Thursday, January 10, 2008

Where are we now?

And so, back to business. I needn't feel so bad for neglecting NWL over the holidays; most of my regular blogs also slowed down or went on hiatus around Christmas and New Year's, which I suppose is a reminder that bloggers aren't yet "real" journalists, but the modern version of 18th century pamphleteers, as Dan Bricklin discusses in his blog. So here's today's pamphlet.

I've been asked in several recent interviews to predict where "green" fashion is heading; my pat answer is that I'm a historian, not a forecaster. It's easier for me to explain where we've been and draw parallels to other trends than to prognosticate about next year. The best I can do is describe where we are now:

  • It's not just about eco-friendly fashion. More and more consumers care about ethical, meaningful consumption. I don't have numbers, but I can see the evidence in the increasing numbers of articles, books, blogs and publications that offer alternative visions of the Good Life, as defined as more stuff. Just as people want food that is safe, tasty AND nourishing, and clothing that is flattering, well-made AND comfortable, they want the products they buy to be safe for the environment and the user, ethically produced AND designed to last. That's why in order to keep up with trends in this area I have news alerts for "ethical fashion", "slow fashion", and "green fashion", along with half a dozen other phrases.
  • It's not just about bamboo socks and organic cotton. Some journalists have wanted to focus on fibers, which are only a part of the big fashion picture. The fashion industry is huge and complex, and the production aspect alone comprises fibers  (animal, vegetable and mineral!), dyes, finishes, spinning,and fabrication (weaving/knitting/felting), before it even reaches the garment stage. (See The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli, covered in this excellent NPR series), for more. Then there's producing, transporting, storing and merchandising the garments, which have both environmental and ethical dimensions. Finally, there is the design and communication aspect of the industry, adding more complexity by producing glossy magazines, high-energy fashion shows and events and -- even more subtly but probably most significant -- the constant rapid cycle of innovation, adoption and obsolescence that fills landfills and thrift stores.
  • If you want to see the future, look at food and housing. When nutritionist Adelle Davis first published her books on natural, whole foods in the 1940s and 50s, she was considered a kook. Even when she was rediscovered by young Baby Boomers in the 1970s, organic food was hard to find and people who grew it or ate it were certainly beyond the mainstream. Today, there is a thriving "eat local" movement, restaurants are cashing in on seasonal, local menus and my local  supermarket has a store-brand line of organic products. Forty years ago, environmentally friendly housing meant earth-sheltered homes, solar heating systems and turning off the lights when you left the room. Today, we have decks of recycled materials, sustainable architecture programs in universities and a multitude of products designed to use less energy, less water or both. Why does this matter? Two reasons. First, people are not completely inconsistent. A person who eats organic, local food, worries about pesticides on her lawn, drives an energy-efficient car and recycles at home and work will also find the idea of ethical, sustainable fashion appealing. Second, the fashion industry -- teeming with creative, smart and competitive people -- has figured this out. Gold Toe and Calvin Klein are selling bamboo socks, and "slow fashion" is the new 7th Avenue buzzword.
So there's my take on the big picture: it's not just about climate change, it's not just about bamboo underwear and it's growing, not fading.

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