Sustainable Fiber Does a Wardrobe Good

Posted February 11, 2008
Updated February 25, 2008

— Fashion trends come and go, but Shalom Harlow is optimistic the industry's latest interest in all things "green" isn't a passing phase.

The Canadian-born model was among those showcasing environmentally friendly couture at Earth Pledge's opener for New York Fashion Week.

"The establishment has to catch up," Harlow said after checking out the 2008 fall/winter collection for John Patrick ORGANIC. "It's really about time fashion started looking at its cause and effect on the planet. There's no need to compromise anymore ... you can be fashionable and responsible."

With heightened concern about toxicity from PBDEs (flame retardants) and other chemicals in clothing and products, organic and renewable materials, like bamboo, are gaining ground as alternatives to conventional fibers produced with pesticides, herbicides and defoliates.

In the U.S., sales for organic fiber linens and clothing had climbed to $203 million by 2006, up nearly 27 percent from the year before, according to the Organic Trade Association. Five years ago food was the focus; increasingly, fashion and style are.

"Concern for the environment is growing and it's only natural that the concern would cross over into what we wear," says Jeanie Pyun, editor of the environmental Web site "Fashion and home design are the most popular on the site because it's what's happening now."

A growing list of designers are paying attention: At the FutureFashion show, there was a hemp-based pantsuit from Calvin Klein, a dress made of recycled cashmere from Michael Kors and a hemp-silk gown from Donatella Versace.

John Patrick launched ORGANIC in 2004 when eco-fashion wasn't on everyone's to-do list. His designs include smart-looking embroidered coats of organic Vermont wool, recycled silk scarves, vegetable-tanned leather jackets, and eyelet dresses from recycled cotton.

"Ethical design and production - that is becoming of paramount importance," says Patrick, who lived on a commune as a teen in Coxsackie, New York "I'm not doing 'trend.' I am so far away from the 'it' thing."

Though organic cotton is becoming more common in everything from bed linens to diapers, costs and production methods haven't made it an easy sell. Designers also are turning to synthetic fibers from plant-based biopolymers.

Modal is spun from the reconstituted cellulose of beech trees, and Ingeo, a derivative of fermented corn sugar. Tencel, the brand name for lyocell, also is from vegetable cellulose. Soft and durable, it tends to be stronger than rayon and cotton, and can resemble denim or silk.

Raina Blyer, who uses hemp and soy-cotton blends for the Ryann line she began in 2005, says she asks manufacturers for their organic certification.

"I'm starting to veer toward bamboo and hand-loomed silk for my next season," Blyer said at AuH2O, a recycled clothing store. She noted bamboo's anti-bacterial and water wicking qualities. "Most of my customers want clothes that are easy to wear and don't require a lot of maintenance."

Besides soy, sasawashi and Pina (derived from pineapples), designers are working with mud silk, dyed in yam juice and grass, abaca fiber (known for its flexibility and strength), and peace silk, which allows silkworms to emerge from cocoon for a full life cycle before threads are processed.

Companies like Patagonia, Nike and Timberland have been at the forefront of a green fashion movement for years using recycled plastic or organic materials, and the growing list includes Edun, Loomstate, Banana Republic, Gap, Old Navy, Wal-Mart, Target, Nordstrom, Levi Strauss & Co., H&M and Barneys New York.

Portland, Oregon-based Nau (pronounced 'now') built its entire business model on the concept of sustainability "from the ground up," says Ian Yolles, a founder. The company tracks what it makes from start to finish - ensuring that an item can be recycled. Nau primarily uses organic cotton, wool and PLA (polylactic acid) instead of petroleum-based products like nylon and polyester for its clothing line.

Lori Wynan, OTA's fiber forum liaison, advises consumers to check labels and look for the names of certification agencies or logos that indicate a company adheres to sustainable business practices and fair labor standards. Third-party verification from organizations like Organic Exchange and Forest Stewardship Council also are useful.

The Web site,, rates "green" products by looking at what the items are made from, how they're produced, type of energy used in the process and distance traveled to reach consumers.

Patrick just hopes the next generation of designers will embrace the message: "If we inspire them, we're going to have great stuff."

Allison Teich got fed up with disposable fashion, and created a line of recycled handbags and luggage because "I didn't want to make anymore garbage in the world." Two years ago, manufacturers were asking "why did I want organic cotton twill' ... there's no market for it.' Now they're making organic twill."

Everything isn't coming up roses, though.

"One of the biggest challenges has been financing," says Melissa Sack, who teamed with Emily Santamore in college, and later launched Moral Fervor. "The market is still not catching on to organic and sustainable fashion like we had projected ... it is still very niche."


(This version CORRECTS that U.S. sales of $203 million were for organic fiber linens and clothing, not just linens.)


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