The Genteel
December 2, 2020


Stella McCartney has been active in elevating eco-awareness via her designs. Source:

Mint-hued trousers. Jean on jean. Colour blocking. The season's latest trends roll out onto runways, into the streets, and then often to the back of our closets. Some disappear as fast as they come in, but others work their way into society's permanent wardrobe; a tweed Chanel blazer, an Hermès Birkin bag, a pair of Manolo Blahnik Camparis. But what about sustainable fashion? Will it pair well with those timeless classics, or just get tossed out with yesterday's recycle?

An environmentally friendly approach to fashion is nothing new. The seeds were planted back in the late '80s and early '90s when designers like Martin Margiela filled catwalks with upcycled butchers' aprons and Moschino with statement-making tees. The idea behind the shift: to encourage everything from greener production to heirloom sustainability by passing on quality pieces instead of throwing them away.

Livia Firth Green Carpet Challenge
Livia Firth collaborates with C.L.A.S.S. on the
Green Carpet Challenge Fabric Library. 

But jargon like "carbon footprint," "slow fashion" and "artisanal sustainability" haven't always resonated with the general public. After all, the concept of fashion essentially depends on the turnover of tastes, and what we think looks good, not the motives behind it. Appealing to consumers' inner-environmentalist would mean calling on their sense of style, not necessarily their ethics. And thus, the trend was born.

"You no longer have to be an eco-warrior or a hippie to grasp the message. For the cool and stylish, green is the new black," affirmed Suzy Menkes in a 2006 New York Times article addressing the then evolving fashion industry. 

This new wave of green fashion owes its popularity to groundbreaking designers like Stella McCartney, Noir and Edun which, in the early '90s and late 2000s, elevated eco-awareness via their designs. Now, with champions like eco-consumerism trailblazer Livia Firth, and a slew of celebrities such as Natalie Portman and Gisele Bündchen committed to going green, it's no surprise that the trend has gained momentum. Eco has become fashionable, and the public appears to be buying it - in more ways than one.

But will it last? Concern is growing that the cause is indeed just a passing fad, one that people temporarily care about simply to keep up green appearances. Only a year ago, Livia Firth's eco-wares shop in London closed down, lending credence to the belief that the movement might be less sustainable than the fashion itself.

…In fashion, green is not the new black, not just another trend to come in and go out with the seasons. Rather, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift...

Adding to uncertainty about the trend's staying power is whether the fashionable effort could lead to misguided energy, creating more problems than it fixes. Todd Myers, author of Eco-Fads, when speaking about environmentalism on The John Curley Radio Show, counters: "…because what looks good isn't always what is good, we end up wasting a heck of a lot of money on things that actually are harmful to the environment." 

Not unlike the organic food industry, eco-fashion indeed faces loads of confusion around regulations and categorisation. To ensure the cause's effectiveness, activists attempt to patchwork together guidelines covering everything from fair-trade to recycled fibres and manufacturing methods. In turn, confused consumers are left to get on board and hope for the best, whether in the name of fashion, or because they genuinely care about the future of the planet.

Maybe these are just speed bumps on the road to longevity, however. "…In fashion, green is not the new black, not just another trend to come in and go out with the seasons. Rather, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift…," argues Journalist Vanessa Friedman of the Financial Times. So it goes that if this shift takes place, then it won't matter if the trendiness of it passes. The long-term result will hopefully be a better-regulated industry, and designers and suppliers who keep one eye on their sewing machines, and the other on the planet.

And perhaps Firth's business didn't really close after all. Now she is using the space for offices to further her efforts, whether working on corporate responsibility, or launching 2012's Green Carpet Challenge in which she encourages designers and Hollywood elite to embrace a greener approach. Maybe eco-fashion will see another season; in the end, environmentalism isn't an accessory, but rather an underlying change in the way we do things.

Stella McCartney affirmed the importance of this shift in an interview with The Ecologist. "Anything - this subject or in general - is in danger of becoming a trend or a one-off. The important thing is that everyone keeps an interest in it, and there is a vested interest because we live on this planet and we need to look after it, as without it, we have nothing." 



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