In the last few years eco designed fashion has found its way out of specialist boutiques and onto the high street. Thanks to the support of top designers, like Stella McCartney and Katherine Hamnet, ‘eco chic’ can be seen paraded on the catwalks. The fact that Top Shop, Debenhams and Marks & Spencers all now stock eco fashion ranges shows it’s big business, and taking up increasing wardrobe space in eco homes.
So how did the eco design in fashion movement come about? Well, it’s due to a combination of concerns about the way clothes are made: the effect on consumer health, poor working conditions and the environmental damage of growing cotton.
Fears over the health of consumers
The roots of eco fashion can be traced back to the 1970s when woolly leggings and rugged tie-dyed hemp fabrics were trendy amongst the eco conscious. Initially concerns focused on the use of pesticides on cotton crops. But by the 1980s these fears grew to include the harsh chemicals used to make synthetic textiles, such as nylon and polyester, and their potentially damaging effect on people’s health.
This was the start of eco design’s influence on the fashion industry. In response to the outcry many manufacturers changed their processes, and started marketing their clothes as made from natural textiles or chemical free fabrics.
Unlike our grandparents, who’d repair old clothes before buying new ones, the 1990s saw an explosion in demand for cheap throwaway fashion. Big clothing brands were under pressure to find ways of cost saving. This meant many moved their manufacturing abroad where they could take advantage of cheap labour.
However, this led to a backlash when the working conditions in foreign ‘sweatshops’ starting becoming exposed in the media. Many of the big brands were implicated, as cheap throwaway fashion was shown to come at a high human cost.
Since the 1990s many brands have been pressuring their manufacturers to improve wages and working conditions. Many of them now promote their eco designed clothes as coming from Fair Trade sources where the manufacturer is a paid a fair price and the workers aren’t treated like slave labour.
Cotton is the most widely used textile, grown in over 60 countries and covering 5% of all cultivated land. It’s also seen as the most polluting, due to the huge quantities of pesticides used to kill insects. In fact, cotton crops are estimated to use a quarter of all the world’s pesticides, which harm the health of farm workers, seep into the water supply and damage the soil, making future crops potentially dangerous to eat.
Organic cotton, on the other hand, is farmed without pesticides, making it far less environmentally damaging. And whilst crop yields are typically lower than conventional cotton, the farmer can sell them for a higher price to balance their income.
At the moment nearly half a million tonnes of clothing is added to British landfill sites every year. Hopefully, as the eco designed fashion trend continues to grow in popularity, there will be far less throwaway fashion polluting our planet in the future.