that do not have the savvy to follow the greenwashed paper trail of the businesses with whom they are aligned.

In all cases, greenwashing has created confusion for consumers who no longer feel confident in what genuinely constitutes eco-fashion. It has also prevented companies who really are doing something great from openly promoting what they are doing, for fear of saying the wrong thing, or making the wrong claim and being penalized for it.

Bamboo is the perfect example of a fabric that has been greenwashed and, as a result, several designers and retailers who were making eco-friendly claims have been put through the ringer. When it first appeared on the scene, bamboo was promoted as having many of the same attributes as the plant itself, being called biodegradable, a renewable resource, and anti-bacterial. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. announced that bamboo is “made using toxic chemicals in a process that releases pollutants into the air. There’s also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some sellers and manufacturers claim. Even when bamboo is the ‘plant source’ used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.” The FTC went on to charge four bamboo companies who were making false marketing claims. In Canada, the Competition Bureau and the Textile Labeling Act have legislated that any bamboo textiles must be labeled ‘bamboo rayon.’

Consumer Awareness
Consumer awareness is growing, yet only a small percentage of shoppers truly understand the benefits of sustainable fashion and care enough to change the way they purchase their clothes. Organizations like Fashion Takes Action, Mod Ethik and Eco Fashion Week Vancouver are working hard to bridge this gap and to empower consumers with knowledge. In addition, as the larger fashion houses and mainstream brands make shifts toward sustainability, eco-fashions will become more accessible for consumers and will not seem as exclusive.

With a lack of consumer awareness exists reduced demand, which in turn means clothing buyers for retail stores are less interested in the ‘eco’ attributes of clothing. They are only concerned with what sells, making awareness even more crucial to the success of sustainable fashion.

Designers who work independently often face an extra set of challenges from the larger brands with deeper pockets. Access to certified eco-friendly fabrics and fair trade labour is not only difficult to achieve, but it is often cost prohibitive as well. The system is quite flawed as it allows for the larger brands such as Walmart or H&M to easily access eco certification, but creates a challenge for the smaller independent designers.

On the one hand, consumers are being told to look for trusted eco logos on labels such as GOTSEcocert, and Transfair. On the other hand, it tends to be the bigger brands that carry these certifications. So the issue here is not whether or not these are legitimate claims, but rather that these are the same brands that also mass-produce “fast fashion” and disposable clothing. There is little to no attention paid to detail or quality and this contributes greatly to our landfillage.

What does the future hold? What can we do to take action?

When it comes to the clothes we wear, we don’t really have a choice but to make the shift towards sustainably made items. The reality is that we cannot continue to deplete the earth’s resources at the current rate. Sooner or later, the entire fashion industry will have to adapt and become more sustainable. This will, no doubt, take years but there are also many simple things that the fashion industry can do right now in order to be more responsible when it comes to water, toxic chemicals, waste, pollution, energy and labour.

Independent designers, big fashion houses and fast fashion brands must be equally transparent about what they are doing. If they are calling themselves sustainable, then they need to substantiate those claims and make them readily accessible on their websites or in their marketing materials. They need to be clear and genuine in how they are communicating their initiatives, and they should also point out why they chose to make the changes in the first place, identifying what was broken and what needed fixing.

As consumers, we must learn to read our clothing labels as we have come to read food labels and cosmetics products. We can support organizations like Fashion Takes Action and through them learn what sustainable fashion is, where to buy it and what labels to trust. At the same time we need to be making smarter decisions when we shop. We need to ask ourselves some serious questions when we find ourselves in an impulse-buying moment and choose to invest in our wardrobe by buying quality-made, long-lasting classic pieces that don’t fall apart after we wear them three times.

Kelly Drennan Kelly Drennan is the founder of Fashion Takes Action, an organization devoted to increasing sustainability in the fashion industry. She’s also a devoted green mother to two daughters.

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