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'The Soul of Cloth'

Bamboo fabric and other alternatives to toxic fashion.

Vanessa Richmond 26 Apr

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of The Tyee.

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For the last couple of months, Dorothy Woodend and I have have taken a "Gladrags" pledge to only wear clothes designed, cut and sewn locally. We figured we'd be doing our parts to strengthen the local economy without encouraging the burning of all those fossil fuels it takes to ship material and finished clothes around the world. That would earn us a little guilt-free and hedonistic pat on our backs, no?

Well, nothing's so simple. The more I looked into the ethics of global fashion, the more I became aware that, even when fabrics are turned into clothes and sold close to home, they've likely been produced far, far away, with their creation involving a murky soup of pesticides, dyes, fossil fuels and waste.

Consider our "natural" friend cotton, for example. Twenty-five percent of agricultural pesticides are used on cotton, causing major water pollution, chronic illness in farm workers and devastating impacts on wildlife. In the United States, cancer rates in states that produce cotton are significantly higher than in neighboring states that do not. The acidic chemicals used to process synthetic fabrics find their way into our rivers and streams, lowering the pH and destroying ecosystems.

So what's the best way to cut down on the damage to the planet and people caused by the global assembly line of fabric manufacturing?

Option one: stop wearing clothes. But it's a little cold in BC.

Wal-Mart organic

The next best thing is to join Dorothy Woodend on her thrift store hunt.

Next best is recycled fabric. Sans Soucie, a Vancouver designer, makes all of her clothes from recycled nylon stockings. And Tanya Berger, another Vancouver designer, buys items from used clothing stores and reconstructs them.

Great. But if you're not crazy about their styles, you're kind of hooped.

The next best thing is sustainable fabric and there's lots of hype around this right now.

Just last spring, New York fashion week made its first eco-friendly splash. Designers like Diane vonFurstenberg, Oscar de la Renta and Imitation of Christ sent models down the runway wearing bamboo, hemp, lempur, soy and seacell. Sounds great, but they overstretch my measly fashion budget by, oh, several hundred times. And though I might like them, these are all designers who make clothes designed to be obsolete, style-wise, within a season.

What else? Well, there's organics which has also been slow to take off due to the high price (the fabric is usually at least double the cost of non-organic). Recently, Wal-Mart introduced a yoga outfit made of organic cotton. It sold 190,000 units at 290 stores in 10 weeks. As a result, Wal-Mart is now the largest purchaser of organic cotton in the world.

Wal-Mart made these organic clothes more affordable than organic clothes in the past. And Business Week reported that CEO Scott bragged about stocking organic cotton yoga outfits. "We sold out in just 10 using organic cotton instead of regular cotton; we saved the equivalent of two jumbo jets of pesticides."

But wearing Wal-Mart organic cotton isn't quite style nirvana, nor do I want my solution to come from big box land. So since neither local nor corporate is quite the answer, I'm still looking.

Bamboo clothes

I found out lots of local designers are now using sustainable fabric. Hemp clothing that looks as sexy as a potato sack isn't all that's on offer, apparently. Soy, bamboo and hemp don't require pesticides, so they're not as damaging to the environment, according to Susan and Yves Gagnon who own Syka Fabrics based in Mission, BC.

Gagnon says like organic food in its early days, for a while it was hard to be sure of what you're getting. Syka's soy and bamboo knits are from mills that are certified by OKO-Tex. And some of their other fabrics come from mills certified by ISO 14000, two very reliable bodies that certify environmental and human rights standards.

I admit to being won over when I felt the fabrics. They're no longer just for those admirable people willing to sacrifice style for sustainability. In fact, Vancouver designer Jason Matlo is using a few of them for his fall collection.

"Fashion's one of the worst things there is in terms of the environment. So if you can use something ethical, why wouldn't you?" he asks.

"I appreciate that other companies are doing that for the sake of marketing or just for the sake of the environment. But I don't have the luxury of making choices like that. So if I choose a sustainable fabric, it has to be about quality." None of his customers have been asking for it, and he's not telling them he's using it. To me, this suggests sustainable fabrics now exist at the highest levels of design.

If this trend percolates down to Zellers level, it will be exciting, no doubt. So far, however, most of the clothes that people buy off millions of store racks are made the old fashioned polluting and exploiting way.

'The soul of cloth'

Clothes companies are beginning to respond to consumer, NGO and shareholder pressure to improve, according to Andrew Frank of Canadian Business for Social Responsibility. But many companies' sustainability plans are really about brand protection. "Largely it's risk management. When news about you becomes negative in this economy that works on shares and trades, it affects the company's share price, value, brand, goodwill. All of that impacts on the bottom line."

Perhaps the answer is to own fewer garments, but to form more personal, knowing attachments to those clothes we do choose to wear. Lorraine Smith, editor of Spinners Quarterly, likes to speak of "the soul of cloth."

"Knowing the producer makes you feel good about it. I don't know the science of why that feels good, but it does. I knit baby blankets for friends, and without fail, people really appreciate it. There's something intrinsic in that sense: they think 'You took the time to think about me and the baby I just had and bundle these bits of yarn together to give my baby warmth.' There's an essence there. I guess it's soul. It's a code or a language that isn't manufacturable.

"I might make a blanket that looks just like the one you get at Pottery Barn," says Smith. "To the unknowing person, there is no difference. But when you say 'I made it myself,' it looks entirely different. Sometimes there is a difference of quality, sometimes in look. But it's often just in the perceived reality of how that came to be. And that is very valuable. It's invaluable."

"Last year, I made my man a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater," Smith continues. "And his friends tell me they want one. My starting price is $15,000 and I probably wouldn't even do it. Because I made it for him. If Wal-Mart made it, too, and we put them both under the microscope, we couldn't tell. But there's a spirit that's irreplaceable."

I think about the items in my closet that mean something to me. Either a friend made them or I did, or I know the designer is local, or it's handmade. I have a shawl I knitted a few years ago, a t-shirt silk screened by a local designer and a dress that a dressmaker around the corner made for me. I like those pieces best.

They are what Iris Murdoch might call "good." She believed only things that embody ethics and wholeness could be beautiful. To her, neither a model nor the sweatshop-produced clothes she sells can be beautiful.

So when I have a piece of clothing with a story that means something to me, I don't need 10 pieces from the GAP. Though, granted, it's not the perfect solution I thought I'd find when I decided to try and just dress local.

Vanessa Richmond is the assistant editor of The Tyee.

Vanessa Richmond and Dorothy Woodend will be speaking at the launch of BALLE BC's Fashion High "Dress Local" event tonight (April 26th) at St. James Community Square, 3214 West 10th Avenue, Vancouver. Click here for more information.  [Tyee]

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