While sustainable food has been trendy for well on a decade, spawning celebrity vegan diets and designer farmers’ market totes, eco-conscious fashion has taken longer to enter the mainstream, partly because of its high price point compared to fast fashion.
But Andrea Plell, fashion writer and co-founder of the Bay Area’s Sustainable Fashion Alliance, and many local designers say that’s quickly changing. In the two years since its founding, the Sustainable Fashion Alliance male jumpsuit fashion has grown to 200 members, including executives at large and midsize local brands such as the Gap, Athleta and Allbirds (see page 5). Many clothing manufacturers are starting to collaborate with members of Fibershed, a network of 150 Northern California textile artisans, wool producers, and growers of cotton, indigo and other dye plants.
“This is really the hot spot for sustainable innovation,” says Plell of the Bay Area scene, which she says is home to countless brands working to clean up the industry with environmental impact, transparency and social justice in mind. “I feel like we’re the epicenter of a lot of the conversations that are pushing the movement forward.”
Up-and-coming Bay Area companies are trying out different models of sustainability. Kendall Wilson at the new Vesta Studio in Redwood City uses only natural and vegan fabrics such as Cupro, a cellulose-based fabric with a silky feel, which she buys from a Japanese mill that recycles its water and textile scraps.
Yet defining sustainability in clothing and fashion is complicated, involving all kinds of questions about where and how the fiber is grown and who is doing the labor. Some designers opt for domestically grown organic cotton, while others focus on natural fibers and dyes. Vegan textiles can promote animal welfare yet also can be fashion made of artificial fibers that break down in the wash and end up as microplastics in the ocean.
“This kind of work requires so much vision and energy,” says Joyce Hu, who co-founded the Sustainable Fashion Alliance with Plell. She points out that supply-chain issues for large companies can be obstacles to change: “That revolution does not come overnight.”
As head of marketing at Mill Valley’s Wildlife Works, Hu raises even more complex environmental issues to think about. Wildlife Works has an 80,000-acre wildlife preserve and clothing factory in Kenya that provides jobs as an alternative to poaching. The 20-year-old company has recently become involved in the carbon offset trade, working with landowners in Kenya and the Congo to prevent deforestation in order to protect wildlife habitat and slow down the conversion of land to agriculture, itself a major cause of climate change.
Hu and her husband, Josh Berry, just launched Marlin Ray, a new brand of surf ponchos made at the Wildlife Works factory. Hu came up with the idea after observing the awkward way most male surfers (including Berry) change in and out of their wetsuits with a towel around their waist. While the poncho’s brightly colorful, made-in-Kenya cotton isn’t organic, the product is fair trade and carbon neutral at.
Carbon neutrality is the major issue with Fibershed, whose Northern California sheep ranching members are often referred to as “carbon farmers” since grazing helps build the organic soil and retain carbon. Yet Rebecca Burgess, who founded Fibershed in 2010 — it now has 50 international chapters — says the movement to create authentically regional textiles, grown or raised and then manufactured in local mills, is still in a nascent phase.
“People always ask, ‘Where can I buy these clothes now?’” she says. But it was only when Huston Textile Co. opened outside of Sacramento in 2012 that the region had a local mechanical loom for producing cloth.
“We’re working to rebuild these manufacturing systems to make what’s coming off these farms wearable,” Burgess says.
Plell has observed that Fibershed’s biannual Climate Beneficial Fashion Show, which showcases the collaborative work of regional textile producers and designers, has evolved in recent years.
“At the beginning of Fibershed it was the artisan, handmade space,” says Plell, such as clothing made with Nuno felting, which produced sometimes stiff wool garments that aren’t exactly ready to wear. More San Francisco and Oakland designers have gotten involved recently as regional machine-made cloth has become available. “We need this to be in the urban community. We need to bridge this gap,” Plell says.
At Fibershed’s fall 2017 show, Geana Sieburger of GDS Cloth Goods in Oakland presented a jumpsuit she made with wool from Lani’s Lana, a California ranch, woven into cloth by Huston Textile Co. At 0, the one-of-a-kind jumpsuit is still for sale in size 2.
Sieburger’s main focus is on organic cotton aprons, including many designed for restaurant chefs, smocks and a new line of fabric coffee filters. She often sells at farmers’ markets and says her organic reusable coffee filter is a good place for people to develop awareness about what goes into the garments they wear every day, from fiber to finished product.
“It’s a way that I can begin having these conversations about where textiles come from,” she says.
Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @taraduggan
Sustainable fashion 101
From fashion writer Andrea Plell, who is also the founder of Ecologique Fashion and co-founder of the Sustainable Fashion Alliance.
Cruelty free: Produced without harming animals. This means neither the finished product nor any of its ingredients were tested on animals. Products with the Cruelty Free International logo are certified for not testing on animals or harming animals in production.
Cultural preservation: Supports a culture and its community through the conservation of a unique skill set. An example of a product that supports cultural preservation might be a hand-woven linen made by an artisan in India that preserves the aesthetic and technique of an ancient weaving culture.
Fair trade: Establishing direct, long-term relationships with suppliers; paying fair wages, as well as ensuring safe work conditions and no child labor. Fair Trade Certified labeled products have been third-party certified.
Made in USA: Helpful, but does not always ensure it was produced ethically.
Natural materials: Produced from plant, animal or other naturally derived material that is biodegradable.
Recycled: Made up of materials that would have otherwise been disposed of as waste such as fabric scraps, newspapers, magazines, mason jars, aluminum cans or other recycled materials.
Sustainable innovation: This is where bio-based and lab-grown textiles come into play. Also semi-synthetics such as Tencel.
Upcycled: Made by taking an existing product and transforming it into something of greater or different use or value.
Zero waste: A product or material that is produced with minimal to no waste. This requires managing product development and processes to efficiently utilize materials and ingredients in a way that avoids any waste. If any waste is developed, it is diverted from the landfill by reuse.
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