Black “Jack” Oxford shirt by Taylor Stitch ($98) and brown Huarache sandals By Nisolo ($138). Available at www.eco-stylist.com. The shirt was made with 100 percent organic cotton, is part of a small batch manufacturing run, which prevents waste from overproduction. PHOTOS MIRANDA MEYER
By Katharine Carlon
The Wall Street Journal recently called “sustainability” the “buzziest buzzword” in the air at this summer’s fashion trade shows.
A report from global fashion search platform Lyst shows that queries for sustainable fashion or related keywords are up 66 percent over 2018. Even so-called “fast fashion” retailers like Zara and H&M are getting into the act, with the latter rolling out a 48-piece Conscious collection featuring plant-based items, from a jacket made of Piñatex – or pineapple leather – to a blouse constructed of recycled orange peels.
Advocates of eco-friendly, ethical clothing say the newfound attention is no mere fad. It’s the mainstream emergence of a longtime movement aimed at offsetting the impacts of the fashion industry on the planet and humanity.
And if sustainable fashion conjures up images of burlap suits and hemp belts, Corridor retailers, fashion entrepreneurs and eco-conscious shoppers point to a rising rush of runway-ready ensembles that turn the cliché on its head.
It’s “100 percent possible” to look good and do good, said Sheila Davisson, owner of Revival boutique in downtown Iowa City, which specializes in used, vintage and sustainably-manufactured new clothing. “Honestly, it is easier to look good with well-made items. Sustainable fashion elevates the quality of garments being produced. They feel better and fit better, so ultimately you will look better.”
Taking a toll
Ms. Davisson has seen a definite uptick in interest in sustainable, ethical and thrift fashion in recent years as consumers become aware of the human and environmental toll of the fashion industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10.5 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2015, the last year it collected such data. Meanwhile, the industry pumps out upward of 1.7 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making it one of the planet’s biggest polluters behind the oil industry.
That’s without mentioning the human cost. A 2016 Oxfam study reported that 60 million people work in the garment industry worldwide. Those who work for mass retailers tend to work longer hours under poor conditions for low wages. As one example, Human Rights Watch recently reported on Cambodian garment factories in which workers earned 50 cents an hour and were forced to sit for 11 hours a day without using the restroom. Cambodia exports about $5.7 billion in clothing annually.
“Consumers care about where, how and who makes their clothing,” Ms. Davisson said, adding that the social and political climate, including growing fears about climate change, are driving the shift. “I think people are tired of waiting for the government or an industry to self-regulate. These entities respond when they see the buying habits change and that is exactly what has propelled this change in an industry. What started as a trend has grown into a full-on movement. It’s no longer a small group of people; it’s everyone.”
Ms. Davisson is seeing more and more upstart brands move into sustainable fashion, which seeks to change the production methods and the consumption of clothing. Revival carries brands like LACAUSA, Back Beat Rags, Tribe Alive, Tree People, Alternative Apparel and Salt + Umber.
But, she said, “nearly every major retailer is starting to talk about this or [are] partnering with brands that are known for sustainability. Even fast fashion retailers are adapting to offer sustainable products, H&M for example. Although controversial, they, too, are listening to consumers respond.”
Sourcing ethical, environmentally conscious clothing can be a chore, however, particularly for men who want to make a difference, but are less inclined to spend hours viewing and researching the clothes they wear each day.
Enter Garik Himebaugh, chief stylist and founder of Eco-Stylist, an Iowa City-based ethical shopping service that encourages style-conscious men to literally “dress like you give a damn.”
“I really look at brands holistically and I want them to do both things – from a sustainability perspective, focus on the environment and, ethically, offer people fair wages and safe working conditions,” said Mr. Himebaugh, whose startup offers a curated online array of men’s apparel from 30 sustainable brands. “My primary goal is to give people a marketplace they can trust. Long-term, I hope to put myself out of business. Unfortunately, I think we’re still far from that.”
Because words like sustainable, ethical, eco-friendly and the like tend to be somewhat amorphous and interchangeable, Eco-Stylist partnered with nonprofit Remake, which developed a comprehensive 100-point sustainability criteria for the women’s apparel brands, assessing factors like the environmental impacts of a brand’s fabrics, the sustainability of manufacturing facilities, worker well-being, living wages and ethical leadership. Mr. Himebaugh and his three volunteer interns adapted the rigorous criteria for the men’s market, only featuring brands scoring 50 or above.
“There’s a lot of confusion out there about definitions,” he said. “We wanted to be very transparent about our criteria and, honestly, it’s very hard to pass.”
Mr. Himebaugh’s interest in sustainable style grew out of his undergrad experience as a peace studies major and a later-in-life love of fashion, which prompted him to develop a men’s shopping app as an MBA student at the University of Iowa. That idea won Startup Weekend Iowa City. But it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Adelante Shoe founder Peter Sacco, whose business model centered around paying livable wages to Guatemalan craftspeople, that the idea for Eco-Stylist was hatched.
“I realized, ‘this makes a lot of sense,’” he said. “Then I spent hours and hours researching and sifting through a lot of content that I didn’t know if I could trust … That was the big pivot. How do I make this process easier for guys?”
Since then, Mr. Himebaugh has taken his business through the Hawkeye Startup Accelerator and conducted market research suggesting there is a growing appetite for kinder, gentler clothing, especially among millennials. He said studies show that between 60 and 80 percent of younger consumers are willing to pay more if it can be proven apparel is sustainably and ethically made as well as fashionable.
“I came into this space with a fashion lens, and I genuinely find these brands more stylish” than those made by mass retailers, he said. “People can absolutely look just as good or better with these clothes that are ethical and sustainable.”
Quality over quantity
Ms. Davisson said buying sustainable fashion represented an investment in quality over quantity.
“You will spend less overall because the garment will last much longer and is able to be repaired,” she said. “I realize that it may not be an option for everyone, but a few small changes make big impacts. Maybe at first it is just the commitment to recycle your clothing more often so that they are in nice enough condition to be used again. Maybe you commit to buying a few less items each season. Maybe you decide to buy one article of sustainable fashion. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach.”
Allison Yoder, who describes her look as “understated thrift-chic,” says that’s how her commitment to more ethical dressing began.
Ms. Yoder, director of special events and leadership programs for the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, grew up in a home where simplicity was valued, and consumerism kept to a minimum. That aesthetic became engrained in her college years when thrifting helped her to live on a student budget and, better yet, avoid “that fast fashion kind of cookie-cutter style.”
A love of secondhand clothes and accessories was born when she unearthed the perfect leather bag in an antique store. Other one-of-a-kind finds followed and, today, she estimates about 90 percent of her wardrobe is thrifted from shops like Revival, Second Act and Savvy Boutique.
Over the years, what started as a budget-friendly way to create a distinctive look became a deeply held commitment to not harming the planet or her fellow humans in the service of fashion.
“I like that my wardrobe is eco-friendly, unique and not mass-produced,” Ms. Yoder said, adding that she turns to sustainable labels like Everlane for the remaining pieces of her wardrobe. “I wanted to think more globally about where things come from and what went into making them, who had to sacrifice. Somewhere along the line, someone is eating that cost, whether it’s terrible sweatshop conditions or harming the environment to make that end cost cheaper.”
Sustainable fashion “is definitely trending, but it’s not a thing that’s going away – the movement is strong and growing,” Mr. Himebaugh said. “Consumers are fed up in general. They want choices and are putting pressure on businesses to change.”
“People have been educated on the devastating effects fast fashion has created and they are now creating and demanding solutions,” Ms. Davisson agreed. “It will of course take time, but I do think this is just the beginning.”